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.
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.
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.
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.