When Bernadette arrived at the grotto on the Feast of the Annunciation, March 25, 1858, she witnessed the Lady coming from the recesses of the place. Again Bernadette asked the Lady to identify herself. This time the vision stopped smiling. The Lady joined her hands in prayer, and raised her eyes to Heaven. "I am the Immaculate Conception," she told Bernadette.
With gratitude Bernadette thanked her. When she was able, she relayed the answer to the parish priest who was truly moved. The feeling he had within all along that this was truly of God seemed confirmed. Only four years earlier the Church had promulgated the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception with the words: "We define that the Blessed Virgin was preserved from every taint of original sin...from the first moment of her conception." An uneducated girl, Bernadette came to understand the meaning of the Lady's answer only later that evening which finally turned her joy into endless bounds. Yes, this Lady was the Mother of God.
Again on April 7, the Wednesday after Easter, Bernadette was pulled back to the grotto. She immediately fell into an ecstatic state. A medical doctor Dr. Dozous was on hand, determined to examine this state she was in, to prove that it was false...if he could. He couldn't for before he could get close enough to examine Bernadette, there was a loud cry from the huge crowd mulling around the area in anticipation. Bernadette knelt, holding the top of a candle placed upon the ground in front of her. Her wrists braced the candle, and her fingers were laced above the wick. Yet the flames licked up and into the girl's unprotected hands and fingers. But there was no look of pain on Bernadette's face; only the ecstasy of joy. When later Dr. Dozous examined Bernadette carefully, searching for burns, he discovered none!
The months of May and June that year were chaos for Lourdes a zealous people began to build a chapel to the Lady who had so graced their humble village through the even more humble peasant girl Bernadette. It wasn't until July 16, the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, that Bernadette felt compelled to return to the grotto. She waited until dark, but still several hundred people were awaiting her. Bernadette knelt down, holding a candle in her hands.
The girl began to pray the Rosary, and soon a smile of surprise lit up her entire countenance. Even though now she was much further from the grotto than she had been before, she later related: "It seemed to me that I was in the grotto, no more distant than the other times. I saw only the Holy Virgin."
No words were spoken, but through the interior knowledge mystically imparted, Bernadette realized this was her last vision of Our Lady. There had been eighteen visions in all. Because of the constant attention and clamoring of the crowds of locals as well as visitors from all over France and Europe, Bernadette moved to the Lourdes hospice and school run by the Sisters of Notre Dame de Nevers. There Bernadette lived and studied until, on April 4, 1864, at the age of 20, she made a firm decision to join the Sisters of Nevers near Paris. On July 4, 1866 she left her beloved Lourdes by train enroute for Paris.
Already a sizeable chapel stood at Massabielle. Bernadette's feelings about this last visit to the beloved grotto where our Heavenly Mother had graciously visited her were never made known. When Bernadette arrived at the convent on Sunday, July 8, 1866, she was asked for the first and last time to speak of the apparitions. All the nuns gathered to hear her. But the following day, Bernadette, now 22, began a life of silence, prayer and anonymity. She was given the name Sister Marie-Bernard and assigned to work among the sick. Her own health became even more precarious. So much so that she made her religious profession earlier than the others, taking her vows on October 25, 1866. Through the grace of God she survived death, but her health was a factor for the next 13 years. At the age of 29 she realized and struggled with the knowledge that she was of no practical use to the work of the community whatsoever; that's how sick she had become. In December 1878, Bernadette's health failed for the last time at the age of 34. Less than six months later, on April 16, 1879 this small woman who stood only 4' 8" tall, breathed her last. She died at Nevers never having returned to Lourdes.
To this day Bernadette's body lies in state in the convent chapel at Nevers...miraculously preserved! Holy Mother Church did not take long to consider the holiness of Bernadette. It was fittingly on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, December 8, 1933 that Pope Pius XI capped the Holy Year by canonizing Bernadette.
But confirmation by the Church of the apparitions of Lourdes as worthy of belief came much more quickly. On January 18, 1862, less than four years after the visions and while Bernadette was still a student at the School of Notre Dame de Nevers in Lourdes, the bishop of the Diocese of Tarbes released the letter commending devotion to Lourdes as a Marian site worthy of belief.
As each year passed, Lourdes was transformed. Bernadette would hardly have recognized the village or the grotto where she had first seen Our Lady. Today, 27,000 gallons of water are generated from the spring which started when Bernadette drank "mud." Every day 350,000 people pass by the grotto. Five thousand healings have been attributed to the intercession of Our Lady of Lourdes over the years, although Holy Mother Church officially recognizes only 64 of them. The chapel the Blessed Mother instructed Bernadette to have built, is now actually four chapels. The latest, the Church of St. Pius X, holds as many as 20,000 people and is built beneath the ground - the largest underground church in the world. Incidentally, it was Pope Saint Pius X who decreed in 1907 that the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes would be celebrated every February 11th for the universal Church. It had first been established as a local feast in Southern France in 1891 with the approval of Pope Leo XIII. It was during his regime that the Church of Notre Dame and the Church of the Rosary were finished, built into the rock of Massabiele, very near the grotto. But the only chapel Bernadette ever saw was the first, built into the rock. Even in her own lifetime, this small chapel could not contain the many pilgrims who came to pay homage to the Mother of God, the Immaculate Conception, who graciously invited an uneducated poor girl to come and pray with her, that Our Lady might intercede for all who would believe!
Today Lourdes is one of the most loved apparition sites in the world. Over six million people make pilgrimages to this holy place annually. There are medical centers and a hospital there which staffs a worldwide organization of professionals volunteering their time and expertise to serve as stretcher-bearers and wheelchair attendants so that the sick, crippled, handicapped and infirm can access the healing waters originating from the miraculous spring. There have been thousand of physical cures there and countless spiritual cures that can never be accounted for until we all reach Heaven. Here on earth the story of Bernadette has been captured in the novel "Bernadette" by Franz Werfel and beautifully depicted in the Hollywood production "Song of Bernadette". Here in the United States there are many shrines to Our Lady of Lourdes, the most authentic replicas of the famous grotto is on the campus of the University of Notre Dame and at Our Lady of the Snows Shrine in Belleville, Illinois where the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, devoted to the Immaculate Conception, conduct a candlelight Rosary nightly during the summers. There are also Lourdes Shrines in Emmitsburg, Maryland; Dayton, Ohio; Detroit; Litchfield, Connecticutt; and San Antonio, Texas.
At the original shrine there is a daily candlelight procession where thousands upon thousands from all over the world join in offering their prayers for the intentions of the Blessed Mother. Truly Lourdes has played a vital role in this modern Age of Marian Apparitions - not necessarily for the conversion messages imparted as Our Lady conveyed at La Salette, Fatima and even today at Medjugorje and other ongoing apparitions - but more for the confirmation of Church Doctrine - her Divine Son's True Church on earth and the miraculous healing power of God through the waters from the spring near the Grotto. Pope John Paul II has made more than one pilgrimage to Lourdes, so totally devoted to Our Lady.