In Lourdes, France, in 1844 a baby girl named Bernadette Soubirous was born. Bernadette’s family was very poor, and Bernadette was responsible for looking after and caring for her brothers and sisters.
Lourdes and St. Bernardette Soubirous
Bernadette was a good natured girl with dark eyes and a round face. The only education Bernadette received was the Catholic teachings which she studied faithfully in the evenings.
At the age of 13, Bernadette was preparing for her First Holy Communion. One of Bernadette’s chores was to collect wood for the fire. On a cold day in February 1858, Bernadette and 2 companions headed off to the Gave River to collect pieces of wood. The 2 companions ran ahead and left Bernadette struggling to keep up. As Bernadette was taking off her shoes to make her way through the river, she was startled by a peculiar wind and rustling sound.
Bernadette looked up towards the grotto and the caves on the riverbank. Near the opening of the grotto, Bernadette glanced and noticed the cave was suddenly filled with golden light. Lifting up her eyes, she saw a lady of great beauty, dressed in a pure white robe with a blue sash, a veil over her head, a rosary clasped in her hands and yellow roses at her feet. Bernadette rubbed her eyes. What a beautiful lady! But where did she come from? And what was she doing here?
The beautiful lady smiled at Bernadette and asked her to say her rosary. Bernadette said her prayers and when she was finished she looked up, the lady had vanished. Bernadette caught up to her 2 friends and discovered that they were upset with her. What have you been doing? Playing in the river, while we are out here collecting wood? Bernadette told them about the vision she had just witnessed. The girls told Bernadette she was silly and probably just seeing things.
Bernadette felt drawn to the grotto and returned there on the next Sunday. Again Bernadette saw the beautiful lady. The third time Bernadette went to the grotto, the lady spoke to her. The beautiful lady asked Bernadette to come here every day for fifteen days. She said that she wanted Bernadette to tell the priests to build a chapel there. She told her to drink water from the stream. The lady also told Bernadette to pray for the conversion of sinners. Bernadette followed the requests.
On March 25, the Lady finally told Bernadette that she was Mary, the mother of Jesus, and that her purpose in appearing to Bernadette was to warn her to pray and make sacrifices for sinners. The miracles of body and soul performed at Lourdes are the proof that this message was a true warning from the queen of heaven to her children and that she was deeply interested in their welfare.
Bernadette’s daily visits to the grotto caused quite a stir in the countryside. Crowds of people began to gather and watch Bernadette as she examined the cave and obediently did the things the lady asked of her. They watched Bernadette scrape away soil beside the grotto until a spring of water started to trickle out. Would you believe this spring still provides 27,000 gallons of water everyday!
This is the sacred Lourdes water which heals all! At first, the priests, the town’s folk, and the families doubted Bernadette’s visions and the purpose in her activities. But Bernadette was stubborn and determined to follow Mary’s plans for her. Eventually everyone did believe Bernadette and the grotto at Lourdes became a place of worship and the Lourdes holy water was sacred for performing miracles.
At the age of 22, Bernadette became a nun and devoted her life to Mary, to praying for the conversion of sinners and to the service of God. Bernadette died on April 16, 1879, at the age of 36.
She will be remembered for believing in the greater glory of God as she was faithful to her mission, she was humble in glory and she was valiant in her sufferings. Today, Lourdes remains one of the most frequented Christian shrines in the world. More than 3 million visitors, pilgrims and tourists come each year to the Grotto of Massabielle, where the Virgin Mary appeared to Bernadette 18 times in 1858.
The First Apparition - Thursday, February 11, 1858:
After dinner on the Thursday before Ash Wednesday, Bernadette's mother told her children that there was no more wood in the house. Bernadette and her sister, Toinette, and a neighbor friend, Jeanne Abadie, went to the river Gave to gather wood. They had to cross a canal of cold water. Fearing that she would have an asthma attack, Bernadette stayed on the bank, and the other two girls crossed the stream and picked up wood under the grotto until they disappeared along the Gave.
Bernadette heard a great noise like the sound of a storm, but nothing was moving. She was frightened and stood straight up, loosing all power of speech and thought. She turned her head towards the Grotto of Massabieille and saw in the opening of the rock a rosebush, one only, moving as if it were very windy. Almost at the same time, there came out of the interior of the grotto a golden-colored cloud, and soon afterwards, a Lady, young and beautiful --exceedingly beautiful -- the likes of whom she had never seen, came and placed herself at the entrance of the opening above the rosebush. She looked at Bernadette and immediately smiled and signaled her to advance, in a way that a mother motions her child to come near. Bernadette took out her rosary and knelt before the Lady, who also had a rosary on her right arm. When Bernadette tried to begin saying the rosary by making the sign of the cross, her arm was paralyzed. It was only after the Lady had made the sign of the cross herself that Bernadette was able to do the same. As Bernadette prayed the rosary, the Lady passed the beads of her rosary between her fingers, but remained silent. She did recite the Gloria's with her, however. When the recitation of the rosary was finished, the Lady returned to the interior of the rock and the golden cloud disappeared with her.
Bernadette told her sister of the extraordinary things that had happened to her at the grotto, asking her to keep it a secret. Throughout the day the image of the Lady remained in her mind. In the evening at the family prayer Bernadette was troubled and began to cry. When her mother asked what was the matter, her sister told her everything. Bernadette's mother told her that these were illusions, and forbid her to return to Massabieille.
Bernadette could not sleep that night. The face of the Lady, so good and so gracious, returned incessantly to her memory. It was useless to recall what her mother had said because she did not believe that she had been deceived. Her conviction of this was unshakable. She went on to describe the Beautiful Lady in detail:
"She has the appearance of a young girl of sixteen or seventeen. She is dressed in a white robe, girdled at the waist with a blue ribbon which flows down all around it. A yoke closes it in graceful pleats at the base of the neck. The sleeves are long and tight-fitting. She wears upon her head a veil which is also white. This veil gives just a glimpse of her hair and then falls down at the back below her waist. Her feet are bare but covered by the last folds of her robe except at the point where a yellow rose shines upon each of them. She holds on her right arm a rosary of white beads with a chain of gold shinning like the two roses on her feet." On Sunday, Bernadette's mother allowed her to return to the grotto.
The Second Apparition - Sunday, February 14, 1858:
The three little girls started out, armed with a vial of holy water. If what their elders said was true, they might need this to ward off malign influences. Instead of throwing the water at the Lady, Bernadette poured the water quietly on the ground. Then she turned and told her companion that, judging by the Beautiful Lady's smile, She was pleased by this action. Before Jeanne Abadie, who was just arriving, could explain that she had thrown a stone for fun, the others had scattered in every direction, screaming for help as they ran. When Toinette reached the cachot (home) and poured out her story, her mother seized a switch and headed for the site. By now the whole town was talking. Fortunately for the unhappy little Bernadette, one local woman of considerable prominence interpreted the apparitions in a different light from most of the townspeople. She got Louise's permission to let her daughter Bernadette accompany her and a friend to the grotto.
The Third Apparition - Thursday, February 18, 1858:
All three went first to early Mass. Then they set out for the grotto. Madame Millet carried a blessed candle; Antoinette Peyret a pen, paper and ink to record anything that might be said. The Beautiful Lady said to Bernadette: "There is no need for me to write down what I have to say to you. Will you be so kind as to come here every day for fifteen days?" No explicit reason was given for this request, but a definite pledge accompanied it: though she did not promise that Bernadette would be happy in the world, the Beautiful Lady gave her word that happiness would be waiting in heaven.
The Fourth Apparition - Friday, February 19, 1858:
Bernadette's parents and her aunt accompanied her to the Grotto along with some neighbors. Shortly after Bernadette began to pray the Rosary, everyone present noticed that her face was transfigured and illuminated.
The Fifth Apparition - Saturday, February 20, 1858:
On Her fifth visit, the Beautiful Lady taught Bernadette a prayer, which she recited daily for the rest of her life. She never revealed the prayer to anyone, but she did say that she was told to always bring a blessed candle with her. Candles now burn perpetually at the Shrine.
The Sixth Apparition - Sunday, February 21, 1858:
The Beautiful Lady told Bernadette on this occasion to "pray for sinners", which she never failed to do. Several hundred people were present on that day, including Dr. Dozous, a prominent physician in Lourdes. He told the crowd that he could find nothing abnormal about Bernadette's physical condition, even when her mental state was trancelike: "Her pulse was regular, her respiration easy, and nothing indicated nervous excitement."
A meeting was called by the citizens of the town, and sharp differences of opinion were expressed regarding the apparitions. They expressed concern for the dangers that could accompany gatherings of such large crowds. They persuaded the Procurer Imperial, M. Dutour, to officially forbid Bernadette to return to the Grotto. Bernadette responded that she could not give her word to refrain from going to the Grotto because she had promised the Beautiful Lady she would do so. Dutour dismissed her, and discussed this matter with two local officials: M. Jacomet, the Chief of Police; and M. Estrade, who was to become Bernadette's and Dutour's friend and who was also to perform an invaluable service by listening in at future conversations and scrupulously recording them word for word.
Estrade recorded a conversation between the Chief of Police and Bernadette. During that meeting, M. Jacomet deliberately tried to confuse Bernadette to change her account of the apparitions. When that attempt failed, the Chief of Police released Bernadette to the custody of her father with an admonition that he take her home and guarantee that there would be no further disturbances. But the interior call which was urging her on was stronger than any earthly admonition.
On Monday, February 22, 1858, Bernadette returned to the Grotto after school. Two policemen saw her and followed her, and so did the usual crowd. The policemen stood at respectful attention as she knelt down in her accustomed place. But as she arose, they sprang forward and asked her if she still insisted that she had seen a Beautiful Lady. "No, this time I saw nothing at all," she answered. She was allowed to go home, but she was taunted and threatened. People said mockingly that the Beautiful Lady was afraid of the police and had found some safer place to go.
The Seventh Apparition - Tuesday, February 23, 1858:
Approximately two hundred people were present at this apparition. When Bernadette's appearance was once more transformed, the men present removed their hats and fell to their knees. Bernadette appeared to be gravely serious and listening, and then joyful, and she would occasionally bow low. At the conclusion of the vision, which lasted an hour, Bernadette moved on her knees toward the rose bush and kissed the ground. When asked what the Lady had said, Bernadette replied that the Lady had entrusted her with three secrets, which she never revealed.
The Eighth Apparition - Wednesday, February 24, 1858:
During the eighth apparition, Bernadette turned and faced the crowd of more than four hundred people, and three times she repeated, "penitence, penitence, penitence!"
The Ninth Apparition - Thursday, February 25, 1858:
During this apparition, the Beautiful Lady told Bernadette to, "drink from the fountain and bathe in it." Bernadette was puzzled; there had never been a fountain at Massabieille, or any kind of a natural spring. She began to scratch the loose gravel off the ground which encircled her. As she did so, she noticed that the ground beneath her was moist, and that a little pool was forming and bubbles were rising from it. She cupped her hands together and drank, and then washed her face. The next day, the pool was overflowing and water was dripping down over the rock. The following day, the trickle had become a real stream. Of course, it was immediately said -- and has been said by skeptics ever since -- that the spring was there all the time. The fact remains that Bernadette did find the spring as the result of a direct command.
The Tenth Apparition - Saturday, February 27, 1858:
On this occasion, the Beautiful Lady told Bernadette to "kiss the ground on behalf of sinners." She immediately did so, and the crowd followed her example.
The Eleventh Apparition - Sunday, February 28, 1858:
There were approximately two thousand spectators at the Grotto that morning. The Lady asked Bernadette to tell the clergy to build a chapel on the site of the Grotto.
The Twelfth Apparition - Monday, March 1, 1858:
During this apparition, the Lady commented to Bernadette that she was not using her own Rosary, which was an accurate statement. Bernadette had been asked by Pauline Sans to use Pauline's Rosary at the Grotto that day.
The Thirteenth Apparition - Tuesday, March 2, 1858:
Bernadette arrived at the Grotto early in the morning, prayed the Rosary in the presence of the Lady, who remained silent except for the Gloria's.
The Fourteenth Apparition - Wednesday, March 3, 1858:
During this apparition, the Lady repeated that She wanted a chapel built by the clergy and, additionally, that She wanted people to come to this chapel in processional form. Bernadette was terribly afraid of the parish priest, Abbe Peyramale. It had been difficult for her to go to him the first time about building a chapel, but it took a great deal of courage for her to present herself to him a second time about processions. He dismissed her curtly, ordering her to tell the Beautiful Lady that the Cure of Lourdes was not in the habit of dealing with mysterious strangers; that if She wanted a chapel -- if She had a right to one -- She must reveal Her identity.
The Fifteenth Apparition - Thursday, March 4, 1858:
By now, most everyone in France knew that March 4th was the last of the fifteen days that Bernadette had promised the Lady that she would be present at the Grotto. Twenty thousand people were present that day, including an entire military garrison in full-dress uniform. As Bernadette approached the apparition site, a path was cleared for her, and the soldiers who accompanied her did so with respect. After the apparition, Bernadette told the crowd that she would continue coming to the Grotto because the Beautiful Lady had said nothing in the form of a farewell. The crowd was disappointed and disillusioned. They had seen Bernadette transfigured with a strange radiance, but they had hoped to also share her vision, to hear the same voice that she did, and they expected that, at the very least, the rosebush would burst into a sudden miraculous bloom.
The Sixteenth Apparition - Thursday, March 25, 1858:
During the sixteenth apparition, which occurred on the Feast of the Annunciation, the Beautiful Lady revealed her identity to Bernadette: "Que soy era Immaculado Conception", I am the Immaculate Conception. Bernadette was not sure what this name meant, but people who needed no explanation flocked to Lourdes in greater numbers than ever before. Baron Massy, a local official, ordered Bernadette to be examined by three more physicians. They found her to be physically and mentally sound.
The Seventeenth Apparition - Wednesday, April 7, 1858:
Bernadette had never failed to bring a lighted candle to the Grotto since the first time she had been instructed to do so by the Beautiful Lady. During this apparition, she unconsciously placed one of her hands over the flame of the candle. People witnessed the flame burning through her fingers. Bernadette did not even hear the cries of horror which arose from the crowd. She continued to pray for at least fifteen minutes while the flame burned through her hand. She emerged quietly from prayer unscathed. Then Dr. Dozous took another candle and, without warning, touched the flame to her hand. Bernadette immediately cried out in pain. Shortly after this apparition, the Prefect took matters into his own hands and ordered the Grotto closed, and the rustic altar was dismantled.
The Eighteenth Apparition - Friday, July 16, 1858:
Bernadette seemed relieved that she was becoming less of a public figure. Several months had passed, and after receiving communion on the feast of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, Bernadette felt an irresistible urge to return to the Grotto. Since the barricade was still in place, she and her aunt could not get as close to the sacred spot as they wanted, so they knelt in the grass, and the Beautiful Lady appeared to her one last time.
Bernardette after the apparitions
Bernadette joined the order of the Sisters of Charity. Throughout her life she remained sickly, but attended patiently to her duties as infirmarian and sacristan. She died a holy death on April 16, 1879. She was 34 years old. Bernadette was buried on the convent grounds in Nevers, France. Her body was exhumed thirty years later on September 22, 1909, in the presence of two doctors, several appointed officials, and nuns from the local convent. When Bernadette's coffin was opened, there was no odor, and her body was completely untouched by the laws of nature.
A second exhumation took place on April 3, 1919. The body of the then declared Venerable was found in the same state of preservation as ten years earlier, except that the face was slightly discolored, due to the washing it had undergone during the first exhumation. A worker in wax was entrusted with the task of coating the face of the Saint who had been dead forty years. The sacred relic (Bernadette's body) was placed in a coffin of gold and glass and can be viewed to this very day in the Chapel of Saint Bernadette at the motherhouse in Nevers, France.
Lourdes as a Shrine and miraculous place
Today, around the grotto, a neo-Byzantine, three-level basilica was built. Underground is another basilica, which holds 7,000 people and has a ramp for wheelchairs. The baths, the real focal point of the shrine, are small cubicles full of ice-cold water from the spring, in which the sick, some terminally ill, immerse themselves in hopes of being healed. Two hospitals, which care for but do not treat the sick, are part of the complex.
Of the 3 million individuals who come to Lourdes every year, 500,000 are sick people hoping to be cured miraculously. Recent data from the Lourdes Bureau Médical, 66 cases have officially been acknowledged as miraculous, from 1858 to nowadays; from the first case occurring a few days after the first apparition at Massabielle, to the last case, relating to Mr. Jean-Pierre Bély, acknowledged in 1999, versus an overall number of 7000 recoveries claimed.
Claims of miracles must go through the study of one of the most strict group of physicians. In fact, the Lourdes National Medical Committee was established in 1947, made up by university specialists, in order for a more rigorous and independent control to better guarantee the authenticity of the possible miracles.
This committee became International (LIMC) in 1954, thus acquiring even greater authority and a universal dimensions.
At present, the Lourdes International Medical Committee (LIMC,) based in Paris, is made up by 25 members, including physicians of international renown, university professors and experienced and qualified medical practitioners, from different countries worldwide.
There must be medical proof that the sick person was indeed sick to begin with, that the symptoms disappeared within hours, and that the cure lasted for several years. The patient is examined on the spot by a medical bureau, which sends its conclusions to LIMC.
If the commission regards the cure as authentic, the report goes to a canonical commission in the diocese from which the cured person came, and the bishop makes a pronouncement on it. Only then the recovery is officially proclaimed a miracle.