Four years after Pope Pius IX proclaimed the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception as dogma for the Universal Catholic Church, the Blessed Mother of God confirmed this teaching to a poor peasant girl - Saint Bernadette Soubirous that this is the privilege and the singular grace that the Holy Trinity bestowed upon the Blessed Virgin Mary to preserve her from original sin by infusing into Our Lady's soul Sanctifying Grace from the very moment of her conception in Saint Anne's womb. This we dealt with in detail in the last installment.
In this and the next several installments we shall treat Our Lady's special apparition at Lourdes, located in southwest France on the Gave River. Lourdes was the site Our Lady chose to verify the teaching of the Immaculate Conception as well as provide the healing waters of Lourdes near the rock cave of Massabielle where Mary first appeared on February 11, 1858. It was a time of sorrow and poverty for the people of that region of France. Particularly hard hit was the tiny village of Lourdes, with a population of approximately 4,000 people. Among these inhabitants were the Soubirous family. Francois and his wife Louise knew the meaning of poverty, in a manner we today cannot imagine. Their oldest child was a daughter, Bernadette, born on January 7, 1844. Francois was a miller by trade, but not a particularly clever businessman. He was extremely generous with his spending, which far exceeded his income. To pay for his debts he was forced to plead with the local authorities to allow his family a mall room in an old prison that they could occupy. A place, perhaps, much like the impoverished cave where our Blessed Savior Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem. This cramped quarter where the Soubirous family lived was a narrow, cramped, foul-smelling room which no one else in the village would approach, much less live in. But Francois moved his family in, and with stout hearts they made the best of what they had. They did not complain, they merely went on together as family with the little they had. But further humiliation was theirs, for Francois' own cousin owned this former prison called Le Cachot (the Dungeon), and the entire village of Lourdes knew Francois was bankrupt when he begged to live there. Bernadette was never a healthy child. She suffered dreadfully from asthma, and overall her health had been delicate since she'd suffered from cholera at the age of ten.
On the morning of February 11, 1858, Bernadette, accompanied by her younger sister Toinette and her cousin Jeanne Abadie left Le Cachot, their errand to gather firewood to warm the damp, cold room and to cook the meager food their mother managed to scrape together. The weather was foul...cold, damp, penetrating to the very bone. Bernadette lagged behind for she was not as strong, as robust as her sister or cousin. Finally Bernadette reached the area called Massabielle just beyond the city limits. Here there was a large rock grotto formed from centuries of water erosion. It stood at the bottom of a mountain. Toniette and Jeanne had already stripped off their shoes and stockings to wade across a shallow portion of the canal to collect driftwood. But Bernadette hesitated, looking at the icy water. She felt ill, and called out to Jeanne to come and carry her across the stream. Both girls laughed at her request. Resigned that they weren't going to help her, Bernadette sat down to remove her shoes and stockings.
It was then that Bernadette heard the sound of the wind. Startled, she looked up, expecting see the nearby poplars blowing. But they were still motionless. Unsure, she looked back again toward the grotto. Now she could see that the niche in the grotto was lighted; a light like the sun's reflection glowing off water on a brilliant day. But it was a cloud day, a miserable day. As she stared, Bernadette could see a woman standing in the midst of this glowing light. The Lady was smiling at Bernadette and she wore white with a blue sash around her dress. Instantly Bernadette reached for the Rosary beads she had in her pocket, intending to make the Sign of the Cross with them. Yet movement was impossible. It was as if she was frozen! It was the smiling Lady who, instead, made the Sign of the Cross with the Rosary she held in her hand. Only then was Bernadette able to do the same. Later, when questioned, the visionary would say: "As soon as I had made the Sign of the Cross, the great fear that had seized me vanished. I knelt down and I said my Rosary in the presence of the beautiful Lady." When the Rosary was finished the Lady motioned Bernadette to come closer. But Bernadette, a shy girl, was still too timid. The Lady, amidst the sunburst of light, vanished at that moment. Everything around Bernadette returned to normal. She became aware of her sister and cousin gathering driftwood, and immediately bounded across the stream, her socks only half off. To her astonishment, the water seemed warm, not icy. All the while Bernadette kept glancing back to the grotto, while the other girls cavorted playfully around the woodpiles they had gathered. This made Bernadette uncomfortable. Should shuch frivolties be going on here where something wonderful had just happened? She asked Toinette and Jeanne if they'd seen anything. They hadn't, but they had noticed Bernadette kneeling and so asked her what she had seen. A trepidatious Bernadette replied she'd seen nothing and quickly changed the subject. But the urge to share got the best of her and on the way back to Lourdes, Bernadette confided to her younger sister about the beautiful Lady in white with the Rosary. Toinette scoffed at first, but seeing the serious look on her older sister's face, promised not to talk about it. Yet they'd hardly entered the doorway of the damp home at Le Cachot when Toinette began to spew forth the tale of Bernadette's story to their mother. Tired, worn out and weary, Louise spanked both girls, and Francois spoke harshly to Bernadette, warning her not to bring any more shame to the Soubirous name.
Little did he know that rather than bringing shame the Soubirous name would be immortalized in the halls of Heaven for his daughter would not only go on to become a saint whose body remains incorrupt today, but the apparitions that were given to her would make Lourdes one of the most famous Marian Shrines in the world where millions would come to attend Mass and pray...and yes, be healed physically and spiritually. The setting for this miraculous transformation will be the essence of the next installment in Part Two.