Our Lady of Lourdes (February-July, 1858)
Another celestial visit was planned for France about 400 miles from the alpine setting of La Salette in the Spring of 1858, almost twelve years after Our Lady of Sorrows appeared. The Soubirous family was struggling that spring. The father, Francois, was a miller by trade, but without enough work, he struggled to feed his family consisting of he and his wife and six children. Bernadette was the eldest child and she had just returned to the family after shepherding for a family away from the village of Lourdes to help make ends meet. The Soubirous’ lived in a one-room dwelling and bread and firewood were constantly in scarce supply. On the eleventh day of February 1858, Bernadette, her sister and a friend were out picking up sticks to use as firewood. They had meandered near some rock formations known as the rocks of Massabielle. They intended to cross a stream, which was a channel from the Gave River to pick up sticks on the other side. Bernadette’s sister and friend readily crossed the stream, but Bernadette was more hestitant. She dreaded the cold and didn’t want to trigger an asthmatic attack. So she sat down and was taking off her stockings to make the crossing when she heard a noise like a strong wind. Looking around she wondered if a storm was approaching, but since the air returned to stillness, she resumed her task. Once again she heard the wind. She got up and looked in the direction of the rock. There was a wild rose bush growing out of the niche of the rock. Bernadette noticed the trailing branch was moving about, but the other surrounding vegetation was still. Suddenly the whole enclave was illumined with light and Bernadette saw a most beautiful woman standing on the wild rose branch. Bernadette described the woman as a Lady, “young and more beautiful than anyone she had ever seen.” The Lady was clothed in white with a blue sash tied around her middle, the ends of which fell in front to the bottom of her dress. Bernadette saw the Lady’s feet exposed between the folds of the bottom of her dress and that she bore a yellow rose as of shining gold on each of her bare feet. The Lady wore a white veil on her head that covered her shoulders and extended below her waist. A rosary of white beads on a gold chain hung on her right arm.
Instinctively, Bernadette kneeled, took out her rosary and began with the sign of the cross, but was unable to do so until the Lady joined in her prayer. The Lady gracefully smiled with every Hail Mary that Bernadette prayed, and during the prayer of the Glory Be, the Lady reverently bowed her head and joined in the prayer to the Holy Trinity. Following the rosary, as suddenly as she appeared, the Lady disappeared. Bernadette didn’t have time to wonder and revel at what had just happened to her because her sister and friend had found her kneeling and asked her why she wasn’t helping with the sticks. She plunged into the stream and didn’t even notice the cold and picked up sticks. Bernadette told her mother about the visitation. Dear Mrs. Soubirous cautioned Bernadette not to return to the rocks, but when Sunday, February 14th came, Bernadette longed to return to Massabielle. Mrs. Soubirous consented. Bernadette and about a dozen other girls went to the site of visitation. They knelt in a semi-circle and proceeded to pray the rosary. Bernadette had holy water to sprinkle on the apparition, as a precaution against the Malefactor. None of the accompanying girls could see anyone except Bernadette, but they were quite convinced by watching the expressions on Bernadette’s face, that she conversed with an apparition that they couldn’t see.
The third apparition took place on Thursday, February 18th. It was with great hesitancy that Mrs. Soubirous permitted Bernadette to return to the rocks for this visitation. With all the talk swirling around about her daughter, she fretted that Bernadette was becoming delusional and the village laughing stock. Two pious women convinced Mrs. Soubirous to let Bernadette go back. They promised to chaperone Bernadette and protect her from harm. The women urged Bernadette to ask the celestial visitor who she was and even brought paper, ink and a pen for this purpose. As the apparition commenced, Bernadette bowed low and continued praying her rosary. The chaperones saw nothing except the wild rose bush growing out of the rock and Bernadette’s ecstatic facial expressions as she interacted with the visitor. Near the end of the visit, Bernadette approached the Lady with the paper and pen hoping that she would write down who she was, but that was not to be revealed. The Lady told Bernadette the following three things during this pivotal visit. She said, “I wish you to come here for fifteen consecutive days.” She said that she wanted to see a great many people come to this place and she told Bernadette poignantly, “I promise to make you happy, not in this world, but in the next.”
The apparitions on the next days served to convince Bernadette’s mother that something supernatural was really happening to their daughter. More and more people were coming to witness the apparitions, including Doctor Dozous, who carefully observed Bernadette’s expressions and her pulse during the event, which remained normal.
The apparition controversy prompted the police to detain Bernadette and make an inquiry into the visitations. She didn’t deny her experiences and although threatened with jail if she continued to go to the Grotto, Bernadette was released to her father, Francois who stated that he would put a stop to his daughter’s activities at the Grotto. Bernadette was obedient to her parents and went to school the next day, Tuesday, February 23, 1858. However, on her way, her steps halted and she could not proceed any further as though a supernatural barrier prevented her. Some guards witnessed this unusual occurrence and were baffled. Bernadette turned to go back home, but she heard an inner locution gently ask why she hadn’t kept her promise of visiting the Grotto. At that, Bernadette hastened to the Grotto, prayed the rosary and waited, but was deprived of an apparition that day.
During the ninth apparition on February 25th, as Bernadette was in communication with the Lady, she suddenly stood up and began to walk to the River Gave, then she stopped, turned back, and looked at the niche in the rock. Bernadette walked back close to the Grotto and to the left and began digging in the dry soil with her fingers. The crowds of people watching were puzzled as to what she was doing. Bernadette dug further and uncovered water welling up out of the ground. At first there was a bit of mud, then more rivulets of water sprung forth. In apparent obedience to the apparition, Bernadette drank of the slightly muddy mixture, washed her face with it and swallowed some grass or herbs growing nearby, too. Her face was dirty from the muddy slurry. The onlookers were skeptical. This type of event was just what the unbelievers had warned about. Bernadette was doing something off beat enough to cast doubt on the authenticity of the apparitions! Yet, she uncovered a spring of water! How did she do that? The debates continued and the controversies were stirred.
The Lady requested during the eleventh apparition that Bernadette ‘Go and tell the priests that a Chapel must be built here.’ Bernadette set out to meet her parish priest that very day. Father Peyramale was not of a sentimental personality. He didn’t treat Bernadette with deference. He had not been to the apparition site and curiosity didn’t drive his Faith. Rather, he questioned Bernadette about many aspects of the Lady. His primary question was who was the Lady? When Bernadette couldn’t answer that key question, the priest said that he was “not in the habit of doing business with people he does not know.”
After the twelfth apparition on Sunday February 28th, the village men decided to dig a channel from the spring Bernadette unearthed to drain into a pool they dug out that was 3-4 feet in length. The message from the 14th apparition was that the Lady desired that people come to Massabielle in procession. This prompted Bernadette to visit her parish priest for a second time regarding the apparitions. Father Peyramale was skeptical especially since Bernadette still didn’t know who was appearing to her. He said sternly, “Tell the Lady people must speak plainly to me. What are her credentials for the honors she asks? I am going to suggest a way by which she might gain credence for her message. You say that she appears at the Grotto with a wild rosebush beneath her feet. Ask her, from me, to make this rosebush put forth blossoms one of these days in the presence of the assembled crowd. When you come and tell me this has been done, then I will believe. Moreover, I will go myself to Massabielle with you.” The sight of a leafless thorny branch blooming in March would indeed be miraculous, but this prodigy was not to be. The Lady would instead send proof of her heavenly origin by the miraculous healings that were beginning to take place for those who washed with the spring water.
Louis Bourriette had suffered a serious injury to his right eye rendering him blind in that eye with vision so compromised in his left eye that he couldn’t distinguish a person from a tree. As news spread about the miraculous spring, Louis asked his daughter to bring him back some of the water. He rubbed the water on his injured eye and prayed for healing. Almost instantly he noticed his vision had been restored to a “luminous haze…then the haze cleared away and the sight became perfect.” Louis proclaimed his healing to his family, his doctor and to all. Later the Commission of Inquiry initiated by the Bishop of Tarbes concluded that the case of Louis Bourriette’s healing was declared to be unexplained according to known laws.
A second miraculous healing occurred in the case of a two-year old child. This baby had been sick since infancy. He was wasting away and on March 4th his grieving parents were awaiting the child’s final breath. Suddenly, in a desperate act of faith, the mother grabbed her baby, covered him in her apron and dashed off to the Grotto in tears and prayers saying, “…The Holy Virgin of the Grotto will cure him for me!” to her skeptical husband. The mother approached the pool of spring water and plunged the toddler up to his chin in the chilly water. There she held him in the pool for a quarter of an hour praying and hoping. Witnesses felt sorry for the desperation of the mother because by all outward appearances, the baby appeared to be dead. Then the mother wrapped her baby once again in her apron and rushed home. The baby was breathing and in a very deep sleep until the next day when he awoke with rosy cheeks and asked for food. Within days he had begun to walk and was reaching milestones that days before would have been impossible. The restoration of the baby’s health was a second miraculous cure attributed to the healing waters of the spring.
The daily apparitions stopped after the Thursday, March 4th visitation. Three weeks passed without an apparition until March 25th, the feast of the Annunciation. During this apparition Bernadette felt compelled once again to ask the apparition who she was. As every other time, the Lady inclined her head and smiled but didn’t respond. Bernadette asked a second time and the same response was given. Bernadette asked yet a third time and with this the Lady humbly joined her hands together at the breast, raised her eyes to heaven, then let her hands fall slowly and bent toward Bernadette saying with a tremulous voice, “I am the Immaculate Conception.” Those onlookers who heard Bernadette repeat the Virgin’s words ‘Immaculate Conception’ were astounded. Some kissed the rock and news of the Lady being the Virgin Mary sped through France and beyond. Bernadette had to keep repeating the words “the Immaculate Conception” so that she wouldn’t forget them when she met again with Father Peyramale to tell him who the Lady said she was. As we know, Bernadette’s education was limited and she wasn’t aware that Pope Pius IX had proclaimed the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary just four years earlier in 1854. To learned priests and bishops however, the revelation that the Virgin calling herself the Immaculate Conception had opened up a healing spring in the lowly hamlet of Lourdes was a stunning heavenly approbation in the life of the Catholic Church.
Bernadette had two more apparitions at the Grotto, one in April and the last one on July 16th, the feast day of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. Less than four years later the local Bishop wrote a pastoral letter dated January, 1862. He stated, “We judge that the Immaculate Mary, Mother of God, really appeared to Bernadette Soubirous on February 11th, 1858, and on succeeding days to the number of eighteen times in the Grotto of Massabielle, close to the town of Lourdes. In order to act in conformity with the wish expressed more than once by the Blessed Virgin in the course of the Apparitions, we propose to erect a chapel on the site of the Grotto, which site is now the property of the Bishop of Tarbes.”
Processions to the Grotto were begun in 1864. Bernadette often suffered from illness, but in 1866 she was well enough to enter into religious life in the community of the Sisters of Charity in Nevers, France. Before her departure from Lourdes, Bernadette made a last sorrowful visit to the Grotto and said good-bye to her “Heaven.” Bernadette, who became the professed Sister Marie-Bernard, was beset with suffering and lingering illness throughout the rest of her life. She was called home the Wednesday of Holy Week, April 16th, 1879. In her last moments, her arms were extended in the shape of a cross and she said, “I thirst” followed by her final words, “Mary, Mother of God.” She expired at three o’clock in the afternoon at the age of thirty-five. Bernadette was canonized a saint on December 8, 1933 and her feast day is April 16th. Bernadette’s body has not undergone decay and her body lies in a glass coffin in the chapel of the convent and she is known as the Sleeping Saint of Nevers.
The Grotto of Lourdes is one of the most visited Marian shrines in the world. It has the distinction of having two separate Golden Roses bestowed upon it. In 1876 Pius IX gave a Golden Rose to the shrine at Lourdes because as some have said, he was the Pope of the Immaculate Conception. Just eight months before his death, Pope John Paul II made a pilgrimage to Lourdes where he conferred the Golden Rose to the shrine on August 14, 2004. His own suffering from advanced Parkinson’s disease made his visit all the more touching. He began his greetings, “Dear sick brothers and sisters, I would like to hold you in my arms…” and then his strength failed and he couldn’t continue his remarks. Aides rushed in to help move him from the kneeler to a chair. After the Pope regained his peace, Cardinal Etchegaray continued reading the Pope’s address saying, in part, “Dear sick brothers and sisters, I would like to hold you in my arms, one after another, to show my affection and to tell you how close I am to you and show my solidarity with you…” His words took on added meaning because of his own heroic suffering.
The year from Feb. 2008 to Feb. 2009 marked the 150th anniversary of the apparitions. The Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI visited Lourdes in September 2008 to celebrate the anniversary.