Feast Day : April 16
Also known as: Bernadette of Lourdes
Marie Bernarde (“Bernadette”) Soubirous was born on January 7, 1844, in Lourdes, France. Her parents, Francis, a miller, and Louise Soubirous, were very poor. They had nine children; five died in infancy, and Bernadette was the oldest of the survivors. When Bernadette was 12, her father lost his mill. The family moved several times, finally taking a tiny room loaned to them by a cousin. The conditions were horrible. The building had been a jail and was converted to a stable. The family’s room overlooked a dung heap and the stable yard; the room next to theirs contained livestock. It was damp and smelly, which aggravated Bernadette’s asthma. In 1857 Bernadette was sent to live with a foster mother, Marie Lagues, who promised to send the child to school and teach her the catechism. Instead, she sent Bernadette out to tend her sheep. She did try to give her instruction in the catechism at night, but Bernadette struggled with the French—she spoke only a dialect—and thus remained a poor student. On February 11, 1858, when she was 14, Bernadette was out gathering firewood along the Gave du Pau River near Lourdes with two companions. They waded in the water near a natural grotto at a place called Massabielle. Her friends went on ahead and Bernadette paused, afraid that the cold water would bring on an asthma attack. Suddenly she heard the sound of rushing wind and saw a brilliant light near the grotto. A small woman appeared in the light and bowed her head in greeting. Bernadette got out her rosary, and the apparition prayed with her. Speaking Bernadette’s dialect, the woman instructed her to come back to the grotto every day for 15 days. She said, “I do not promise to make you happy in this world but in the next.” Bernadette reported her experience. When more visions occurred, crowds of the curious and skeptical began to gather at the grotto. In all, Bernadette experienced 18 visions through March 4. Mary gave Bernadette personal messages and messages for the world. She urged people to pray and do penitence. During the visions, Bernadette experienced trances or ecstasies, some lasting an hour. On February 25, Mary told Bernadette to drink from a spring, pointing to a spot on the ground. Bernadette dug into the earth, and appeared to spectators to be eating mud. A spring emerged and subsequently became credited with miraculous healing powers. The water was determined to have no known natural therapeutic properties; believers attributed its curative powers to the patronage of Mary. In the last apparition on March 4, the woman identified herself as “the Immaculate Conception,” thus confirming dogma established four years earlier by Pope Pius IX (r. 1846–78). Bernadette revealed this message on March 25, along with the lady’s instructions that a church should be built on the spot where she appeared. Bernadette’s experiences were highly controversial, and some Church officials tried to delay or obstruct the building of the chapel. But when Empress Eugénie of France, the wife of Napoleon III, became interested and supportive, the chapel was erected. Bernadette made her First Communion in June 1858. After two years with her foster mother, she returned to her family home in Lourdes. She was allowed to attend school free of tuition with the Sistersnof Charity and Christian Instruction at Nevers. In 1862 the Catholic Church authenticated Bernadette’s visions. In 1866, Bernadette retired to the Sisters of Notre Dame convent in Nevers, not far from Lourdes, where she experienced the extremes of harsh treatment from the mistress of novices and admiration as a saint by some of her sisters. She worked as infirmarian and sacristan. Chronically ill most of her life, she became fatally ill with tuberculosis of the bone in the right knee. She suffered many complications and died on April 16, 1879, asking forgiveness for her faults, especially pride. During her life, she never deviated from her account of the visions. She refused to go to Lourdes to try to heal herself, saying that the site was for others, not her; it was her duty to bear her illness. She never revealed the personal messages given her by Mary. Bernadette was buried in the Chapel of St. Joseph on the convent grounds. On September 22, 1909, 30 years after her death, her body was exhumed for the cause of her beatification. Though her clothing was damp and the coffin contained sawdust and bits of charcoal, Bernadette’s body was incorrupt, and her arms and face still retained their natural tone and coloring. Her rosary, held in her hands, was rusted, and the crucifix upon her chest was covered with verdigris. Further examination showed that the incorrupt body was nonetheless emaciated, especially the afflicted right knee. The body was washed, reclothed and reburied. The remains were exhumed a second time on April 3, 1919. The body was still incorrupt, except the face had discolored—probably from the washing during the first exhumation. A wax coating was applied to the face. Bernadette’s relics were placed in a gold and glass coffin for public display at the Chapel of Saint Bernadette in the motherhouse at Nevers. Lourdes became one of the most important pilgrimage sites in the world, now drawing millions of visitors every year who hope to be cured by the waters. The spring generates 27,000 liters of water a week— approximately 13 liters per minute. The Church investigates reports of miraculous healings and publishes the most noteworthy of them.