St. Mark’s theology teacher anticipates healing after pilgrimage to Lourdes


Staff reporter


WILMINGTON – Mary Johnston sat on a plane at Baltimore Washington International Airport on April 30, prepared for a flight she knew would change her life. She was headed to Lourdes, France, where she was confident she would find healing for various health issues.

The long-awaited pilgrimage was nearly derailed, however, by an engine problem on the plane, but after a night in a hotel, Johnston was off to France. What she experienced there, she said, will affect her the rest of her life and was worth the one-day delay.

Back in Delaware, Johnston has a new outlook on life as she faces uncertainty about her health. A mass was found on Johnston’s lung a few years ago and has grown, but after her pilgrimage to Lourdes at the beginning of May, she is confident that the next time she visits her doctor, he will find that the mass has improved or disappeared.

And if not, she will be just fine.

“There’s something that happened (at Lourdes) that didn’t happen to me at home,” Johnston said recently at St. Mark’s High School, where she has taught theology since 1991. “I will have scans done on this left lung, and I am really sure, as much as I can be without seeing the results of that scan, I’m really sure everything’s fine. Even if it’s not, one of three things will happen. Either it’s gone, and I’ve been healed; or I will never need surgery. Or if I do need surgery, I now know that I have the grace to get past it. Believe me, I tried everything under the sun to get that before and I couldn’t.”

Her doctors have told her they believe the mass is cancerous, although “it’s too low and it’s too deep to definitively call it cancer. But my attitude is when it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck,” she said.

Johnston, 56, and Charlene Poole, a part-time nurse at St. Mark’s, went May 1-6 with the Knights and Dames of Malta to the French city known for attracting approximately 6 million pilgrims annually. The Order of Malta is a lay Catholic organization whose mission is to serve the poor and sick. Each year, the order sponsors pilgrimages for malades (French for “the sick”) and their caregivers.

Catholics believe the Blessed Mother appeared to St. Bernadette Soubirous, a French peasant girl, on 18 occasions over several months in 1858. The church has officially recognized 68 miracles arising from the pilgrimages to Lourdes that have taken place over the last 150 years.

On her pilgrimage, Johnston was praying for healing for her lung and other medical issues. They include hyper-sensitivity to light, which is a problem with the whiteboard in her classroom, and a rib damaged in surgery several years ago that caused her to double over in pain whenever she sneezed. She has noticed considerable improvement with those ailments since her pilgrimage. Her eyes have not been sensitive, and her rib feels better.

“Before, if I even touched that rib, it would be very sensitive to touch. Now, I can touch it and it is healing. It is different and it didn’t happen because of medication. I have wanted that rib to heal for a while now. This is not wishful thinking,” said Johnston, a member of Christ Our King Parish in Wilmington, where her husband, Bill, is a permanent deacon. Bill Johnston also teaches at St. Mark’s.


Lourdes, ‘a dump’

Johnston saw some things in Lourdes that have affected her deeply. She recalled the Marian procession one night that drew thousands of townsfolk along with pilgrims. The pilgrims came from  all over the world, showing Johnston the universal nature of the Catholic Church. Shopkeepers went out of their way to accommodate the “malades.” A family in Lourdes included a woman who had been a dame in the Order of the Knights of Malta and was now there as a malade.

Then there were the Knights and Dames themselves, who prayed constantly for the sick and saw to their spiritual and physical needs. The care and compassion shown by the Knights and Dames impressed Johnston so much that she and her students now pray for them every day in class.

“One of the things I learned while I was away is that once you have been to Lourdes, you can take Lourdes wherever you go. As one of the priests explained it to me, prior to what it has become, Lourdes was a dump. And it still is. You dump your pain, your nausea, your fears there, and you leave things there so that you walk away completely renewed,” she said.

“We were told everybody would get a miracle, and my healing started. That Friday night we were there, and all of us explained why we were there. Everyone in the group laid hands on us and our team leader prayed over us, and I remember part of the prayer being anything that didn’t belong to Jesus I needed to be healed from, I needed to be released from.”

Johnston said one night she felt a pair of hands come down upon her as she lay down to go to sleep. The hands were on areas of her body that had caused her great pain. The next day, she woke up miserably sick, and it wasn’t until the flight home that she understood why.

According to Johnston, a doctor told her the sickness was her body purging itself of “everything it doesn’t need.”

She also found that in Lourdes, the vulnerability and fragility that most associate with illness were strengths, not weaknesses.

“I had to become comfortable with my illness and look way beyond it,” she said. “I think anybody can be a prayerful person and read books about Lourdes, but until you go to the grotto and just quietly pray, until you do ascending Stations of the Cross, until you immerse yourself in it, you have no idea.

“I am definitely different. I am anticipating much more healing.”

The care and compassion shown by the Knights and Dames impressed her so much that she and her students prayed for them every day in class. She is also discerning whether she wants to become part of the order.  Johnston said she has taken the power of the prayer she experienced in Lourdes and continues to draw from it, and she wants to be able to give that to others.

“I really feel that whatever I need for healing I already have. If I have to go through it, then I know I’ll get through it.”