ON 7TH JANUARY 1844 Marie Bernarde Soubirous was born. She was the first child of Francois Soubirous, a poor miller from Lourdes in Southern France, and his wife Louise. She was a fragile child, and such was her small stature she acquired the name Bernadette. Her father’s lack of money meant she was often sent away to be cared for by relatives and friends, and in the summer of 1857 she went to stay with Marie Aravant in the nearby town of Batres. Aravant enjoyed having the girl at her home, but was concerned about her religious development. She tried to teach Bernadette about the Bible, but repeatedly grew impatient as the teenager failed to show any aptitude for the subject. Finally, Marie Aravant asked a local priest for his advice. He said Bernadette should be sent back to Lourdes for Catechism classes.

And so, shortly after her 14th birthday, the girl arrived back in her hometown. On 11th February 1858, Bernadette was with two friends collecting wood from the shore of the river Gave, to the west of Lourdes. She decided to walk to a great stone promontory known as the ‘Big Rock’ or Massabieille, which was a deserted spot next to the river. At the base of the cliff there was a 25-foot deep and 40-foot wide natural hollow. Bernadette heard a noise and looked up. The events that followed would change Bernadette and this area of France forever. As Bernadette raised her head, she saw a vision of a beautiful lady dressed in white and praying the Rosary. The apparition disappeared but Bernadette returned to the grotto and saw her again. On her third appearance, on 18th February, the lady spoke and asked the girl to come to their area each day for two weeks. Bernadette did as she was told. One day, the lady told Bernadette to wash herself in the grotto’s spring water. There was no spring in the area, so the girl dug into the mud and bathed in its damp earthiness. By the next day, a strong spring of fresh water had manifested. On the 13th encounter with the vision, the lady asked for a chapel to be built in her honour, and on the 16th appearance the woman revealed her identity as the ‘Immaculate Conception’. In total, Bernadette had seen the Holy Virgin Mother 18 times, with the last vision occurring on 16th July 1858.

Very quickly, many of those who drank or bathed in the grotto’s spring were reporting miraculous cures. By 28th July 1858 the Bishop of Tarbes had instigated an investigative commission. For over three and a half years this group of eminent clergymen, doctors and scientist studied the claims made by Bernadette and worshippers at the grotto. On 18th January 1862 they ruled that Bernadette herself was an entirely normal girl who really had seen the Virgin Mary. The cures attributed to the spring at Massabieille were declared real, but inexplicable, and the authorities agreed to build a chapel in homage to the Holy Mother there, thus providing the focal point for pilgrims. The main Basilica at Lourdes now comprises three chapels and there are other churches nearby. The largest one in the area, the Basilica of St Pius X, can hold 30,000 people, which is particularly useful as the site is visited by about a million pilgrims each year. Many travel there simply to show their respect, or to receive religious solace. Others who go are critically unwell and hope the healing waters will restore their mortal spirit. In total, there have been nearly 4,000 recoveries from illnesses, which have ranged from tuberculosis, sores and blindness to deafness and cancers. There have also been 65 miracles certified by the Catholic Church attributed to Our Lady of Lourdes.

Bernadette herself was not so lucky. In 1866 she joined the sisters of Nevers at the convent of Saint Gildard. Always frail, she continued to suffer from various illnesses and died on 16th April 1879 at the age of 35. In 1925, Bernadette’s perfectly preserved remains were transferred from the convent chapel to a glass casket in the Nevers chapel. It appeared that her body had survived better in death than it had in life and a Doctor Talon, who helped exhume her, later wrote an article for a medical journal saying the state of preservation was not a ‘natural phenomenon’. Bernadette was canonized in 1935, and is now the subject of pilgrimage in her own right.

No comments: