Perched on the balcony of her office, on the first floor of her souvenir shop, Claudine Aubert admires the plunging view of the sanctuary of Lourdes: “Having a view of the sanctuary on a daily basis is magical. “ President of the merchants of piety in the city, she is the owner of the Padre Pio store, boulevard de la Grotte, a stone’s throw from the Saint-Michel gate of the sanctuary.
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An old guesthouse, quickly built after the apparitions by Bernadette Soubirous’ aunt to accommodate the first pilgrims. Like the rest of the boulevard where, in the 1860s, these pensions grew in clusters along the road that connects the town of Lourdes to the place of the apparitions.
A family matter
Above Claudine’s store, narrow spiral staircases leading to small rooms bear witness to the hotel’s past as a hotel. These now serve as storage rooms for the souvenir shop, which she inherited from her parents. ” The pawn shops have received a lot of criticism, but people forget that most of these shops are family businesses. “
That of Padre Pio began in the 1970s, and smells of good roudoudous and berlingots. At the time, Claudine’s parents ran an ice cream stand just in front of the room, a tour desk. “ We were sedentary fairgrounds, explains the shopkeeper, showing a yellowed photo of her parents above her desk. In winter my father and mother sold chestnuts, in summer ice cream, like my grandparents before them. But when Claudine and her sister are born, the couple are looking to move into a room. He dreams of buying the tour desk opposite, neither too small nor too big, to sell ice cream.
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When the building is put up for sale, Claudine’s parents manage to buy it back. They sell ice cream: we ask them for medals. Rosaries. Icons. Little by little, the glacier becomes a store of religious objects, in the tradition of the benches of the cave, ancestor of the shops of pious objects set up by the town hall of Lourdes at the beginning of the 20th century.
” Shortly after the apparitions, peasant women from Lourdes came to the pilgrims at the end of mass to sell them candles. It was anarchy, it gave a bad image of Lourdes to Parisians and Bordelais on pilgrimage. »The municipality then installed 64 benches in the cave, small signs where the candle sellers set up shop. Over the years, they have been transformed into stores, whose advertising neon lights are one of the symbols of the Marian city.
“Without state aid, it would be a slaughter”
Like most pawn shops, the business is passed down from generation to generation. Claudine dreamed of being a flight attendant to travel around the world. His parents decided otherwise, refusing to sell their business. ” I cried about it when I took over Padre Pio, she says. But I compensated for this disappointment by giving myself fully in my job, in the exchanges with people. “
Like the sanctuary and the city that shelters it, its shop evolves with the times. Creative, Claudine creates jewelry, orders handmade rosaries in Europe, invents new ranges. “ Statues are not just rows of objects, they are art. Made in China, it’s over! Not everyone here thinks like me, but that’s about to change! “
Today, Claudine does not spend her time on planes. But she travels every day, thanks to the many foreign pilgrims who pass by her store. ” Well, that was before the Covid. We mostly have French people at the moment. “Despite a resumption of pilgrimages since June, visitors from elsewhere are rare. ” We especially miss the Italians… and it’s mutual! “
If the stores of piety have managed to get by financially, it is only thanks to state aid, which they have managed to collect in the same way as restaurants and hotels. ” Without the help, it would be a slaughter, assures the shopkeeper. I was just talking with a wholesaler who told me that if the aid stops, she will lose everything, including her house.. “
When Emmanuel Macron and Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne, Secretary of State for Tourism, went to Lourdes on July 16, Claudine called out to them: “ Please accompany us until Easter! “