Hundreds of Roman Catholic pilgrims will use Durham Tees Valley Airport to join The Bishop of Middlesbrough Terry Drainey at the French shrine of Lourdes this weekend.
The pilgrims will travel in two specially chartered 189-seat Boeing 737s from Durham Tees Valley Airport this morning, while others will make their own way by coach, car, train and other flights to the south-west of France.
The trip will see a staggering 800 pilgrims, including more than 100 sick, disabled and elderly people, take part in the 66th annual Diocese of Middlesbrough Pilgrimage.
Each year since 1953, hundreds of people from the diocese have visited the site where Roman Catholics believe the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to St Bernadette in 1858.
The pilgrims will be accompanied by seven doctors, 13 nurses, a pharmacist, 180 volunteer carers and 190 young people travelling by coach from all parts of the diocese, including Middlesbrough, Hull, York, Scarborough and surrounding areas.
The doctors include two who have recently completed their training, Dan Doherty, from Normanby, and Joseph Duffield, from Coulby Newham. Like all the volunteers, who include many non-Catholics, they will pay their own travel and accommodation costs.
Around half of the supported pilgrims will be looked after in the special Accueil Notre Dame Hospital, with the others staying in the many hotels around the Pyrenean town.
Keith Tillotson, Diocese of Middlesbrough Pilgrimage Director, said: “We’ve been working with the same manager and ground staff as we have for several years at Durham Tees Valley Airport.
“They are very good to us, allowing us to take our equipment down the night before the flights and doing everything they possibly can to help.
“It always amazes us that we take people from all different walks of life and put them together in teams for an emotional, highly charged week and yet it works so well. Physical miracles and far between, but people experience their own personal miracles every day in Lourdes.”
Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen said: “I’m delighted the airport is continuing to play a small part in the worship of these very special passengers. To help them on their important personal journey, we were pleased to once again waive the £6 passenger facility fee in this instance, and I will be meeting them at the airport to wish them all the best for their trip.
“This is a fantastic example of how a local airport, on our doorstep, can help to directly improve people’s lives. I’m sure our attentive airport staff will pull out all the stops to make this a seamless and pleasant experience.”