Bernadette of Lourdes (1844-1879), a young peasant girl, saw 18 visions of the Virgin Mary, in a grotto in Lourdes, France. These visions, and the curing waters that still flow there, led to the creation of are ligious shrine that millions visit each year. Bernadette later became a Roman Catholic nun, and was canonized as a saint in 1933.
On January 7, 1844, in Lourdes, France, Marie Bernarde Soubirous was born to Francois and Louise (Casterot) Soubirous. She was the eldest of their six children (three other children died as infants). According to the Catholic Online website, "because of her small stature, she was always referred to by the diminutive form of her name, Bernadette." As a child, she was considered cheerful and pleasant, but was malnourished. She was also sickly, suffering from asthma her entire life.
As noted by Brother Ernest in his book Our Lady Comes to Lourdes, in the mid-1800s, Lourdes "was most certainly a very uninviting place." Many of the people were poor, and their homes were cold and uncomfortable. Religion, family, and hard work were important, but the people did not always have enough to eat. The Soubirous family were very poor peasants.
As noted by Frances Parkinson Keyes in Bernadette of Lourdes-Shepherdess, Sister and Saint, Bernadette's father had been the owner of a mill in Lourdes; the mill had been part of his wife's dowry. Although considered "a good-natured, easy-going man," Francois Soubirous was not a good businessman. His generosity often led to financial trouble. Keyes also noted that he was "described as surly, which led to business problems." Bernadette's mother, known to be sharp with her children, was according to Keyes, "gregarious and large-hearted." With a failing business and a rapid succession of babies to care for, the family struggled throughout Bernadette's childhood. Concerned about their eldest child's health and frailness, her parents would often try to give her extra food to eat. Most of the time, she would share all of it with her younger brothers and sisters. Eventually, because of her poor health and the family's financial problems, her parents began to send Bernadette away to live with relatives and friends.
Between the ages of 12 and 14, Bernadette was hired out as a servant, working the lonely job of a shepherdess, with the sheep and her rosary as her only companions. She had a difficult life due to hard work, poor health, and a minimal education. However, Marie Lagues, her foster mother reflected (on the Lourdes France official website), "Bernadette, in spite of the tiredness which was caused by her shortness of breath and difficulty in breathing, always appeared happy and cheerful." An assistant priest of the Parish of Lourdes added, "Everything about Bernadette radiated naivety, simplicity, goodness." As recounted by Brother Ernest, a few weeks after her fourteenth birthday, Bernadette returned to her family in Lourdes. He described her as "still a frail child, greatly troubled by asthma, quiet, devoted to the recitation of her rosary." Her life was about to dramatically change.
It was the evening of February 11, 1858. Because of the cold weather, Bernadette and two companions were sent out to gather twigs and sticks for the fire. Eventually their path led them to the Grotto (cave) of Massabielle. In his book, Brother Ernest noted that a "a wilder, more savage or solitary spot could not be found in Lourdes." As retold on the Lourdes France official website, "Bernadette heard a noise like a gust of wind and saw a light. She saw a young girl, dressed in white, with a blue sash around her waist, a yellow rose on each foot, rosary beads on her arm. It was the Virgin Mary." Bernadette began to pray. Her companions were confused by her actions, as they did not see anything. Bernadette returned home, and told her parents of the vision. They were troubled, and forbade her to return to the grotto.
Bernadette went to confession at church, telling the priest who was preparing her for First Communion, that she had seen the "Lady." He asked her permission to discuss it with his superior, the parish priest. Three days after the first vision, on February 14, Bernadette returned to the grotto and had her second vision. Although all the visions were significant, the third vision, on February 18, touched young Bernadette personally. On this day, it is believed that the "Lady" revealed herself to Bernadette, and asked her to make a promise: to return to the grotto every day for 15 days. Bernadette promised the "Lady" she would. Then, as noted on the Catholic Online website, the "Lady" shared with Bernadette, "I do not promise to make you happy in this world, but in the next."
The stories of Bernadette's visions began to spread to people in Lourdes, as well as to the local authorities. As noted by Brother Ernest, skeptical local officials questioned her. They tried to trick her, hoping to catch her in a lie. They threatened her with prison. Bernadette continued to tell the truth, sharing the story of her visions.
For the most part, the people of Lourdes believed her. As noted by the Lourdes France official website, the Grotto quickly became "a place of prayer, of gathering and of devotion." Small to very large crowds began to gather when Bernadette went to the grotto. As noted by Keyes, observers recounted that when she was having a vision she had a "strange exalted loveliness." The visions continued. The Online Anglican resources website stated that the "Lady" continued to give Bernadette the messages of prayer and penitence to share with the world. As noted by Brother Ernest, during the ninth vision, on February 25, the "Lady" asked Bernadette to drink water that was bubbling from the ground, as well as wash in it. She also asked her to eat an herb from the ground. As she did, the water began to flow in a stream towards the crowd. Miracles and cures began to occur for the people who used the water.
On March 2, during the thirteenth vision, the "Lady" asked Bernadette to go to the priests and ask that a chapel be built at the grotto. On March 25, the day of the sixteenth vision, the "Lady" revealed to Bernadette, "I am the Immaculate Conception." On July 16, the Catholic Feast Day of our Lady of Mount Carmel, the "Lady" made her last appearance to Bernadette. In all, Bernadette had 18 visions over a five month period.
Bernadette's visions subjected her to much skepticism and curiosity. Some people did not believe in her visions; others sought to make money off them. Bernadette did attend the free school (for poor children), but often had to stay home to assist her mother. Keyes noted that it was the custom for poor girls like Bernadette to end their education after they made their Holy Communion.
Bernadette continued to be bothered by curiosity seekers. Her poor health was also a concern. Local officials met with the sisters, and it was decided that Bernadette should be allowed to return to school—this time as a free boarding student. As told on the Catholic Community Forum website, Bernadette moved in with the Sisters of Nevers. She lived and worked there, and learned to read and write. The sisters cared for the sick and poor, and Bernadette enjoyed being a caregiver, when her health would allow her to work. However, the sisters were reluctant to admit her into their order, while Bernadette, for her part, wondered about her vocation.
Bernadette did face some serious obstacles to being admitted to a religious order to become a nun. As Andre Ravier, SJ, noted in his book Bernadette, those obstacles included her notoriety, poor health, lack of education, and poverty. However, after a meeting with the Bishop of Nevers, Bernadette was allowed to enter the Sisters of Nevers.
In July of 1866, Bernadette received the religious habit with 43 other postulants, and joined the Congregation of the Sisters of Charity of Nevers. She became known as Sister Marie-Bernarde. Shortly thereafter, she became very ill, but slowly recovered. In October of 1867, she made her religious profession in the Congregation of the Sisters of Charity of Nevers with the other postulants.
From July of 1866 to April of 1879, Bernadette lived at the convent of Saint-Gildard, and suffered from periodic bouts of poor health. Ravier noted that she received "Extreme Unction" (last rites) several times. The Catholic Online website stated that "in the convent, she would beg the nuns to tear open her chest that she might breathe." Bernadette was secluded, but not totally protected, at the convent. As Keyes noted in her book, people would come to the convent, wanting to see the Bernadette who had the visions of the Virgin Mary. She in turn would pretend to be someone else, offer to find Sister Marie-Bernarde for the person, and slip away.
Although Bernadette suffered from poor health, it appears she was content with her life as a nun. She was a caregiver to the ill and enjoyed her private times of prayer. Ravier noted the she was prone to "sudden outbursts of good spirits," and was "very active, stubborn, and opinionated." Bernadette did not get along with the novice-mistress at the convent, and was often subjected to "sharp words, bitter sarcasm, hurtful outbursts, and painful humiliations." Ravier added that she might have been singled out because the priests did not want her to receive any special treatment because of the visions. Despite this, the novice-mistress considered Bernadette to be "modest, pious, devout, and orderly."
As noted on the Online Anglican resources website, Bernadette was encouraged by many to go to Lourdes to be healed. She refused, stating the healings "were for others, not for her, and that her business was to bear her illness." In 1879, Bernadette's health continued to deteriorate. She died on April 16, 1879 in Nevers, France.
According to the Lourdes France official website, long after her death, Bernadette's body was exhumed three times, in 1909, 1919, and then in 1925. Since August of 1925, Bernadette's totally preserved (the doctor's consider her body to be "mummified") body has been in a Shrine in the Chapel of the Convent of St. Gildard, in Nevers, France. She was beatified (declared "Blessed") in 1925. Pope Pius XI canonized Bernadette as a saint on December 8, 1933. Her feast day is April 16. Ten years after sainthood, she was the subject of the 1943 Academy Award-winning song, "Song of Bernadette."
In writing the introduction in Ravier's book, Patrick O'Donovan, wrote of Bernadette, "She may have been an inelegant and muddy peasant girl with a quarrelsome family; she became by training, suffering, and conscious acceptance, one of the greatest ladies in the hierarchy of history and heaven."
Lourdes is one of the most popular destinations for Catholics around the world, as well as for those seeking cures for their illnesses. In the mid-1990s, it was drawing four million visitors per year. As noted on the Lourdes France official website, visitors can see a plaque that marks the exact spot where Bernadette stood. It reads "here Bernadette prayed on 11 February 1858."
Ernest, Brother, C.S.C., Our Lady Comes to Lourdes, Dujarie Press, 1954.
Keyes, Frances Parkinson, Bernadette of Lourdes-Shepherdess,
Sister and Saint, Julian Messner, Inc., 1953.
Ravier, Andre, Bernadette, Collins, 1978.
Saint-Pierre, Michel de, Bernadette and Lourdes, Farrar, Straus and Young, Inc., 1954.
Sandoval, Annette, The Directory of Saints-A Concise Guide to Patron Saints, Signet, 1996.
Trouncer, Margaret, Saint Bernadette-The Child and the Nun, Sheed and Ward, 1958.
"Bernadette," Catholic Online Marian Pages, http://www.catholic.org/mary/berndtte.html(November 9, 2000).
"Bernadette Soubirous," Lourdes France official website, http://www.lourdes-france.com(November 9, 2000).
"Biographical sketches of memorable Christians of the Past-Bernadette of Lourdes, Nun and Visionary," Online Anglican resources at SoAJ (Society of Archbishop Justus), http://www.justus.anlican.org/resources/bio/137.html(November 9, 2000).
"Patron Saints Index: Bernadette of Lourdes," Catholic Community Forum, http://www.catholic-forum.com(November 9, 2000).