Saints and Researchers: Studying Pilgrimage and Ethnography in Sicily and France

Hannah Spadafora
16 min readJun 8, 2021

In the late winter, early spring of 2012, I found myself wandering among hundreds of religious pilgrims trailing processions of caskets carried like thrones and purportedly holding sacred relics of revered saints at both the Feast of Saint Agatha in Catania, Sicily and at a Saint Bernadette anniversary event in Lourdes, France. I was on a bit of a journey myself — a travel intensive fieldwork project investigating the concept of religious pilgrimage in the greater context of these events.

For this research, I performed participant observation, informal interview and focus(ed) group discussions, and a scholarly review of anthropological theories of ritual, the historical events surrounding the saints’ lives, and the pilgrimage traditions upheld in their honor. This was a senior independent project during the last semester of my undergraduate degree, and it was partially adapted from a yearly study abroad group trip to Lourdes I had lacked the funds to attend the year before. In contemplation of the concept of ‘pilgrimage’ overall, I supplemented this direct fieldwork at these sites with visits at other religious, archaeological, and historic sites across Europe that are known for secular and religious pilgrimage. My goal was to gain a better understanding of the motivations and meaning that the pilgrimage journey and ritual activities held for participants. To reach this goal, I had to first learn the significance of the history of both the stories of the saint’s lives and of the cities in which these commemoration events take place.

Lourdes, France is a town in the Pyrenees shaped to facilitate Bernadette fueled tourism. On multiple anniversary occasions held each year in honor of Saint Bernadette’s visions of the mother Mary and subsequent miraculous healing occurrences, visitors perform committed devotion by following the path of Jubilee, seeking sanctuary in the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception and healing miracles in the water of the sacred grotto. In the shadow of breathtaking mountains, this quaint town preserves and maintains castles, gardens, churches, and sanctuary spots — all directly built around the story of Saint Bernadette’s life, death, and lasting legacy on French Catholic practice in the region. Modern roads and narrow cobbled pathways boast ample hotel accommodations across a spectrum of visitors, from religious pilgrims to curious scholars and frequent tourists.

Stands and small stores posted outside sanctuary spots sell Marian and Bernadette themed souvenirs as well as bestow visitors cord necklaces with plastic pendants; one side holds the shadow image of Bernadette and the famous words of the Aquerò apparition (adapted for visitors from different regions; “Que soy era Immaculada Councepciou”; “Yo soy de Concepcion Immaculate”; “I am the Immaculate Conception”), and the other side displays four divided quadrants of Jubilee tour spot images that help visitors track progress of their sacred trips via stickers acquired at each milestone of the journey (from the “Maison Natale de Bernadette” [“birthplace of Bernadette”] to the “Maison de Museo” [the home museum], the “Maison de Paternalle” [Bernadette’s father’s parents’ home] to the sacred Grotto.) These spots are not the total of the journey, as maps of Jubilee also lead to other local churches, and sacred as well as historical spots of tourist interest. The city itself is a shrine full of shrines.

Catania isn’t built around the Festival of Saint Agatha (Also known as the Feast of Sant’Agata) in the same way that Lourdes has literally become a city built for Bernadette, but it boasts its own interesting juxtaposition of the ancient and modern that the celebrations mold to the setting of.

On an average day, the historical side of the town fills with venders selling fresh dairy, meat, and produce, largely sustained by farmers across the island. Other food and imported goods are sold in little indoor shops, but it is this open-air street market that is impossible to pass by without a deep appreciation for the elevation of the local in this coastal city.

Catania is no small place, however, and also boasts sprawling local parks, a decent public bus system, and notably modern areas. This includes streets and buildings rivaling those found in urban U.S. cities.

This contemporary-traditional blend of tall mismatched edifices set on a main wind-tunnel street displayed an unusual display of nonconformity of architecture. On this straight line of uncannily smashed together buildings, locals sport enterprises ranging from food stands selling hot dogs, water, and sweets to themed baubles and knickknacks — including near this occasion, notably, religious souvenirs relevant to the story of Saint Agatha.

In both locations, I was interested in the ways that community participants interpreted their religious belief, belonging, and practice. For this research, I thus spoke with people who visited Lourdes and Catania from halfway across the world to seek blessings and follow the paths that their saints had once walked, as well as to plead intercession in medical and personal struggles. I increased my understanding of these stories and their meaning for pilgrimage participants by additionally consulting works by Victor Turner, Emile Durkheim, and Ruth Harris — as well as web-based resources, train station and hotel offered brochures, and displays of information provided at the sites themselves. Using these readings, conversations, and reflections on my own journey /research process, I confronted ideas of communitas and liminality — the ways that identity is suspended in flux during the intermediate state existing in between the beginning of a community ritual and the transformative step into a new role. These Catholic devotees followed their belief by crossing national borders, joining in Christian prayers both solemn and joyful, and expressing awe and desire when recounting the history that the traditions were built upon — the stories of the saints themselves. I followed my curiosity and fascination, crossing my own borders and bringing unique contradictions to the secular research process applied to an established religious journey.

As to the exploration of former scholars on ritual, Turner[i] helped situate reflection on the movement from defined original state through liminal in-between transformational phase through aggregation — the eventual return to mundane life after ritual; the latter in my case referring to the time following the extraordinary expedition involving stepping into the religious pilgrims’ world. Durkheim’s theories on totemism[ii] likewise assisted in consideration of the powerful symbology held in the material culture of the sites themselves, ranging from the tourist exhibits of saint, savior, and Marian souvenirs to the field of crosses and the aesthetic of the iconography and architecture of the local churches, museums, and shrines. Whereas my research on Saint Agatha was collected from web and local based sources, Harris further offered direct insight into the life of Saint Bernadette and the political struggles that helped defend the upholding of the spiritual pilgrimage tradition built to honor her in Lourdes, France[iii].

Insight about ritual in general is nothing without contextualization of the particularities imbued in specific ritual practices. To this end, our myths give places and rituals character — the context that situates action beyond superficial aesthetic to shared community meaning. Anthropology defines myth not by truth value, but by significance; within the discipline, myths are considered stories that hold cultural importance to community understandings of belief and practice. The histories and myths surrounding saints lives are rarely ‘nice’; much like old school, gritty, pre-Disney fairytales, agony is real. Outside of the mystical and miraculous accounts attributed to the saint narrative later applied to these womens’ lives, both Bernadette and Agatha of Sicily had tragic lives that fit this bill.

Bernadette Soubirous (1844–1879), later Saint Bernadette, was a poverty stricken girl with many health difficulties. One of five children, she was visiting home after having been sent to work as a shepherdess to offset her impoverished parents need to support their kids’ food and clothing needs. At 14 years old, she had her first vision of the Christian figure of the Mother Mary at the Massabielle grotto of the Gave de Pau river. After an initial spiral of events sparked by her sister’s sharing of Bernadette’s confession of her first vision, and local community members intervening to halt her mother’s prevention and aunts’ condemnation of her visiting the grotto, she ended up having eighteen visions in total, some alone, many in the company of others — including an apex event where 800 people from surrounding communities came to witness her experience.

Lending fame, healing miracles occurred at the site — reportedly even in her wake. At one of these events, she also remained unburned by candle flame, seen as more proof of the legitimacy of her spiritual experience. Eventually, she retired to a convent and died of Tuberculosis. She is now recognized as the patron saint of illness, poverty, shepherds/shepherdesses, and practitioners mocked for pious devotion.[iv]

This is not the end of her story, however; the story of struggle continued with contention surrounding the site built to preserve access to miraculous intercessions for suffering Catholic practitioners. During her life, Bernadette was interrogated by local authorities sure it was a hoax; in subsequent centuries following her death, her story has been torn down by commentators placing contemporary evaluations on past events — that good old attempt of science and psychiatry to dismantle spiritual explanations of immaterial and inexplicable experiences and replace them with material, objective interpretation. Authorities attempting to suppress the ‘superstitious’ site in an era of secularizing scientific revolution found themselves at a site of conflict that symbolized local triumphing over the oppressive reach of state power. Outside it’s religious context, the city thus had important political power for residents insisting on boundaries related to the suppression of tradition in light of modernity. These governmental battles helped Lourdes form strong ties and carried it’s success as a viable center of economic and religious activity through the reformation. Again, I highly recommend Ruth Harris’s account of these events, which I draw upon in this brief recount here.

Saint Agatha of Sicily (231–251 AD/ACE) also lived an incredibly difficult life prior to her death and subsequent canonization. She grew up with wealth and beauty, but chose to dedicate her life to God — remaining celibate and devoting herself to service and prayer. This pissed off entitled men elevating their own desires for her as evidence of their ‘love’, love that notably excluded respect for Bernadette’s own wishes and identity. One of these entitled men, a pompous diplomat and judge, Quintianus, reacted to her consistent refusal to his marriage proposals by persecuting her Christian devotion — in the court he ran. He tortured and threatened to kill her if she didn’t marry him, sequestering her in a brothel, and later a prison where he had her burned, whipped, starved, rolled over beds of hot coals and shards of glass, hung on a rack of iron hooks, breasts cut off, and denied medical care. Regardless of the rhetoric surrounding this persecution for her Christian status, it’s notably also an early story of a man abusing his position of power to torment and punish a woman who dared not submit to his desires, demands, and masculine assertions of authority. [v]

Agatha continually refused to abandon her dedication to a religious path, comforting visions of Saint Peter and reported miraculous healing of her wounds visiting her despite the horrors she faced, and refused to give up her virtue until she died in custody. She is now the patron saint of wet nurses, rape victims, breast cancer patients, and of Sicily/Palermo/Malta in general[v]. It is said that following her death, the veil from her tomb protected the city from a volcanic eruption [vi]. Likewise, these dark stories forge paths of lights for those who dedicate themselves to maintaining devotions to and celebrations for these suffering and strong women, and frame the backdrop context of visitors’ pilgrimage to the religious sites I performed fieldwork in.

At the events themselves, crowds demonstrated the significant participant devotions. Many wore event costumes (special white robes and head coverings donned by Sicilians and foreign visitors alike for Saint Agatha), reported travel from great distances (particularly in Lourdes, boasting a seemingly more diverse crowd of foreigners across Europe), and committed themselves to long days spent at event happenings (in Lourdes, following the spiritual cavalcade and the painted pavement symbols guiding pilgrims and tourists alike, and in Catania, joining the procession from the early morning gathering at the spot of the first sacred spot to the late night explosive celebratory Sicilian fireworks.) In Catania, there is also singing of nuns, a race with the vara (cart) that I unfortunately missed, a cord pulling tug of war determining the next years harvest, a ceremony involving candles that my camera was dead for, and sweet, breast-shaped treats provided (to honor the injury to Saint Agatha.)

During a long sitting session at a train station in Lourdes, I spoke with people both entering and exiting the city. Arrivals expressed hope for medical miracles, saint intercession, and Marian visitation. Departures provided reflective commentary on completed visits to the palatial crown-topped church, the field of crosses scribbled with multilingual translations of the lord’s prayer and planted by visitors, the mystical healing waters of the famous grotto, and to the home, school, and other sites significant to the Saint Bernadette’s experiences. Arrivals spoke of the inspiring role the stories of the saint held in their decision to visit Lourdes, and to their desires to recreate the saint’s path, in the hopes they could also partition intercession for healing miracles. I did not meet a departure who experienced a physical miracle / immediate transformation of their health condition experienced, but I did hear some remaining hopes for a long-term, late arriving effect once they returned home, some despair of the disappointingly uncured, and some expression of feelings of peace among those who felt that the journey had blessed them by transforming their mindset — that perhaps for them the Saint Bernadette, the mother Mary, Jesus, and/or God had been present in a focused way during their sacred pilgrimage journeys.

In Catania, I spoke with individuals from across Sicily and Europe about their voyages to the city festival. I heard, and partially witnessed, the sparking of visitors leaving for the procession in the morning; then I met the crowd at a planned pause listed on the ritual schedule during early afternoon, followed the procession while talking with English speaking visitors, toasted drinks over discussion of the tourist impact of the festival with hostel occupants, and joined the assemblage of pilgrims packed into the narrow roads of the historic district during the earth-rocking and spectacular fireworks shows. I also discussed more about the festival during the days before and following the event, meeting people at local places discovered via a new friend who provided a tour of archaeological sites, parks (including a giant park scattered with catholic angel/saint sculptures), sprawling trees, and a social meeting spot near a community fountain. In these conversations, I heard a lot of expressions of importance of participation to feelings of community belonging, even among younger participants who didn’t necessarily still subscribe to their parents traditional religious beliefs. I also found my own community among other outsiders visiting the event to see inside another community’s world. This isn’t to say that most visitors weren’t religiously observant; there were also many testaments to sincere upkept religious belief. Particularly memorable, I witnessed a group of elderly individuals banding together for the walk, crossing themselves at pauses, fervently clutching donned rosaries, and reciting prayers as they slowly navigated the pilgrimage path. These differing perspectives on the value of participation reflected, funnily enough, the tradition and modernism emblematic in the city’s juxtaposition of historical and contemporary architecture on different ends of Catania itself.

In both of these places, visitor narratives reflected hope, faith, and strength through suffering. The undeserved suffering of these sainted women led participants to choose to undergo arduous journeys of their own, in honor, devotion, and sought relief from their own medical and personal struggles. Further, the maintenance of traditional community events — whether the participant saw the stories as literal accounts of miracles or in more secular and historical context — was seen as an important component to participation. These were the central motivations I heard expressed, leading me to admire the participants, as well as to consider carefully the various dimensions of spiritual, scientific, and political significance inherent in the stories of the saints lives — as well as the shaping of the locations and events they are honored in.

This research project was a senior project completed during my last year of my undergraduate degree in Religious Studies. This was also my first real experience with ethnography; though it wasn’t part of an anthropology program, it was influenced by anthropology of religion thinkers recommended by mentors in the religious studies department (one of my undergraduate majors). In both of these events, I was fortunate to find translation assistance — in Sicily, a new friend originally from Croatia who had grown up with bilingual capability in English and had lived long enough on the island to pick up considerable skill in the Sicilian-Italian dialect. In France, I met another North American, a Canadian with a good command of French, as well as a soldier from another French region there during a meeting of many military units on leave to the site during my stay. In both locations, I thus benefited from talking with bilingual French-English locals, English-speaking visitors, and by occasionally, with Spanish visitors to the site, mangling my way through simplified Spanish conversations. My interviews were informal conversations — pointed questions and extended discussion during events and the days preceding and following the events, but unlike future projects, were not quiet sit downs with audio recorder in hand. I thus took notes as soon as I could pause and jot them during bathroom and restaurant breaks, rather than working off transcribed files, and I lament anything that may have been lost in translation, as well as things missed along the way (or missed photographing, due to a dead camera battery), though I know more would have been lost had I not lucked out to find English helpers and pilgrims along the way.

This project in itself was very ground level and less formal than the latter two ethnographic projects I completed in graduate school, but it definitely centered me in an anthropological framework for research. It was the first real taste of personally meaningful work I had outside of academic and writing pursuits, and it led me to my decision to pursue anthropology further in graduate school. Deeply listening to stories on others pilgrimage journeys, the significance of event participation — as well as witnessing these events themselves — was invaluable to developing skill in entering another’s world. This vision provided insight on how the honored community saint commemorations provided hope and social belonging to community members. Moreover, studying pilgrimage while on my own pilgrimage yielded insight on the comparisons between religious visitors there for the event, researchers like me there to study the event, and tourists going to observe — all of whom were an audience of a sort for locals. In the case of contemporary Lourdes, the participatory nature of the events allow all visitors to go beyond spectacle, with the entire town built around this tourist and pilgrim audience.

During later projects, I discovered the art of synthesizing my literature review from disparate sources more effectively, as well as the methods usually used in recruiting participants, holding more formal interviews and intentionally led focus groups in quiet settings, using technology to record these discussions and software to code and analyze the data that transcribed audio yields, offering more precise counts of participants involved and records of interview timetables and structures, utilizing mechanisms of network analysis that allow demonstrations of how community connections foster the organization of place to events, and measuring up to discipline specific writing and presentation norms in finished reports. It was in this first project, though, that I discovered a new way to interact with the world around me, and a newfound passion for ethnographic research. Through the study of religious pilgrimage, and the undertaking of my own pilgrimage journey across Europe to religious, archaeological, and cultural spots of interest, I gained a profound taste for research as a ground floor, first hand experiential attempt to encapsulate meanings that people infuse into community building practices.

It is this type of research that asks one to put aside their own preconceptions of practitioner motivation and identity to instead directly ask people about their experiences, listening deeply to what they have to say, and prioritizing that over exclusively etic (outsider) stories about what is happening. Like all pilgrimage, it requires journey through liminal, intermediate states of being — during my first trip to another continent, I was betwixt and between multiple secular and spiritual narratives: between the position of outside researcher and stepped inside visitor, sitting at the edge of the cusp of graduation from my first college degrees, in a state of personal transition from student to intended young professional. Ultimately, thus, travel fieldwork wasn’t just research advancing my scholarship skills and interests, but also a pilgrimage ritual itself — one with lasting, transformative impact on my own life and my understanding of events occurring far beyond my own home corner of the world.



Hannah Spadafora

Hannah Spadafora is a writer living in the Atlanta area with borrowed cats and underused degrees in anthropology, philosophy, and religious studies.