At the foot of the French Pyrenees at a place called Lourdes, lived a girl named Bernadette. In her late teens she said all she wanted was to be just an ordinary girl, however because of earlier events Bernadette was never to have her wish in life or death.
Bernadette was born on January 7th 1844 to water mill owners Louise and Francois Soubirous and was christened Marie-Bernarde, but was always to be known as Bernadette. Her sister Toinette arrived on September 17th 1846 after which many misfortunes fell upon the family. Bernadette’s father Francois was blinded in the left eye by a chip of stone while working on a mill stone, and their young son Jean-Marie died in 1851, the following May, Louise bore another son, naming him after his dead brother. Their financial situation deteriorated and the mill was sold, and they ended up destitute. In 1855 a cholera epidemic claimed thirty-eight lives in Lourdes, Bernadette recovered from the illness but was left with chronic asthma, which plagued her for the rest of her life.
On February 11th 1858 when Bernadette now fourteen, went into the woods in search of fire wood with her sister Toinette and a friend Jeanne Abadie, known as Baloume. They spotted from the stream where they stood a grotto with dead wood inside; Bernadette’s sister and Baloume took off their clogs and waded across. Bernadette took longer so the other two went ahead, on hearing a rushing sound like a gust of wind Bernadette looking up, towards the grotto saw the vision of a lady in white. The apparition made a sign of the cross Bernadette did the same, when the vision was gone Bernadette ran to the others and told them what she had seen. Toinette unable to keep quiet told their mother, who anxious about further misfortunes warned Bernadette never to go to the grotto again. Disturbed by what she had seen Bernadette told her confessor Father Pomian who reported the story to the parish priest, but he said it was of no consequence.
Three days later Bernadette returned to the wood with several girls. The lady appeared to Bernadette who went into a state of trance, the other girls were fearful and ran for help. A few days later Bernadette returned to the grotto and asked the lady her name. The vision spoke for the first time in patois the dialect spoken by the community of Lourdes. The lady told Bernadette to visit her every day for two weeks saying, “I promise you happiness, not in this world but in the next”.
The news spread all over Lourdes and as each day she visited the grotto more and more people came to witness the event, and Bernadette was called for interrogation by the police superintendent Jacomet for causing a disturbance. Bernadette maintained she never said she saw the “Holy Virgin,” just a little lady. The police superintendent tried to change the story but Bernadette spotted the mistakes, and disputed them, sticking to her original account. Her father was told to stop Bernadette going to the Grotto, but Bernadette said she had promised to return, she did so the next day.
By 25th Feb three hundred people accompanied Bernadette who on seeing the vision prayed and then suddenly started digging a hole which filled with muddy water. A few days later the water cleared and a spring rose from the spot that subsequently turned into a small river. A girl called Catherine recovered the use of her paralysed hand after bathing in the water. After the thirteenth apparition Bernadette took a message from the lady to the parish priest “let the people come in procession and let a chapel be built here”. But she was not believed, he told her to ask the lady her name.
On the last day the lady appeared March 4th 1858 eight thousand people waited with Bernadette for a sign, but none came. Bernadette went back to her schooling and tried to carry on her normal life, however one morning she rose at five and went to the grotto and called and asked the lady her name “I am the Immaculate Conception”. Bernadette went and told the priest who was shaken that this girl of little education could have said such a thing.
Bernadette went back to her schoolwork to learn reading and writing the grotto (Massabielle) was boarded up. Over a period of four years Bernadette was often questioned but never changed her story. Daily life became difficult and Bernadette was found a place with the sisters in a hospice.
In 1862 Bernadette became ill with pneumonia and received the last rites, but recovered, during her short life she was to receive the last rites four times. After visiting the crypt in disguise for one last time she left her town never to return. At the age of twenty Bernadette entered Saint Gildard’s convent in Nevers. Bernadette became Sister Marie-Bernard, and nursed the wounded of the Franco-Prussian war. In 1875 she took to her bed and became an invalid and died on April 16th 1879 after much suffering.
In 1909 Pope Pius X made an enquiry into Bernadette’s life and her body was exhumed in the presence of the Bishop of Nevers and Mother Superior of the Convent, two forensic medical experts and civil authority. Her body appeared to be intact even her veins could still be seen through the skin. Bernadette was exhumed in 1919 and again in 1925 and was found to still be as in a mummified state. Bernadette became canonised in 1933 and today lies in a glass casket in the chapel of Saint Gildard’s Convent in Nevers.
Today millions of pilgrims visit Lourdes “in procession” from the message calling on self-examination of all our lives and repentance being the keys to God, given to a sickly girl who was not so ordinary. Numerous claims of cures of ailments, sixty-five to date have been declared miracles.
Joyce Gale. 2001
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