Praying in the Water: Flannery in Europe

In the fall of 1957, Flannery O’Connor’s cousin, Katie Semmes, suggested that Flannery and her mother, Regina, travel to Lourdes and Rome as part of a diocesan pilgrimage. The suggestion becomes more of an adamant demand when Katie commits to paying for the trip set to happen in the spring of 1958. The idea intrigued both O’Connor women, but in different ways. Practical Regina found Katie’s insistence obligatory, as, under other circumstances, they would not have the opportunity. Flannery saw two-fold benefits for the trip. The pause from her daily work would provide her a brief mental respite. But she also saw the potential character development in the, “comic nightmare” [1] of a group of Catholic women traipsing across Europe. Later referring to the other pilgrims as, “all I could have wanted – old ladies made of pure steel…”[2]

With their European adventure on the horizon, Regina voiced concerns after reading information on the various sites. Lourdes would not allow admission if dresses were too low-cut or had short sleeves. Was the water in Europe clean enough to drink? In early April, Regina was still quizzically researching things such as whether they should notify the Milanese police if a stay was more than 24-hours. [3]

Monsignor T. James McNamara led the tour, which had been designed by the archdiocese of Savannah. McNamara served as the priest at Sacred Heart in Milledgeville from 1932-1939, before being designated as Monsignor[4] and becoming the rector at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Savannah, Georgia.[5] The complete seventeen-day trip would make stops in Ireland, London, Paris, Lourdes, Rome, and Lisbon. For a brief moment in February of 1958, Flannery suspected they would not be able to make the spring pilgrimage. Doctors warned that  an extensive trip with many stops would be tiresome and would potentially cause a Lupus flare-up. While she expressed relief  about not having to make the trip due to her lupus, she never expressed disappoint about it, showing an apathetic attitude toward her illness.

However, Katie’s determination to send the women to Europe prevailed. Rather than pursuing the full tour, she arranged for Flannery and Regina to do a partial route. In a letter to the Fitzgeralds in early March, Flannery talks about the growing irritation of her travel agent, as changing the schedule to fit her particular needs began to cause an increasing number of disruptions.[6]

Robert Fitzgerald greeted Flannery and Regina at the Milan airport. He then drove them to the hillside villa in Levanto, Italy, where he lived with his wife Sally and their six children. After spending four days relaxing on the Italian seaside, Sally and the O’Connors would continue to Paris.[7] The three women officially joined the pilgrimage at their final stops in Lourdes and Rome before the group returned home via Lisbon.

Katie’s dogged persistence to have Flannery make the trip stemmed from her desire for Flannery to visit Lourdes and its renowned healing spring water baths. Flannery did not see the appeal. “I am one of those people who could die for his religion easier than take a bath for it.”[8] And yet, in a letter she wrote from Rome, she concedes, the experience was better than she thought it would be. Sally made arrangements for Flannery to take part in the ritual. “If I hadn’t taken it she said it would have been a failure to cooperate with grace and me, seeing myself plagued in the future by a bad conscience, took it.”[9] Venturing to the site early in the morning, with fewer than forty people ahead of her, the waters of the seventeen marble pools were as clean as could be expected. Nevertheless, the potentially problematic idea of what an epidemic could do in this situation was concerning.[10] “I felt that being only on crutches I was probably the healthiest person there.”[11]

On Sunday, May 4, 1958, Archbishop O’Hara of Savannah arranged for the group of fourteen pilgrims to sit in the front row of the general audience at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Following the mass, Pope Pius XII, who Flannery described as wonderful, radiant, and lively, came to greet them. He also provided her a special blessing due to her crutches.[12]

Travel Paperwork found in Regina O’Connor’s suitcase (Cover Image: Andalusia Collection 2018.1.722) used during the pilgrimage. Clockwise: declaration of foreign currency from Spain, and then one from Italy, and a photo ticket and receipt from Lourdes.

The trip and the final flight home took a lot out of Flannery. She managed to come down with a bug soon after arriving in Europe and spent the remainder of the trip in somewhat of a haze.[13] Upon the O’Connors return to Georgia in the second week of May, “Regina revived as soon as she hit the cow country.”[14] Flannery, on the other hand, needed longer and was forced to cancel a  lecture in Missouri later that month due to poor health.[15]

In the aftermath of the adventure, Flannery has a variety of responses to their trip. She thanked the Fitzgeralds for their hospitality and claimed her time spent with them and the Pope, were the highlights. “I went to Europe and I lived through it but my capacity for staying home has now been perfected, sealed and is going to last me the rest of my life. The crowds weren’t so bad but it was much too fast.”[16] By November of 1958, she notifies a friend her hip that her hip had begun recalcifying, and she could, at that point, move short distances without her crutches. “Maybe this is Lourdes. Anyway, it’s something to be thankful to the same Source for.”[17] Many years later, in February of 1963, she determined that the time she spent at Lourdes praying over The Violent Bear It Away had a greater impact on her work than the healing waters did on her health, reiterating her usual approach of prioritizing work over all else.[18]

[1] Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being, ed. Sally Fitzgerald, (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1988), 250.

[2] Ibid., 282.

[3] Ibid., 252/256/276.

[4] Jack, N. Averitt, “Georgia’s Coastal Plain,” Families of Southeastern Georgia, (Baltimore: Clearfield Company, Genealogical Publishing Co.: 2007), 151-152.

[5] “Timeline of Rectors,” Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, 2015, accessed April 2020,

[6] O’Connor, 272.

[7] Brad Gooch, Flannery A Life of Flannery O’Connor, (New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 2009), 300-301.

[8] O’Connor, 258.

[9] Ibid., 282.

[10] Ibid., 280.

[11] Ibid., 509.

[12] Ibid., 280.

[13] Ibid., 285.

[14] Ibid., 281

[15] Ibid., 284.

[16] Ibid., 285.

[17] Ibid., 305.

[18] Ibid., 509.

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