“She smiled at me. She disappeared. I was alone.”
Bernadette Soubirous was an unlikely visionary. Her family had lost their business and were all but homeless. They were reduced to living in a dank former dungeon that had been evacuated by the authorities because it was considered too inhumane to house prisoners. At the age of fourteen Bernadette had not yet received her First Communion because she was considered slow- witted and behind in her catechism studies. On February 11, 1858, the impoverished girl’s mother sent her, a sister, and a friend out to look for firewood. So that they would not be accused of stealing, the girls went to the outskirts of town, to an area near the Gave River known as Massabielle. Respectable citizens of the town of Lourdes avoided this place, considering it disgusting because pigs grazed there. According to local legend, it had been a place of pagan worship where ancient evils still lurked; many crossed themselves if they had to pass by it. Bernadette was congenitally ill with asthma, so the two younger girls waded across a mill stream to collect wood on the other side while she stayed behind. Not finding any wood on her side, she began to take off her stockings to join the others. She heard the sound of a storm starting to blow up; as she stood up straight she was puzzled as to why the trees remained totally still.
Bewildered, Bernadette looked around, and in her own words, “I looked across the millstream to a niche above a cave in the rock of Massabielle. A rosebush on the edge of the niche was swaying in the wind. It was all that moved. All else was still. A golden cloud came out of the cave and flooded the niche with radiance. Then a lady, young and beautiful, exceedingly beautiful, the like of whom I had never seen, stood on the edge of the niche. She smiled and smiled at me, beckoning me to come closer as though she were my mother, and she gave me to understand in my soul that I was not mistaken. The lady was dressed in white, with a white veil on her head, and a blue sash at her waist. A rosary of white beads on a gold chain was on her right arm. On that cold winter’s day, her feet were bare, but on each foot was a golden rose radiant with the warmth of summer.”
Instinctively, Bernadette reached for her rosary for spiritual protection. But she found she could not lift her arm for the sign of the cross until the lady herself started to cross herself. After they made the sign of the cross together, Bernadette began to pray the rosary. The lady passed the beads through her fingers and silently followed her. When Bernadette had finished, the smiling lady bowed to her and disappeared.
That Sunday, Bernadette returned to the site with a group of friends after Mass. The lady appeared, and Bernadette was the only one who could see or communicate with her. She sprinkled the lady with holy water, saying, “If you come from God, stay. If you don’t, go away.” The lady laughed and inclined her head to receive more water. Her friends were shocked at the physical transformation of Bernadette. She had fallen into a beautiful rapture without a trace of her asthma. When they threw a stone at her, she did not flinch. Frightened that she might be in danger of losing her mind, they ran to get help. Those who came to their aid were amazed at the incredible change in Bernadette’s demeanor. They hardly recognized the rapturously happy, graceful young girl in front of them. A neighbor carried her to her mother’s house. Bernadette later said that the lady kept in front of her, slightly above her, only disappearing when Bernadette went inside the house. Her parents were angry with Bernadette for causing such a commotion, but those in the crowd who had witnessed her at the grotto advised them to believe her.
She made her third visit to the grotto on February 18, accompanied by two important women from town who insisted she try and write down everything the lady said. Bernadette began the rosary and the lady appeared, surrounded by light. Bernadette entered the grotto and the lady came down from the niche and stood beside her. When Bernadette asked her to please write down her name and what she wanted, the lady laughed.
For the first time she spoke to Bernadette, “Boulet aoue ra gracia de bie aci penden quinze dias?” she asked in the patois dialect of that region. (“Would you have the grace to come here for fifteen days?”) When Bernadette replied that she would have to ask her parents’ permission, the lady said, “I do not promise you happiness in this life, but in the next.” Then she added, “Go and tell the priests that a chapel must be built here.” Smiling, she disappeared.
As news spread through Lourdes about the apparitions, Bernadette’s visits to the grotto were accompanied by larger and larger crowds. The civil authorities felt compelled to take action, and Bernadette was detained at the local police station for questioning. When she refused to admit that it was all a hoax or a ploy for attention, they began to threaten her family. The Church was also embarrassed and skeptical of the claims of what they considered to be a superstitious girl. They had no intention of giving these apparitions any credence. Bernadette never speculated on the lady’s identity, she always referred to her as Aquero, the patois word for indescribable being.
It was on February 25, during the ninth apparition, that Bernadette was told to go drink at the spring and wash in it. Thinking that the lady meant the river, Bernadette went toward the Gave but the lady called her back. She pointed at a spot beneath the rock. Bernadette later wrote, “I found some moisture there but it was mud. Three times I threw it away even though the lady said to drink it. Then I washed in it only to have my face besmeared with mud.” The large crowd that had gathered started jeering at the girl. Bernadette’s aunt, who was among them, was utterly humiliated. She smacked Bernadette in the face saying, “Stop your nonsense!” and sent her home. By the afternoon the muddy area was flowing with pure water. No one in Lourdes had ever seen a spring there before. Many who had been scoffing at Bernadette in the morning were drinking at the spring in the afternoon.
In subsequent apparitions, the lady gave Bernadette a secret prayer to say, which she never revealed to anyone. She asked for penitence and the conversion of
sinners. As the crowds grew, the authorities again took Bernadette in for
questioning, but she never wavered from her story, always referring to the lady as Aquero. In one apparition the lady alighted on a rosebush, and Bernadette feared that the sheer crush of the ever-growing crowd would harm Aquero. “I was afraid she might fall, but she kept on smiling at the people. She loved them, and she always seemed sorry to leave them.” At the thirteenth visit she repeated her request that Bernadette ask the priest for a procession to the grotto and for a chapel to be built.
Reluctantly, Bernadette returned to Father Peyramale, the village priest. Frustrated and skeptical, he told her that if the lady in white wanted a chapel she should say who she was and she should make the wild rosebush in the niche blossom. It was after this visit that claims of miraculous healing were made by those who drank or washed in the spring. One was a dying two-year-old child who was immersed for fifteen minutes in the water. His family had his coffin prepared on one day and the next he was running around as if he had never been sick. On market day the crowd reached to more than eight thousand people. It was Thursday, March 4, the date of the last of the promised fifteen day visits. All expected something extraordinary to happen. Bernadette’s visit with the lady lasted forty-five minutes. When it was over, Bernadette merely extinguished her candle and went home. Nothing dramatic occurred: the rosebush did not bloom, the lady did not announce any message. Bernadette was content, unconcerned about the anticipation and unfulfilled emotions she had aroused in the crowd. For the next three weeks, she later wrote, “The people pestered me, the police watched me, and the public prosecutor almost crushed me.” Her family was continually harassed by the town authorities, and Bernadette was threatened with jail if she ever returned to the grotto. (“They forgot I was living in an unused police lockup with the entire family in one room.”)
On the night of March 24, she awoke with the familiar urge to return. At five in the morning of March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation, Bernadette returned to the grotto where the lady in white was waiting for her. Bernadette asked her identity several times. The lady only smiled. Finally, the fourth time she asked, “Aquero extended her hands toward the ground, swept them upwards to join them on her heart, raised her eyes, but not her head to heaven, leaned tenderly towards me and said, ‘Que soy era Immaculada Conceptiou.’ (I am the Immaculate Conception.) She smiled at me. She disappeared. I was alone.”
According to Bernadette, she had no idea what the lady meant when she said those words. She had to repeat them to herself over and over in order to remember them for the priest. Father Peyramale was astounded at this announcement. The Catholic tradition that Mary had been conceived without original sin so that she might be worthy to be the Mother of God had only been defined as church doctrine in 1854. It was scarcely an expression common to the average person of Lourdes, much less a girl of Bernadette’s social stature. Father Peyramale became Bernadette’s greatest defender as she had to face the onslaught of examinations by government officials, medical personnel, and church hierarchy. Regardless of threats, ridicule, and coercion, she never once altered her account of her story to any of them: “I do not ask you to believe, I only told you what I had seen.” Three eminent Parisian doctors declared that she was mentally and emotionally sound but that she suffered from asthma. (“My mother could have told them that and saved them the trouble.”)
The authorities closed down the grotto and threatened anyone visiting it with arrest. Attempts were made to have Bernadette committed to an insane asylum. Father Peyramale put an end to them by saying, “I know my duty as pastor of my parish and protector of my flock. Your own doctors find no abnormality in Bernadette. You will have to fell me to the ground, pass over my dead body and trample it underfoot, before you touch a hair of the child’s head.”
On July 16, Bernadette saw the lady in white for the last time. Since the
grotto was off-limits, she knelt in the meadow on the far side of the river. “I began my rosary and my lady stood in the grotto smiling at me. It was the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. She looked more beautiful than I had ever seen her. This would be the last time I would see her on this earth. . . . She left heaven in my heart and it has been there ever since.”
A church commission was set up to investigate the claims of miraculous healing by the spring water. Public opinion forced the reopening of the grotto, and it was approved as a shrine in 1862. Instead of a little chapel, a major basilica, Our Lady of Lourdes, was built on the site. Millions of pilgrims come every year, and it is the world’s most visited site dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Bernadette eventually joined the Sisters of Nevers to avoid the attention her presence created. Her Mother Superior disliked her and forbade her from ever mentioning the apparitions. Although her health steadily declined, she never took any interest in the healing powers of the water at the grotto. Bernadette’s written account of the apparitions shows Mary in a very light and loving manner. Like many visionaries, Bernadette enjoyed no special favors in this world. She remained sick all her life and died in 1879 at the age of thirty-five. When her body was exhumed in 1908, it was found to be uncorrupted. She was recognized as a saint by the Catholic Church in 1933.
Our Lady of Lourdes is depicted in white with a blue sash, holding a rosary. Bernadette always felt that Church-sanctioned artistic images of Mary in this apparition were totally wrong, insisting that the lady she saw was a young one, between the ages of twelve and fourteen.
There are four traditional gifts imparted by a pilgrimage to Lourdes: (1) The gift of the miraculous water, (2) the gift of healing, (3) the gift of reconciliation, and (4) the gift of friendship.
Image from welcomecollection.org.