Lourdes shrine slowly reopens after flash floods

TOULOUSE, France Tue Oct 23, 2012 7:09pm IST

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TOULOUSE, France (Reuters) - The Roman Catholic shrine at Lourdes struggled to return to its usual rhythm of prayers and pilgrimages on Tuesday after weekend flash floods inundated the site and caused damages of about two million euros ($2.6 million).

Small groups of pilgrims visited the hillside grotto where the Virgin Mary was said to have appeared to a peasant girl in 1858 after workers cleared away a thick carpet of mud the nearby Gave river deposited when it overflowed its banks on Saturday.

Some prayer services at Catholicism's most popular miracle shrine have resumed, but baths in the grotto waters - which are believed to have healing powers - have been suspended until the bath halls can be cleaned of mud and their water pumps repaired.

About six million pilgrims visit the southwestern French town annually, many to pray for healing. The sanctuary's medical bureau has rated 68 healings as scientifically inexplicable, which the Church takes to designate a miracle.

"Our initial estimate of damage is two million euros, mostly at the hydroelectric power plant and the bridges," said site treasurer Thierry Castillo. Both were damaged by tree trunks carried by the surging river from the nearby hills.

He said the sanctuary, which had a deficit of about one million euros last year, quickly received calls from Catholics asking how to donate to the repair work. The Lourdes website now has instructions for sending funds.

In a video on the sanctuary's website, Lourdes Bishop Nicolas Brouwet showed the damage caused by mud and floating debris in the bath halls and the sacristy where priests prepare before celebrating Mass at the grotto.

At the height of the floods on Saturday, the altar at the grotto where Mass is celebrated was under water. Brouwet said priests would soon be able to say Mass there again.

"The baths will be closed for many days," he added, without giving a target date for their reopening.

About 450 pilgrims had to be evacuated from hotels on the low ground around the sanctuary on Saturday. The site's six million visitors annually make Lourdes as popular a tourist site as the Eiffel Tower and Versailles Palace in Paris.

(Reporting by Jean D├ęcotte; Writing by Tom Heneghan; Editing by Jon Hemming)

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