Early stages in the life of St Bernadette
Bernadette was the daughter of François Soubirous (1807-1871), a miller, and his wife Louise (née Castérot) (1825-1866), a laundress, and was the eldest of five children who survived infancy. Louise actually gave birth to nine children (Bernadette, Jean born and died 1845, Toinette 1846-1892, Jean-Marie 1848-1851, Jean-Marie 1851-1919, Justin 18551865, Pierre 1859-1931, Jean born and died 1864 and a baby girl named Louise who died soon after her birth 1866). Bernadette was born on 7 January 1844, and baptized at the local parish church, St. Pierre's, on 9 January, her parents' wedding anniversary. Bernadette's godmother was Bernarde Casterot, her mother's sister, a moderately well-off widow who owned a tavern. Hard times had fallen on France and the family lived in extreme poverty. Neighbours reported that the family lived in unusual harmony, apparently relying on their love and support for one another and their religious devotion. Bernadette contracted cholera as a toddler and suffered severe asthma for the rest of her life.
Bernadette's impoverished family lived in a single un-heated room. On 11 February 1858, Bernadette, then aged 14, was out gathering firewood and bones with her sister and a friend at the grotto of Massabielle outside Lourdes, when she had an experience that completely changed her life and the town of Lourdes where she had lived. It was on this day that Bernadette claimed she had the first of 18 visions of what she termed "a small young lady" (ua petita damisela (Classical) uo petito damizelo (Mistralian)) standing in a niche in the rock. Her sister and her friend stated that they had seen nothing. On her next visit, she said that the "beautiful lady" asked her to return to the grotto every day for fifteen days. At first her mother had forbidden her to go, and Bernadette could not persuade her mother to allow her to go. The supposed apparition did not identify herself until the seventeenth vision, although the townspeople who believed she was telling the truth assumed she saw the Virgin Mary. Bernadette never claimed it to be Mary, calling what she saw simply "Aquerò" (or rather "that one"), aquerò (IPA: [ak(e)r]) being Gascon Occitan for that. Bernadette described the lady as wearing a white veil, a blue girdle, and had a golden rose on each foot; she held a rosary of pearls.
Bernadette's story caused a sensation with the townspeople, who were divided in their opinions on whether or not Bernadette was telling the truth. Some believed her to have a mental illness, and demanded she be put in an asylum. She soon had a large number of people following her on her daily journey, some out of curiosity and others who firmly believed that they were witnessing a miracle.
The other contents of Bernadette's reported visions were simple, and focused on the need for prayer and penance. However, at the thirteenth of the alleged apparitions, on 2 March, Bernadette told her family that the lady had said "Please go to the priests and tell them that a chapel is to be built here. Let processions come hither." Accompanied by two of her aunts, Bernadette duly went to parish priest Father Dominique Peyramale with the request. A brilliant but often rough-spoken man with little belief in claims of visions and miracles, Peyramale told Bernadette that the lady must identify herself. Bernadette said that on her next visitation she repeated the priest's words to the lady, but that the lady bowed a little, smiled and said nothing. Then Father Peyramale told Bernadette to prove that the lady was real (that is, objectively) by asking her to perform a miracle. He requested that she make the rose bush beneath the niche where she appeared to Bernadette bud and flower on the last week of February.
As Bernadette later reported to her family and to church and civil investigators, at the ninth visitation the lady told Bernadette to drink from the spring that flowed under the rock, and eat the plants that grew freely there. Although there was no known spring, and the ground was muddy, Bernadette saw the lady pointing with her finger to the spot, and said later she assumed the lady meant that the spring was underground. She did as she was told by first digging a muddy patch with her bare hands and then attempting to drink the brackish drops. She tried three times, failing each time. On the fourth try, the droplets were clearer and she drank them. She then ate some of the plants. When finally she turned to the crowd, her face was smeared with mud and no spring had been revealed. Understandably, this caused much scepticism among onlookers who shouted, "She's a fraud!" or "She's insane!" while embarrassed relatives wiped the adolescent's face clean with a handkerchief. In the next few days, however, a spring began to flow from the muddy patch first dug by Bernadette. Some devout people followed her example by drinking and washing in the water, which was soon reported to have healing properties.
In the 150 years since Bernadette dug up the spring, 67 cures have been verified by the Lourdes Medical Bureau as "inexplicable," but only after what the Church claims are "extremely rigorous scientific and medical examinations" that failed to find any other explanation. The Lourdes Commission which examined Bernadette after the visions also ran an intensive analysis on the water and found that, while it had a high mineral content, it contained nothing out of the ordinary that would account for the cures attributed to it. Bernadette herself said that it was faith and prayer that cured the sick.
Her 16th claimed vision, which she stated went on for over an hour, was on 25 March. During this vision, the second of two "miracles of the candle" is reported to have occurred. Bernadette was holding a lighted candle; during the vision it burned down, and the flame was said to be in direct contact with her skin for over fifteen minutes, but she apparently showed no sign of experiencing any pain or injury. This was said to be witnessed by many people present, including the town physician, Dr. Pierre Romaine Dozous, who timed and later documented it. According to his report, there was no sign that her skin was in any way affected, so he monitored Bernadette closely but did not intervene. After her "vision" ended, the doctor said that he examined her hand but found no evidence of any burning, and that she was completely unaware of what had been happening. The doctor then said that he briefly applied a lighted candle to her hand, and she reacted immediately. It is unclear if observers other than Dozous were sufficiently close to witness if the candle was continuously in contact with Bernadettes skin.
According to Bernadette's account, during that same visitation that she claimed, she again asked the lady her name but the lady just smiled back. She repeated the question three more times and finally heard the lady say, in Gascon Occitan, "I am the Immaculate Conception" (Qué soï era immaculado councepcio, a phonetic transcription of Que soi era immaculada concepcion). Four years earlier, Pope Pius IX had defined the dogma of the Immaculate Conception; that, alone of all human beings who have ever lived (save for Jesus, Adam, and Eve), the Virgin Mary was conceived without the stain of original sin. Her parents, teachers and priests all later testified that she had never previously heard the expression 'immaculate conception' from them.
Bernadette was a sickly child; she had cholera in infancy and suffered most of her life from asthma, and some of the people who interviewed her following her revelation of the visions thought her simple-minded. However, despite being rigorously interviewed by officials of both the Catholic Church and the French government, she stuck consistently to her story. Her behavior during this period is said to set the example by which all who have claimed visions and mystical experiences are now judged by Church authorities.
Results of her visions
Among the reported visions of Jesus and Mary the impact of her visions can be viewed as being proportionally of a high level of significance.
Her request to the local priest to build a chapel at the site of her visions eventually gave rise to a number of chapels and churches at Lourdes. The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes is now one of the major Catholic pilgrimage sites in the world. One of the churches built at the site, the Basilica of St. Pius X can itself accommodate 25,000 people and was dedicated by the future Pope John XXIII when he was the Papal Nuncio to France.
Close to 5 million pilgrims visit Lourdes (population of about 15,000) every year, with individuals and groups (such as the HCPT) coming from all over the world. Within France, only Paris has more hotels than Lourdes. In 2008, the 150th anniversary of the 1858 apparitions to Bernadette, it was expected that 8 million pilgrims would visit Lourdes during the year. Lourdes is now a major center where Catholic pilgrims from around the globe reaffirm their beliefs as they visit the sanctuary.
Disliking the attention she was attracting, Bernadette went to the hospice school run by the Sisters of Charity and Christian Instruction, where she finally learned to read and write. She then joined a convent, moving into their mother house at Nevers at the age of 22. She spent the rest of her brief life there, working as an assistant in the infirmary and later as a sacristan, creating beautiful embroidery for altar cloths and vestments. She later contracted tuberculosis of the bone in the right knee. She had followed the development of Lourdes as a pilgrimage shrine while she still lived at Lourdes, but was not present for the consecration of the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception there in 1876. She eventually died of her long-term illness at the age of 35 on 16 April 1879.
The year 2009 was declared "The Year of Bernadette".