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Construction work starts at Lourdes shrine

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January 4, 2011 12:00 PM EST | AP

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PARIS — Workers dangling from rock-climbing ropes on Tuesday began a monthlong construction effort to prevent stones from falling in the grotto where worshippers pray at the Roman Catholic shrine of Lourdes.

The Lourdes grotto, in the foothills of the Pyrenees in southwest France, is where an illiterate peasant girl, St. Bernadette, said she had visions of the Virgin Mary in 1858.

About 6 million people, many of them ill, visit Lourdes every year to pray and drink its spring water, which believers say has healing powers.

The grotto is usually open to worshippers 24 hours a day, seven days a week. But it was closed off for nine hours Tuesday so workers could begin uprooting shrubs and prepare to hammer heavy-duty pins into the facade and put up nets, said Lourdes spokesman David Torchala in a phone interview.

Construction work is expected to continue through Feb. 8, with the grotto closed from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. every day.

A study by experts showed that humidity and other natural forces have caused small cracks to form in the rock. Occasionally small pieces break off and tumble down from above.

"We gathered up a wheelbarrow's worth of little stones in the course of a year," Torchala said. "We're not saying the grotto is crumbling – far from that. But we need to take care of it."

Worshippers can pray just outside the grotto while it is closed off, and Lourdes' Internet site also has a Webcam fixed permanently on the site.

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Online: http://fr.lourdes-france.org