A number of volunteers have represented the Society in the Pilgrims’ Office (Oficina de Acogida al Peregrino) over the course of the summer. These are their stories. During the course of their stay, our Book of Pilgrims was shown to those in the Pilgrim Office and it made a big impression.
Michael Sherlock & Bernard Lynch
On the 27th of May 2018, Bernard Lynch and I flew with Aer Lingus from Dublin to Santiago de Compostela for a two-week volunteer programme in order to help and support the regular staff in the Oficina de Acogida al Peregrino during their busy summer period. This was something that I had never done before but in September / October 2016 when I received my own Compostela and distance certificate from the office somehow I knew I would return someday as a volunteer.
When the text arrived from Bernard I knew that I wanted to go but just needed to clear this with my wife first. The following day I informed Bernard that I was available to travel. We settled in quickly to our accommodation at the convent Santa Clara where the Order of the Poor Clares is still in residence to this day. This is an enclosed order but we did see one or two nuns going about their daily routine as we entered and exited the building daily. Our rooms were bright and airy with basic furniture.
A small kitchen and laundry service were available on the 1st and 2nd floors. I was looking forward to some summer sunshine but unfortunately, on this occasion, we experienced only grey clouds and rain nearly every day. However, we did not let the weather dampen our spirits and embraced each day with enthusiasm and excitement not knowing who we were going to meet in the centre each day.
The role of a volunteer is primarily to offer a warm welcome to pilgrims as they arrive in the office and this starts at the entrance door with a volunteer offering a smile and welcome as the pilgrims try to navigate the security staff to get inside the building. Once inside they have to join the queue which may take an hour or more to reach the desk. During our 5 hour shift (10.00am to 3.00pm) or (3.00pm to 8.00pm) we endeavoured to greet each pilgrim with a smile and congratulations as we handed them their Compostela.
Some people get very emotional at this stage and may like to engage with the Sisters from the order of the Faithful Companions of Jesus who are in room 6 upstairs for a chat, cup of tea, and some thoughtful reflection on their pilgrimage/walk. The surprise on an Irish person’s face when they realise that you are also Irish is priceless. It’s not what they were expecting but appears to make the end of their journey more special as they are given their Compostela by someone from home. Some have even uttered a few words in the Irish language in their excitement.
Yes, the first few days can be a little stressful as you find your way but at no time did I feel alone as there was always someone on hand to give me assistance. I am forward to returning again in 2019 with improved language skills and a Céad Míle Fáilte for all who cross my path in the Oficina de Peregrino. (Written by Michael Sherlock)
I arrived in the Pilgrims’ Office on Monday, the 11th of June and was brought to my accommodation in Convento Santa Clara – a very old convent built in 1234. There were 4 volunteers staying in the convent: a lady from Brazil, another from Italy and two men from Portugal and the USA. The former was the only other English speaking volunteer who taught Spanish in the University in Massachusetts. All others spoke Spanish so my Spanish has definitely improved.
Monday was a free day to get familiar with Santiago de Compostela, which I did and I did my own Camino around Santiago. An introduction session on Tuesday provided us with the background of St. James, the evidence held showing that St. James is buried in the Cathedral and the reason for establishing the Pilgrim Office. We were then provided with our weekly rota. The volunteering schedule was 10am – 3pm OR 3pm – 8pm with one free day per week.
The next day I was with a permanent employee where I saw the process for greeting the pilgrims and the general questions to ask. The information is then recorded, for example, country of origin, distance walked, the route taken. There were approximately 22 people meeting and issuing Compostelas to pilgrims during my first day! Volunteering started seriously on Wednesday. The best advice is NOT to look at the queues of pilgrims waiting for the Compostela. Although the queue was long, nobody ever complained.
It was interesting to see the different groups of people, walking or cycling. There were a number of groups who cycled from France or further afield and were issued distance certificates. Tuesday was Italian Day and very lively. They walked as a family, all combinations – fathers and sons, fathers and daughters and then the whole family. On Thursday, we had a very interesting tour of the Cathedral and we were shown the Archive, which is big and meticulously maintained.
I went to Pilgrim Mass at 7pm in the Cathedral. After Mass, the priest invited English speaking people to stay on for a service. Following a short tour of the Cathedral, we all sat in the ornate wooden seats at the back of the altar. A few people told us their reason for doing the Camino. Everyone had their own personal story and some were very emotional. It reminded me of the hostel in Orisson where pilgrims talk, after eating, and tell of their reason for pilgrimage.
I was honoured to be asked to read at the Pilgrim Mass on my final day. Afterwards, I had my photo taken with two of the Tiraboleiros – one of whom works in the Pilgrim Office. The Tiraboleiros swing the 53kg giant incense burner at a speed of 60kms per hour, in the Cathedral, historically to mitigate the smell of the thousands of pilgrims!
I now know all the different regions and Caminos in Spain, how far it is from St. Jean, Astorga and many other places to Santiago. I know “Jubilado” is a pensioner and June is IIuni in Latin! I thoroughly enjoyed volunteering and as Arnie says “I will be back!
Arabella volunteered in the Pilgrim Office in September 2017
Last September, I represented Camino Society Ireland as a volunteer for two weeks at the Pilgrims Office in Santiago de Compostela. My accommodation was set up in a local convent. I remember that upon my arrival there, I remained unsure about which of the two doors I was facing that would give me access to my bedroom. Both had a sign: – one saying an unknown word Torno and the other Vicaría (Vicarage). I decided to go for the unknown and rang the bell underneath. The door opened, and I was suddenly introduced to a different world. A revolving pass-through made of wood divided myself from a voice speaking to me from the back side of it. I realised that the voice belonged to a nun asking how she could help me. That is how I discovered that I was not staying in a normal convent, but a cloistered monastery occupying the part of the building reserved for volunteers.
In the Office, I issued Compostelas for pilgrims who have finished their Camino. I would like to think that I did not meet just pilgrims, but I met a bit of their hearts too. I met the eyes of those who could not speak any language, and their silence was all that really mattered. I felt the good energy of their hands when they proudly shook mine after obtaining the certificate. We also had good laughs. I had in return much more than I was giving to them. Volunteering for the Pilgrim Office is like knitting a quilt. Each Compostela, each pilgrim composes a much bigger picture mirroring the magic the Camino de Santiago is made of.
In no time, my term there ended and I found myself queueing at the airport to go back to Dublin on an early Sunday morning. One passenger before me was holding in his hands a plastic bag from a local supermarket saying “No olvidarte de Volver” (Don’t forget to come back). This brought up to my memory that only two weeks earlier, my adventure as volunteer in Santiago had started with a word Torno, which in Italian (my native language) means Vuelvo / I’ll come back. I was once told that there is no such thing as chance. I know that the word Torno and the commercial on the bag were signs, my yellow arrows marking for me. My way to go back to Santiago one day.