Our Lady of Lourdes, France, 1858

“Our Lady of Lourdes”

Bernadette Soubirous (14) was the oldest daughter of a desperately poor, miller’s family — who had to take a foul-smelling room in the old abandoned prison to survive.  Lourdes was a village of about 4,000 people, tucked in the foothills of the French Pyrenees.

On February 11, 1858, Bernadette was sent with her sister, Toinette (11) and their friend, Jeanne to search for firewood that could be sold to the ragpicker for a few pennies that could buy a pound of bread for their dinner.  Bernadette was lagging behind the other two because of her asthma.  She suggested they cut across some fields to reach a point where the River Gave de Pau meets the canal.  She paused in front of the hollowed-out rock Grotto of Massabielle at the base of a small mountain to take off her shoes and socks so that she could wade through an icy cold stream.  She remembered her mother warning her to stay warm due to her asthma.

Bernadette Soubirous, 14-year old visionary of Lourdes, France.
Bernadette Soubirous, 14-year old visionary of Lourdes, France.

Toinette and Jeanne had already removed their wooden shoes and waded through the icy millstream to the other side when Bernadette heard “a gush of wind” come from the grotto — yet, no trees were moving.  She continued to remove her socks, when she heard the rush of wind again.  She saw some wild rose brambles stir in the niche above the grotto.  A soft light brightened the recess in the cliff.  Then, it became a brilliant light — “like a glaring reflection of the sun off water.”  In the light she began to see a young woman about her same age, dressed in white with a blue sash.  A yellow rose adorned each bare foot.  The mysterious young girl in the light smiled at Bernadette.

“When I saw that, I rubbed my eyes.  I thought I was mistaken.”  But Bernadette could not rub away the image of the girl in the light.  The Lady made the sign of the cross with a Rosary in her hand, and Bernadette knelt and said a Rosary in front of her.  As Bernadette said her rosary, the young girl in white fingered her own rosary beads but did not move her lips during the Aves.  After that, the beautiful Lady motioned for her to come closer, but Bernadette was too timid.  Glowing, as if standing in a sunburst, the Lady vanished.   Wondering what she had just encountered, she finished removing her stockings and crossed the millstream – which was surprisingly warm now.

The other two girls had not seen or heard anything.  Her sister scoffed at her story, and their mother spanked both girls when she heard such nonsense.  However, this would be the first of 18 visitations!  Despite being forbidden to return to the grotto, friends and others put pressure on the family to let her go, escorted.  Just three days later, she felt compelled to return (with father’s permission) and took a bottle of holy water and a group of her curious classmates with her down the path to the Grotto of Massabielle.

Bernadette falls into a trance before the Blessed Virgin Mary in 1858.
Bernadette falls into a trance before the Blessed Virgin Mary in 1858.

She fell into a mesmerizing trance in front of the grotto as she saw the Lady again.  Others could not see or hear anything but were impressed by her gaze that could not be broken with distractions.  When Bernadette was done praying and the Lady had vanished, friends could not move her physically from her spot.  They ran to the sawmill, and the operator of the nearby mill struggled to move the girl as she suddenly seemed incredibly heavy and hard to move.  He was able to finally drag her back up the footpath.  Later, she was again punished and warned.

Madame Jeanne-Marie Milhet thought that this apparition might be the spirit of her deceased relative, Elisa Latapie.  Because Madame Milhet often paid Bernadette’s mother for odd jobs, Bernadette’s mother, Louise, gave in and allowed her to return to the grotto with Madame Milhet and her dressmaker, Antoinette Peyret.  On February 18, these two, well-to-do women decided that they would accompany Bernadette to the grotto after Mass.  Bernadette saw the Lady for a third time, but the two women, who could not see anything, asked for the Lady to write on a piece of paper so that they, too, could believe.  Bernadette held the pen and paper up to the lady in the niche, asking her to write her name down.  Mary smiled and then spoke for the first time,

It is not necessary,” said Mary in a soft, musical voice to Bernadette only.  “Would you have the graciousness to come here for 15 days?  I do not promise to make you happy in   this world but in the next.”

On the way ome, one of the women offered to let Bernadette stay with her for those 15 days.  But, because her mother and aunt now insisted they should have this role, Bernadette only stayed with the nice woman for a couple of days.

A rare view of the actual apparition site at that time in 1858.
A rare view of the actual apparition site at that time in 1858.

The Lady appeared to Bernadette silently, only smiling during each visit.  Bernadette would always hold a blessed candle in one hand and a rosary in the other.  Despite crowds gathering and following, nobody else could see anything.  They could see that Bernadette was clearly in a trance or ecstasy as she gazed intently at the grotto, moving her lips at times, listening at other moments to someone they couldn’t see.

After the sixth apparition on February 21, Police Commissioner Dominique Jacomet pulled Bernadette in for an intense interrogation, trying to twist the facts and confuse her, adding occasional threats.  But Bernadette remained calm, sincere, and consistent — never even making the claim that this was the Virgin Mary.  And, despite his threats to jail her if she returned to the grotto, she calmly announced that she would return because she had pledged that she would.

On February 23, the Blessed Virgin told Bernadette three secrets that were for her alone.  And she never did reveal what those three secrets were.

Bernadette continues to meet with Blessed Mary for 15 days in a row.
Bernadette continues to meet with Blessed Mary for 15 days in a row.

Finally, on February 24, Blessed Mary spoke to her again:

“Penitence is what I wish of everyone.  Pray to God for the conversion of sinners.
Kiss the ground as a gesture of penance for others.  Penance, penance, penance!”

Then, on February 25, with hundreds of curious people watching her silent interactions with Mary, she performed some very strange actions.

“She told me to go drink at the spring and to wash in it.  Not seeing any spring, I headed toward the river to drink, but she beckoned with her finger for me to go under the rock.  I went and found a little muddy water, almost too little for me to hold in the hollow of my hand.  Three times I threw it away – it was so dirty.  The fourth time I succeeded to drink some and then spit it out.”

Onlookers feared that she had gone mad, digging in the mud, drinking it, and smearing some on her face.  Then she ate from a plant called dorine.  The crowd gasped at each odd behavior, but they were later told that she had been instructed to do so “for sinners.”  Nevertheless, the crowd left confused and dismissing her; her embarrassed aunts took her home.  But later that same day, clear water started flowing from that muddy place.

On February 26, despite being ordered not to go there by the police commissioner, she found 600 people waiting there for her.  Where she had dug into the mud was now a clear pool of fresh water.  As many as 1,200 crowded into the area on February 28, leading authorities to grab the girl, interrogate, and threaten her again.  But she calmly refused their demands, stating that she would not break her promise to go there for 15 days as promised (until March 4th).

The original home of Bernadette Soubirous in Lourdes.
The original home of Bernadette Soubirous in Lourdes.

At the golden dawn of March 1st, others saw the apparition as well, including Catherine Latapie and her two toddlers.  She had broken her arm, paralyzing two fingers the year before, but when she placed her arm into that clear pool of running spring water, her hand was perfectly healed.

On March 2nd Bernadette turned and announced to the on-looking crowd of 2,000 people, “Go and tell the priests that people must come here in procession, and that a chapel must be built here.”  Accompanied by her Aunt Bernarde and Aunt Basile, Bernadette approached Father Peyramale, the authoritative priest of St. Peter’s Church, and presented the Blessed Virgin’s request.  Doubtful and disgusted, the priest needed to know that this was truly the Virgin Mary.  He also demanded that this so-called “Virgin Mary” make the wild rosebush bloom in the winter grotto — as added proof.

Despite thousands of people showing up the last day, March 4, it was the same as the others — without any grand finale or miracle as was greatly hoped.  Life returned to normal — now that the 15 visits were over.

But on the night before the Feast of the Annunciation, Bernadette received an “inner call” to return to the grotto one more time.  Before the sun rose on March 25, she and her parents made their way to the Grotto of Massabielle.  They were surprised to find a crowd already there, hopeful that this feast day might bring some special blessings or favors.  The Virgin did appear again to Bernadette!  Bernadette decided to meet the priest’s request, so she dared to ask Mary four times,

Mademoiselle, would you be good enough to tell me who you are?

The Blessed Mother slipped the rosary over her right arm, unfolded her arms, extended her hands toward the ground, and then folded them at her breast.  She then raised her eyes toward heaven and finally answered,

I am the Immaculate Conception.”

The apparition site is a popular place for prayer and pilgrimages today.
The apparition site is a popular place for prayer and pilgrimages today.

Bernadette had absolutely no idea what that meant, but she kept repeating the strange words to herself all the way to Father Peyramale’s residence so that she would not forget this precious response that they had all been waiting for.  After she reported to him what Mary had told her, he was simply astonished.  How could this uneducated girl, whose catechist had described her as “a blank slate,” know that the Virgin Mary had been born without sin?  Pope Pius IX had proclaimed the dogma of the Immaculate Conception only four years earlier.  When she left, Father Peyramale was now a believer and broke down and wept.

On April 7, the Tuesday after Easter, Bernadette prayed at the grotto in the early morning.  Several hundred watched — including Dr. Dozous, who was there to examine her during her visionary experience — as Bernadette took a large candle and encircled the flames with her hands and fingers.  This should have severely burned anyone else but she had no reaction or burns as the stunned doctor examined her closely.  Bernadette reported, “Our Lady still wants her chapel.”

By the end of June at least 50 others reported visions of Mary there.  On July 16 was Bernadette’s last vision, after again receiving an “irresistible invitation” on the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel.  Disguised with a cloak and not crossing the river, she admired Mary’s presence from farther away – yet felt like she was at the same distance as previous visits.  “I had never seen her so beautiful.”  This was her last visit from Mary.

On January 18, 1862, Bishop Bertrand Laurence declared,

“We judge that Mary Immaculate, the Mother of God, really did appear to Bernadette Soubirous, on eighteen occasions from 11th February, 1858, at the Grotto of Massabielle near the town of Lourdes; that these apparitions bear the characteristics of truth; that the faithful can believe them as true.”

The first of several chapels was built, and Bernadette was invited to march in the procession that Blessed Mary had requested, fulfilling both requests before she left her family and friends at age 22 on July 4, 1866, to join the Sisters of Charity in Nevers.

During Holy Week of 1879, Bernadette’s pains and ailments worsened.  “I wouldn’t have thought it took so much suffering to die.”  On Easter Wednesday, April 16, she stretched out her arms like a cross and said, “My God! … Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for me, a poor sinner.”  Then she died at the age of 35 due to her poor health.  Yet, her body lies under glass without any decomposition over 135 years later in the chapel of the Convent of the Sisters of Charity in Nevers!  She was beatified on June 14, 1925, and canonized on December 8, 1933 in Rome – on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception!

Sister Bernadette is incorrupt after death in 1879 (her body does not decay).
Sister Bernadette is incorrupt after death in 1879 (her body does not decay).

Today, as much as 14,500 gallons of water are generated daily from the spring that started as a mud hole she dug with her fingers.  The latest chapel built there is underground but can hold 20,000 people!  During the first 150 years after this, 7,000 authenticated medical cures were documented by the International Medical  Bureau of Lourdes.  Of those miracles, the Catholic Church has conservatively accepted 67 of them as clearly from the hand of God with no other possible explanation.  Here is a sampling of the miraculous healings from the waters of Lourdes:

Louis Bouriette (54), a quarryman, had lost complete vision in his right eye during a mine explosion.  He bathed his eye several times with water from the spring, and his sight was totally restored.

Henri Busquet (16) begged his parents to take him to Lourdes as his suffering from tuberculosis was unbearable.  A neighbor brought him water from Lourdes and within two days his tuberculin ulcers had healed and infections gone.

Justin Bouhort (2) had never walked and was so sick from various illnesses that he was close to death.  His mother plunged her baby into the cold waters of the spring, ignoring the fears of bystanders.  The next day, young Justin walked for the first time – and lived to attend the canonization ceremonies for Bernadette in 1933 at the age of 77.

Bedridden for over 20 years, Madeleine Rizan (58) was paralyzed on her left side.  Her daughter gave her a few sips of the Lourdes water and applied some to her face and body.  She was instantly healed!

Marie Moreau (17) had a bad infection that had nearly robbed her of most of her eyesight.  A compress soaked in Lourdes water was placed over her eyes.  The next morning, after removing the compress, her vision was completely restored!

A fallen tree had crushed the left leg of Pierre de Rudder (52).  Infection had prevented the compound fracture from healing.  Hobbling on crutches for eight years, he faced amputation soon.  He prayed to the Blessed Virgin in front of a replica of the Lourdes grotto in Belgium.  Within minutes, his bones fused back together, and he was able to walk away without any crutches.  He was quite active until he died at the age of 75.

In 1963, Vittorio Micheli of Italy (23) was suffering from a cancerous tumor on his hip bone.  Lowered into the Lourdes bath waters on a stretcher, his tumor vanished as well as all of his pain.  He resumed an active, healthy life again.

Serge Perrin (41) suffered from a blocked carotid artery which caused paralysis, blackouts, and vision issues.  In 1970 he visited Lourdes and was completely cured.

Delizia Cirolli (12) suffered from a potentially fatal tumor in her knee and faced amputation soon.  After a trip to Lourdes and praying to Our Lady, she was 100% healed.

Jean-Pierre Bely, a nurse, was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in 1972.  By 1987 he was bedridden and 100% disabled.  After the Anointing of the Sick at Lourdes, he felt a great sense of peace; he regained his mobility and sense of touch again.

Anna Santaniello (41) suffered from severe heart disease, labored breathing, and low oxygen levels.  Carried to the Lourdes baths on a stretcher, she walked out on her own. Doctors confirmed her good health, regular heart rhythm, and breathing without restrictions.