In 1858 the French fortress town of Lourdes, situated on the Gave de Pau River at the foot of the Hautes-Pyrénées was home to around 4,000 inhabitants. This relatively poor area was home to Soubirous family, who had fallen on such hard times that they were living in one room, known as the 'Cachot' or former gaol of the town. The eldest daughter of the family was Marie-Bernarde, whom we now know as Saint Bernadette. She was just 14 years old when the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to her at the Maissabelle Grotto whilst collecting firewood
The Grotto within Lourdes Sanctuary, where St Bernadette uncovered the spring of water
On 11th February 1858, Bernadette heard a sound like a 'gust of wind', followed by a bright light and vision of a beautiful lady. Sensibly she asked her companions whether they had seen the same, but they had not. This was to be the first of eighteen visions that would follow during that year.
During the thirteenth vision on 2 March, the Lady requested that a chapel should be built there so that people could come in procession to do prayer and penance and to wash in the waters: a fact she relayed to her priest, Father Peyramale. Meanwhile, the French newspapers and the crowds accompanying Bernadette to the grotto swelled to many thousands and it was decided that Bernadette and her family needed to be both moved and protected.
On 25th March, the lady told Bernadette to drink and wash in the water of the spring that flowed under the rock where she was standing and eat the herb that grew there. Bernadette dug the ground since no stream was apparent and there was no initial sight of the spring. However, two days later, the water started to flow and Bernadette both drank and washed in it since, to the surprise of the townspeople, it was completely clear.
Although thorough testing has since found nothing remarkable about the water except for a high mineral content, it was deemed to have healing properties. Bernadette maintained throughout her life that the water could only heal through faith and prayer and this is reflected in the sanctuary that has emerged in contemporary times, where the spiritual and physical care for assisted pilgrims is seen as being of paramount importance.
A pilgrim collects water from the taps, served by the River Gave, in Lourdes Sanctuary
Mary also revealed her identity to Bernadette during the penultimate apparition on 25th March 1858, the Feast of the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary, with the words Que soy era Immaculada Conceptiou,” which means,
“I am the Immaculate Conception.”
The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception had been proclaimed relatively recently in 1854 and although clergy would have been familiar with the teaching, it was believed that a girl who could neither read or write, and who had failed her catechism exam, could not known about it, let alone understood it, Furthermore, it was felt that it would not have been discussed amongst people of Bernadette’s low station and educational status. In this way, and by her calm and devout nature, the miraculous nature of the apparitions was approved in 1862.
Bernadette saw her last apparition on July 16th, the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel and the Apparitions of Lourdes were authenticated in 1866 by the Bishop of Tarbes. In that same year, Bernadette left Lourdes to live out her religious vocation within the community of the Sisters of Charity of Nevers.
Having suffered with physical ailments for most of her life, the health of this unique visionary gradually failed and she died on 16th April in 1879 at the age of thirty-five.She died in 1879, was proclaimed blessed in 1925, and a became a saint in 1933. Her body was exhumed in 1909, and later in 1925, and found to be incorrupt.
St Bernadette was canonized in 1933, not for being a visionary and for receiving the apparitions, but for the way in which she responded to that special grace.
Over 7,000 miraculous recoveries have been attributed to the intercession of Our Lady of Lourdes, but only 70 cases have been officially recognized by the Catholic Church. Lourdes remains a popular destination for Marian pilgrimage. The city has the second-largest number of hotels in France after Paris, ordinarily welcoming around 5-6 million pilgrims each year, who come in prayer, penance and procession.