Bernadette Soubirous of Lourdes

In the middle of the nineteenth century, Lourdes was a small garrison town of four or five thousand inhabitants, situated in the foothills of the Pyrénées on the River Gave. It had a castle fortress, the sign of a fighting past [1], and for its size was up-to-date and progressive with the bulk of the population consisting of agricultural workers and quarrymen,and in the main practising Catholics.

Bernadette Soubirous was the eldest of five children [2] of hard-working parents who had fallen on hard times, and from operating a successful mill had been reduced to living with their family in one small room called the Cachot, which can still be seen today. Bernadette could hardly read or write, and suffered several childhood illnesses leaving her weak and asthmatic, and small for her age. From a very early age though, she showed signs of having immense faith in God, and when she was told she was stupid because she was unable to learn her Catechism, she whispered in a characteristic way that: ’At least she would always know how to love the good God.‘ She was a simple girl who worked partly in the house and partly, when with her aunt in Bartrès a village 4 miles from Lourdes, in the fields where her special task was to watch the sheep.

François and Louise Soubirous François and Louise Soubirous

On Thursday 11th February 1858 when she was fourteen years old, together with her sister Marie-Toinette and a friend Jeanne, Bernadette left the Cachot to collect firewood at the foot of a hill called Massabielle, meaning old rock, where there was a small cave or grotto where cattle often sheltered.

Marie-Toinette and Jeanne kicked off their wooden shoes and waded across the little stream in search of dead wood, leaving Bernadette hesitating because of the cold. Just as she was removing her stockings, she heard what sounded like a strong wind and, as she looked toward the Grotto, she noticed that the vegetation growing beneath the higher opening was tossing, though nothing else moved. To her amazement she saw a figure in the opening – a Lady of small stature and incomparable beauty. The Lady was surrounded by light and inclined her head graciously as if inviting Bernadette to approach. She put out her hands too, a little away from her body, and on her right arm could be seen a rosary with large white beads on what seemed a golden chain. Bernadette felt frightened, and yet she did not want to run away. She was fascinated, experiencing a mysterious attraction and quite naturally took out her rosary and started to recite the prayers. The vision lasted about a quarter of an hour and, as Bernadette finished the rosary prayers, quite suddenly the Lady disappeared.

The painting of the 16th Apparition – the miracle of the candle The painting of the 16th Apparition - the miracle of the candle

On the way home, Bernadette told Marie-Toinette what she had seen, and although her sister promised secrecy, her sister did not keep her secret and that evening the Soubirous parents entered into what was to become an extremely vexing and puzzling period of their lives with much anguish to follow.

This vision was to be the first of eighteen apparitions over the next few weeks, frequently with many people in attendance out of curiosity, as by now the story of the Lady was the talking point of everyone in Lourdes. During one of these visions, Bernadette was asked by the Lady to drink at the spring and wash in the water, although there was no spring to be seen. Bernadette scratched away at the surface of the earth, and found water rising, which she was able to drink. Soon this spring was yielding 27,000 gallons of water a day, which has been maintained ever since even in times of drought. The spring has been channelled into a reservoir from which the Baths are filled and there are 20 drinking fountain heads. The extraordinary quality of this water is that it never becomes contaminated and can be kept for years, even in an ordinary plastic bottle.

a view of the underground basilica towards Rosary SquareDuring her seventh appearance, the Lady instructed Bernadette to ask the Priests to build a Chapel by the Grotto for people to process there, and this is at the heart of Lourdes today. All the appearances held the same prayerful characteristics, and at the fifteenth appearance the Lady disclosed herself as the Immaculate Conception. She appeared only three times more to Bernadette, but had nothing more to say.

In spite of enormous opposition from the Town and Church elders of the time, with Bernadette being scrutinised by all and sundry, eventually the Bishop of Tarbes declared the Apparitions as genuine, and from there the whole concept of Lourdes as it is today was developed.

Bernadette Soubirous's Resting Place

The body of Bernadette in her shrine at Nevers, FranceFranz Werfel points out that death extinguishes a human face in the twinkling of an eye, but death illuminated the face of Bernadette.

It is not always realised by those who visit Lourdes that Bernadette's body remains incorrupt and is laid in a glass reliquary in the Convent of St Gildarde in Nevers, France, where it can be seen today.

 

Footnotes:

[1]. The Castle Fortress has a walkway near the castle top marked COURSE DE PRINCE NOIR - a reminder that the Black Prince ( the eldest son of Edward III) commanded the Fortress after his victory at Poitiers in 1356.

[2]. The fifth child of Franois and Louise Soubirous was Pierre, born in 1856 and died soon after.

Bernadette Soubirous of Lourdes Bernadette Soubirous

Praise for The Book

I hope that the abridged Song of Bernadette will encourage many more to read this moving and immortal story of the miracle of Lourdes and appreciate the sturdy and loving character of Our Lady's little friend Bernadette who, with Heaven-sent grace, fought such a fearless fight for the authenticity of her visions

Cardinal Basil Hume, Archbishop of Westminister 1976-1999

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