Thirteen-month-old Thomas Pio Brechbiel of St. Mary’s in Port Jervis will be the youngest New York pilgrim on the Knights of Columbus of Washingtonville-sponsored journey to Lourdes, France, June 30-July 9.
The Knights’ Washingtonville Council 5890 raises funds each year—now the 45th year—to send young ambassadors with disabilities, and one parent or guardian per child, on an all-expenses-paid pilgrimage to Lourdes for 10 days. The children are chosen primarily by their parish priests in the archdiocese.
“It will be really amazing,” Thomas’ mother, Elsie Brechbiel, 33, told CNY. “I’m sure there will be a lot of tears. It will probably be a lot more than what we can expect.”
“Although it’s an invitation through the Knights of Columbus and through Father Newcomb, it really felt like an invitation from our Blessed Mother,” Mrs. Brechbiel said. Father Matthew Newcomb is the pastor of Immaculate Conception, as St. Mary’s is formally known. The Brechbiel family includes husband James and daughter Aemelia, 3, both of whom will accompany Thomas and Mrs. Brechbiel.
Young Thomas was born with occipital encephalocele. In essence, the back of his skull did not properly close, and part of his brain started to grow outside of his skull, his mother explained. He underwent surgery to have it removed but developed hydrocephalus, which is extra fluid on the brain. As a result, he has a ventriculoperitoneal shunt on the top left side of his head, under the skin and visible only by a small bump, but that will likely be with him for the rest of his life.
Thomas also has some developmental delays. He is not yet crawling but recently learned to sit up on his own. He also has some difficulties with his vision but that seems to be improving, his mother said.
“He can definitely see— it’s getting better as he gets older, and with prayer, of course—but we still don’t know to what extent how well he’s seeing.”
At 20 weeks in the womb, “We were told that he wouldn’t live” or, if he did, that he “wouldn’t have quality of life, and to think about what we wanted to do moving forward,” Mrs. Brechbiel said. “Luckily, we have great doctors and they didn’t say, ‘you should abort,’ or anything like that,” which neither she nor James would have decided to do anyway, she added.
Mrs. Brechbiel said the family is hoping for “a good, deep, spiritual experience and to have Thomas be an example to our family and friends and everyone that prayer works, that the Rosary is powerful and God is real.”
Especially with Thomas, she said, “we always pray for a miracle, that he’ll have no delays, and that he can be really like a vessel, an example that God still does miracles, and that He is listening.”
Thomas, according to his mother, “is really just a very joyful little human being. He just loves to clap and laugh. He loves to watch his sister run around. He just gets a kick out of her. He’s just a very happy boy.”
Among the many things that bring Thomas’ mother joy from him are “those big blue eyes,” she said. “You look at them and all your troubles just go away. And that toothy smile. He has a couple of teeth.”
Lourdes reportedly attracts approximately 6 million visitors annually and has been a place of pilgrimage since 1858, when St. Bernadette Soubirous experienced the first of 18 visions of the Blessed Mother in a grotto carved out of rock.
Mrs. Brechbiel noted, “my confirmation saint is St. Bernadette. She’s my patron saint. That’s a special connection for me.”
Since 1975, and including this year, the Washingtonville Knights have sent more than 180 children to Lourdes.
In addition to Thomas Brechbiel, the five other young pilgrims going to Lourdes are: Anders Luke Anderson, 16, of St. Barnabas parish, the Bronx, who has cerebral palsy; Jordan Feeley Essoka, 10, of St. Joan of Arc-Our Lady of Mount Carmel parish, Sloatsburg, who has autism; William Robert Logan Kirms, 13, of St. Joseph and St. Stanislaus, Florida, who has Lyme disease; Connor Patrick Morris, 16, of Annunciation and Our Lady of Fatima parish, Crestwood, who has ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), anxiety and a non-verbal learning disorder; and Benjamin James Sileo, 9, of St. Monica, St. Elizabeth of Hungary and St. Stephen of Hungary parish, Manhattan, who has acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
Conducted in conjunction with the 65th annual U.S. National Rosary Pilgrimage, the New York pilgrims will join pilgrims from throughout the world. Their days in the French village nestled in the foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains will be filled with daily Masses and a Eucharistic procession, where the infirmed receive the anointing of the sick. Masses at the grotto and a visit to the healing waters of the baths also await the young pilgrims, as do the carved statues depicting Jesus and His followers at the Stations of the Cross.
Father Joseph Allen, O.P., parochial vicar of St. Vincent Ferrer and St. Catherine of Siena parish, Manhattan, serves as the pilgrimage spiritual director.
It will cost $40,000 to send the six children and six parents or guardians from New York to France, according to Walter H. Kozlowski, chairman of the pilgrimage from New York. He is a past grand knight and a former district deputy of the Knights of Columbus of Our Lady of Lourdes Council in Washingtonville.
The Knights raise the pilgrimage funds by selling raffle tickets outside select churches in Orange and Rockland counties, and accept donations from businesses and individuals.
Financial donations for the pilgrimage may be made to Our Lady of Lourdes Benevolent Association and sent by standard mail to the Knights of Columbus, Attention: Lourdes Program; 18 Hallock Drive, Washingtonville, NY, 10992.