Following Our Lady's first apparition on Friday, February 11, 1858 to Bernadette Soubirous, the young French girl felt herself pulled back to the grotto the next day. Her mother had warned her not to go, and so she fought the pull, not wanting to be disobedient. Thus Saturday found Bernadette in the confessional telling the local parish priest of what she'd seen at the grotto. The priest was impressed with her account, and asked if he might tell Abbe Peyramale, the pastor of Lourdes. Bernadette gave him permission to do so.
Since Toinette and Jeanne had been spreading the story, by Sunday a group of young girls concocted a plan to draw Bernadette back to the grotto. As the girls drew closer to the grotto, all felt an exceitement welling up inside them. This time Bernadette moved faster, more agily than all the rest, even the youngest of the girls. All she could think about was the Lady whose smile filled her with such peace. They knelt, these girls, to say the Rosary. During the second decade Bernadette exclaimed to them: "There she is!" One of the girls with Bernadette handed her a bottle of holy water. Bernadette kept sprinkling the holy water. Bernadette kept sprinkling the holy water in the direction of the beautiful lady, whose smile only grew more beautiful, more entrancing with each motion. By now the others with Bernadette noticed that their friend was in a definite trance-like state. They made noise, they tried to get her attention, even to cause a minor rock slide in the vicinity of the grotto. Nothing would make Bernadette bludge. This frightened the girls who ran for help. Then went to get Nicolau, the man who operated the nearby mill. It took all of Nicolau's strength to lift this slip of a child, and while carrying her back to the mill at Savy he placed his hands over her eyes, trying to get her to bend her head. But she would only raise her head again and reopen her eyes with a smile. To say the least, Bernadette's mother was angry.
The following Monday was even worse. School presented plenty of opportunity for humiliation of little Bernadette. Forced to recount the incidents at the grotto, or at the very least to acknowledge that what the others were saying was true, one of the sisters slapped her and shouted that if she returned to that place, she'd be locked up. But on Thursday, February 18th things began looking up a bit for Bernadette. Two women came to the Soubirous door. Madame Milhet, a wealthy woman, and her seamstress Antoinette Peyret. They announced they would accompany Bernadette back to the grotto after morning Mass. Once on her way, Bernadette again sped along as if nothing impeded her. It took the ladies much longer to pick their way carefully to the grotto. There they found Bernadette already on her knees in prayer. "There she is!" Bernadette told them. The women say nothing, but could not help but notice Bernadette's eyes were riveted upon the niche in the grotto. These women were well-intentioned. They had planned to have Bernadette have the lovely Lady write down her name on a piece of paper they'd provided, along with a pen they had brought. Dutifully, Bernadette extended these earthly instruments to Our Lady, who seemed to come closer, although nothing appeared on the paper.
"It is not necessary," came the Heavenly reply, which to Bernadette's ears was soft and musical, without any earthly description. Then the Lady made a request of her own. "Would you have the graciousness to come here for fifteen days?" she asked of Bernadette who instantly agreed, filled with peace, love and warmth. The lovely Lady went on: "I do not promise to make you happy in this world, but in the next." Even though the two women had nothing concretely written on the paper, they had noticed the startling changes in Bernadette and began to wonder if it truly was the Virgin Mary who appeared in the grotto.
On the following Friday, Saturday and Sunday Bernadette saw Our Lady in the niche of the grotto, but these were silent apparitions. But it was sufficient for Bernadette. For from these apparitions she received such peace. On Sunday, February 21st, Bernadette, without any warning, was literally collared by the Police Commissioner Jacomet. Like a criminal, a rag-doll, she was hauled across the street to the commissioner's house for interrogation. Over and over she was questioned by well-educated men. Yet Bernadette remained cool, unflustered and related the significant details to them. Bernadette did not name the Lady as the Virgin Mary, even though many in the village of Lourdes were saying so. She referred to her simply as "Aquero" which means "That One." Finally, Jacomet released her, only to have Bernadette return home to receive severe threats from Francois, her father.
On Monday, February 22 Bernadette obediently asked permission of her parents to return to the grotto. Knowing the state of mind of Jacomet, both Louise and Francois refused. Bernadette suffered dreadfully, knowing she had promised the beautiful Lady, but knowing she dare not disobey her own parents. Yet by afternoon the supernatural pull toward the grotto overwhelmed her. She went...but no vision occurred. She wept bitterly and went to confession that evening, only to find consolation from Father Pomian who told her that the people had no right to stop her. The next afternoon at five-thirty Bernadette was on her way to the grotto. She was at peace interiorly about this whole affair. But there were already spectators there, among them notable doctors, lawyers and Jean-Baptiste Estrade, the excise tax officer. Bernadette again had a vision, but another silent one. But the following day, Wednesday, February 24, brought something new. The Lady spoke again to Bernadette. She said: "Penitence. Pray to God for the conversion of sinners." And then she asked Bernadette to kiss the ground as a gesture of penance for others. February 25, Thursday, saw a repeat of this gesture of penitence. Then Bernadette began moving while on her knees, as if being directed by someone no one else could see, much less hear. Finally, Bernadette reached the spot where she was meant to be. With hundreds of townspeople looking on, the frail Soubirous girl began to dig with her hands. She scraped up the muddy muck that stuck to her hands and fingers. As she put her hands to her mouth to drink it, the crowd could not help but murmur in shock and amazement. Only Bernadette heard the Lady say: "Go and drink at the fount and wash yourself." Many in the crowd of spectators were convinced now that Bernadette was crazy. After "drinking" the mud, Bernadette began to eat bits of a plant called dorine. This was just too much for many in the crowd. The Soubirous girl was indeed mad! But again, Bernadette was obedient to the Heavenly Visitor who told her: "You will eat of that plant which is there." All this she did, Bernadette was to relate later, was "for sinners." If Bernadette had found the mud and plants hard to eat, the townspeople had an even harder time accepting her actions on behalf of "sinners." She was again forbidden to go to the grotto, this time the ban coming from the police commissioner. But it was Bernadette's aunt, Bernarde, who convinced her to go.
The Healing Waters Surface
Where Bernadette had dug with her hands in the mud and drank it, there now was a trickle of water bubbling up, and a small pool of water had formed. By the time Bernadette arrived, over 600 people were there, waiting for the young "visionary." But there was no apparition. Bernadette was demoralized, wondering what she had done to offend the lovely Lady. But on Saturday, February 27, the Lady was back. The next day, Sunday, saw an enormous crowd of 1200 people sandwiched into the space near the grotto. Seeing only the practical ramification of too many people in a narrow spot where there was a deep drop into the Gave River below, the police grabbed Bernadette again and hauled her away for questioning. Bernadette was strong. She resisted their threats, stating she would return to the grotto until the following Thursday as she had promised.
On Monday, March 1, the sunlight dawned on hundreds of eager faces who waited at the grotto. Among the people was Catherine Latapie, a mother of two small children. Catherine was expecting her third arrival at any time. Nearly two years previously she had fallen and broken her arm. The fall and broken arm left her with two fingers of her right hand paralyzed. All saw Bernadette sink into a state of ecstasy. After Bernadette had withdrawn, Catherine quietly went to the spring and there she plunged her right hand into the waters. At once a warmth flowed through her entire arm, giving her a sense of peace. When she withdrew her arm, her fingers, which had been doubled up, were completely straightened. The excitement Catherine felt brought on labor pains. She immediately appealed to the Virgin she believed had given her a healing. And the prayer was answered. Hours later, four miles back to the village of Loubajac, she gave birth to a boy, who would go on to become a priest! Catherine was the first of millions who would be healed in the miraculous, healing waters of Lourdes.
On Tuesday March 2, over 1600 people were present at the apparition. All remained in reverent silence while Bernadette conversed with the Lady, until the young visionary rose from her knees and turned to face the people. "Go and tell the priests that people must come here in procession and that a chapel [must] be built here." Bernadette went straight to the parish priest, who was in a delicate position. He, himself, believed that Bernadette was privileged to see the Mother of God. But the Church had made no pronouncement, and he knew well that the sentiment among the authorities was that Bernadette was given to flights of fancy, to put it mildly. His frustration caused him to storm at Bernadette. Undaunted, though hurt by his anger, Bernadette heard his request that she ask the Lady to identify herself. Bernadette promised to do so. Thus on Wednesday March 3, the Lady came again to the grotto. Bernadette obediently put the question to the Lady, "who only smiled." Thursday came - the last day of the fortnight of visits which Bernadette had promised the Lady she would keep and again Bernadette asked for a sign for the priest to believe. But once again the Lady was not inclined to grant the request, and only smiled.
Now disappointment was rampant in Lourdes. But there were those whose faith would not yield to popular demand, and they persisted that the young Soubirous girl had seen the Virgin Mary. Thus, on the Feast of Annunciation, March 25, 1858, Bernadette awoke with a strong pull to return to the grotto. When she returned this time Our Lady would impart something so profound to an ignorant girl who had no true concept of what she was told that it peaked the interest of the hierarchy and swung the pendulum of believers as we shall see in the third part of our treatment of Lourdes: "I am the Immaculate Conception."