1864, age 20
St. Bernadette of Lourdes (Sister Marie Bernarde Soubirous) was born on January 6, 1844 in the town of Lourdes, in the region of Hautes-Pyrénées in France. She is remembered as a visionary who experienced 18 Marian apparitions in a grotto in Lourdes between February 11 and July 15, 1858, when she was 14 years old.
Bernadette endured much skepticism and scrutiny before the Roman Catholic Church declared her worthy of belief, built a chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Lourdes at the grotto, and named it a pilgrimage site. It’s become one of the most popular shrines in the world. Meanwhile, Bernadette entered a convent and dedicated the suffering caused by her ill health to Jesus Christ, worked hard at her tasks, and was a great friend and spiritual inspiration to her sisters and visitors. She died on April 16, 1879.
Although many believe in the validity of the apparitions, she is venerated only in the Roman Catholic Church. She is the patron saint of Lourdes, bodily illness, poverty, and people ridiculed for their faith. Her feast day is April 16, except in France, where it is celebrated on February 18.
(The Roman Catholic Church also honors Our Lady of Lourdes with an optional memorial mass on February 11, the anniversary of the first apparition.)
The challenge of writing a biography of a modern-era saint is directly opposite from that of a biblical saint – distilling copious amounts of historic records into a balanced life story that describes who she was, why she’s saint-worthy, and what lessons she has for us today. Unexpectedly, I also found a friend.
Bernadette’s grandmother was the wife of a miller who died suddenly in a wagon accident. Desperate for the means to support her five children, she tried to arrange the marriage of her eldest daughter Bernarde to Francois Soubirous, a local man who seemed like he’d make a good miller. Although, Bernarde came with the status of eldest daughter or heiress, Francois chose instead to marry her younger sister, Louise.
He and Louise were bossed around by Bernarde until she married someone else and the whole family moved out of the mill and away from Francois and Louise. Alas, Francois was not a good businessman, either due to lack of ambition, a possible drinking problem, or his extreme generosity.
Bernadette was baptized two days after her birth and named after her aunt and godmother, Bernarde. Some time after that, Louise was accidentally burned by the hot wax of a candle she had knocked over and became unable to nurse Bernadette.
In a nearby town, Bartrès, there was a woman named Marie Laguës whose baby boy was stillborn. Francois paid her to be Bernadette’s wet nurse. Marie loved Bernadette and after she was weaned, arranged with her parents to have her visit her family twice a year. But it wasn’t a totally pure love in that she resented Bernadette for taking the milk belonging to her dead son.
Louise bore a son in 1845 named Jean who died before his first year, and then Toinette (1846-1892). Jean-Marie was born in 1848 and died in 1851. Then Louise gave birth to another boy they also named Jean-Marie (1851-1919).
In 1850, when Bernadette was six years old, she developed a digestion disorder that she had to deal with for the rest of her life. She was unable to eat the corn meal bread that was a peasant staple in the area. Her mother purchased expensive wheat bread that only Bernadette was allowed to eat.
In 1855, a cholera epidemic hit Lourdes. It left Bernadette at age 10 with asthma, another condition she had to suffer for the rest of her life. Also in 1855, her brother Justin was born.
According to the limited eye witness accounts, Bernadette was a mostly silent child who did what was expected of her. As eldest daughter, she was responsible for the care and behavior of her younger siblings. Toinette remembered taking advantage of Bernadette’s good nature.
When Bernadette visited the Laguës family three miles away in Bartrés, she was treated and fed as a servant. It’s possible that she never told her parents about this treatment. But it’s also possible that they perhaps knew but needed that extra mouth to be fed somewhere else. At another time, Bernadette lived with her godmother and helped serve in her Aunt Bernarde’s tavern.
In September of 1857, Marie sent a servant to ask Francois and Louise if Bernadette would return to help with her eight children, the housework, and sheep. She promised that Bernadette could attend school and work on her catechism so that she could receive First Communion.
Although she most likely attended mass in Bartrès, Bernadette’s duties were too many (tending the sheep was the most time consuming) to allow her to attend school or study the catechism. Marie tried to teach Bernadette herself but gave up because she was impatient and barely literate herself.
Bernadette had an especially difficult time studying the catechism because it was in French, which she didn’t know. Most people in the area spoke in patois or regional dialect. The particular patois in this Pyrénées region of southern France along the boarder of Spain is considered a Romance micro language which varied significantly from French and is now known as Occitan.
But she did know her rosary and she was determined. Although there are no records of Bernadette ever saying anything negative about Marie Laguës, whom she loved, there came a time in January 1858, when her desire for her First Communion outweighed her obedience. She walked home to Lourdes and arranged to study the catechism with the parish priest.
At this point her father, unable to keep up with the rent, had lost the mill and had moved the family into a tiny room that had once been a jail cell, located on the bottom level of a relative’s home, close to the barnyard.
Her father worked as a day laborer while her mother took in laundry and mending. Although Bernadette was now home to help care for her siblings, the family was often cold, under clothed, and ate only meager meals - certainly not ideal conditions for a malnourished asthmatic. At this time Bernadette was 14 years old, but appeared much younger in her looks and in how she enjoyed playing the games of the younger children.
On February 11, Louise sent Toinette to scavenge for wood. Bernadette begged to go too even though she was so sickly. Her mother relented. Along with a friend, Jeanne Abadie, they bypassed private property with a downed tree for fear of being called thieves and headed out of town to where a canal met the Gave de Pau River. The girls could see some branches that had drifted ashore and collected upon a sandy area underneath a rock formation known as Massabielle containing a grotto (small cave) underneath.
Toinette and Jean crossed the river right away complaining of the cold water. Bernadette, the only one wearing stockings, failed to find another way to cross, so she began to take off her stockings. At that moment she heard a wind and looked up, but saw nothing moving. She bent down to take off her other stocking and saw a light coming out of a little niche above the grotto where a wild rose bush grew on a ledge. Then Bernadette saw a beautiful young girl dressed in white. She smiled and seemed to beckon to Bernadette.
She tried to shake the illusion off. Frightened, she took out her rosary. “When I tried to make the sign of the cross, something stopped me from raising my hand, and when Aqueró made the sign of the cross something made me raise my hand.” - Lourdes, Histoire authentique, R. Laurentin, Vol. 2 page 187
Aqueró means “that” in Bernadette’s local patios. (For simplicity’s sake, all of her quotes are in English translated from her patios or later after she learned, from French.)
They silently prayed the rosary together, and then the young girl disappeared.
Bernadette, filled with an inner joy, asked if the other girls had seen anything. They said no and badgered her until she told them what she had seen and swore them to secrecy.
Of course, Toinette told their mother the whole story.
Louise already and always stressed out by the requirements of getting through another poverty-filled day, beat them both with Toinette getting the worst of it. She kept insisting that Bernadette saw only a white stone. Bernadette cried during family prayers and woke up the next morning with a strong desire to return to the grotto. Her mother wouldn’t let her.
On February 13, at Saturday’s confession, Bernadette confessed to Father Pomian, “I saw something white having the form of a lady.” - Lourdes, Histoire authentique, R. Laurentin, Vol. 2 page 202
He questioned Bernadette in detail and asked her permission to tell Reverend Pastor Peyramale. She agreed. Pastor Peyramale advised a wait-and-see approach.
On February 14, the last Sunday before Lent, Bernadette asked her parent’s permission to go back to the grotto. It was reluctantly granted.
Followed by a group of friends, Bernadette ran to the grotto and was not winded or coughing when they caught up with her. She had knelt down and was saying her rosary. She didn’t answer any of their questions. She said, “There is a light! There she is? Her rosary is on her right arm. She’s looking at you.” - Lourdes, Histoire authentique, R. Laurentin, Vol. 2 page 261
Her friends had goaded her into sprinkling holy water on the lady, while saying “If you come from God, stay, but if not . . .” - Lourdes, Histoire authentique, R. Laurentin, Vol. 2 page 262
At that moment Jeanne Baloume dropped a rock from the top of the cliff. All the children ran off in fright except Bernadette. They came back to pull her away, but they couldn’t move her at all. Pale, she remained staring at the niche above the grotto.
The children called on the strong adult miller Antoine Nicolou to help move Bernadette. He was able to carry her to his nearby mill, but she remained pale and focused elsewhere. Finally, she bowed her head; the color returned to her cheeks, she looked around, smiled, and said, “I saw a beautiful young girl with a rosary on her arm.” - Lourdes, Histoire authentique, R. Laurentin, Vol. 2 page 272
When her mother heard the story, she became terrified that all this attention would be bad for the family and forbade Bernadette from going back to the grotto.
At her school that was part of the Hospice of Lourdes, the children taunted Bernadette, referring to the pigs that foraged regularly near the grotto. The sisters listened to the story then told Bernadette that it was an illusion and to stop thinking about it.
The next day, Madame Milhet, a former servant who married her employer and was used to getting her way, talked Louise into letting her and her friend Antoinette Peyret accompany Bernadette back to the grotto the next day.
They set out before dawn on February 18. At the grotto, they began the rosary together. Bernadette saw the apparition and as Madame Milhet prompted her to do, asked her to write down her name. “Aqueró began to laugh and said, ‘It is not necessary.’”
Bernadette remembered her voice as being delicate and soft. Then Aqueró said, “Would you have the kindness to come here for 15 days?”
When Bernadette agreed, Aqueró said, “I do not promise to make you happy in this world but in the next.”
- Lourdes, Histoire authentique R. Laurentin, Vol. 2 page 262-364
Aunt Bernarde as well as 30 other people witnessed the next apparition on February 20. Bernadette had agreed to her demand to carry a blessed candle every time she went to the grotto. Bernadette emerged from the silent ecstasy calm and happy.
The sixth apparition on February 21, witnessed by 100 people, was also silent.
At this point, Bernadette and her mother were brought to the police commissioner, Dominique Jacomet, who barraged her with questions trying to catch her in a lie. Bernadette remained stoic, polite, and straightforward. She became angry but still courteous when he “read back” the exact opposite of what she had just said. He did record correctly that Bernadette described Aqueró as having a white robe drawn together with a blue sash, a white veil over head, a yellow rose on each foot, and a rosary in her hand.
After two hours of intense questioning, Louise was on the brink of collapse, crying and fearful that Jacomet would carry out his threat to put her daughter in jail. Jacomet finally offered them chairs and some refreshments. Bernadette refused both.
On Jacomet’s orders, Bernadette’s parents forbade her from going back to the grotto.
“It saddens me. I must disobey either you or that lady.” - Lourdes, Histoire authentique, R. Laurentin, Vol. 4 page 162
The next day, she received a tongue lashing from the sister superior at school for all the nonsense. Yet after school, she could not resist the draw to the grotto. But the lady did not appear.
Later and quite unexpectedly, her father granted his permission to return to the grotto because Bernadette was so sad.
The eighth apparition took place on February 24. People saw Bernadette communicating, nodding yes and no, crying and laughing. She also walked on her knees and bowed to the ground. At this point, her young Aunt Lucile cried out and fainted. This brought Bernadette back to her surroundings to calm and gently rebuke her aunt. The lady disappeared. On the way home, Bernadette told her aunt that she couldn’t accompany her to the grotto anymore.
When later questioned, Bernadette was shocked that the people couldn’t hear the conversation she was having with Aqueró as she believed she had spoken aloud. Bernadette also explained, “She talks to me in patois and calls me 'vous'.” - Lourdes, Histoire authentique R. Laurentin, Vol. 4 page 313
The ninth apparition took place on February 25 and was witnessed by at least 300 people. The ecstasy began with Bernadette again on her knees moving back and forth between the inner and outer cave openings. She then walked around looking puzzled until she climbed up towards the back of the grotto and look down at the red clay mud. She looked back at the niche and then stooped down and dug into the mud with her hand. She made to drink the water she got from the hole she created, but she kept spitting it out. With difficulty she swallowed the dirty water she drew on the fourth attempt. Next, she drew more muddy water and “washed” her face. Finally, she reached over to a weed (golden saxifrage), picked some of the leaves, and ate them.
The witnesses were completely weirded out by this behavior. Bernadette had to explain over and over what had happened: “Aqueró told me to go drink at the spring and wash in it. Not seeing any spring, I went to drink at the Gave (River), but she beckoned with her finger for me to go under a rock. I went and found a little muddy water, almost too little for me to hold in the hollow of my hand. Three times I threw it away, it was so dirty. On my fourth try, I succeeded.” - Lourdes, Histoire authentique R. Laurentin, Vol. 4 page 425
Bernadette believed she was to take those actions as penance for sinners.
Bernadette struggled to remember the exact words the lady said, “Go drink at that spring and wash in it.” And, “You will eat the grass that is there.” - Lourdes, Histoire authentique, R. Laurentin Vol. 4 page 428
Later that afternoon, a trickle of water bubbled up from the hole Bernadette had started. Some people dug further and the water flowed and cleared up. People drank it and brought bottles of the water back to town. Those who drank the water felt happy and at peace.
The pig owners said that there was already a spring at Massabielle behind some brambles. Sot it’s possible that what Bernadette did was divert a previously existing spring. Nevertheless.
From February 25 to the 27, Bernadette was questioned extensively by varying people from the Church and local government. She went to the grotto twice, but no apparition appeared.
The tenth and eleventh apparitions took place on February 28 and 29. Bernadette repeated her penitential actions from the 24th in front of larger and larger crowds and more prominent townspeople and visitors.
During the twelfth apparition on March 1, witnesses believed that Bernadette held up her rosary for the lady to bless, so they held up their rosaries too. She later explained that the lady knew that Bernadette wasn’t praying with her own rosary, so she put away Pauline Sous’s rosary, and held up her own before Aqueró would proceed.
The thirteenth apparition took place on March 2. There were 1,650 people waiting for Bernadette to tell them what the lady said during their conversation. She replied, “To go tell the priests that people are to come in procession.” - Lourdes, Histoire authentique, R. Laurentin, Vol. 4 page 428
By this point, most people believed that the lady was the Blessed Virgin Mary, although Bernadette disputed this as Aqueró hadn’t given her name. The people hurried with her to Pastor Peyramale.
Pastor Peyramale was torn at this point, he was glad that so many people were attending his Lenten services, and he almost believed Bernadette himself, but he remained wary because of her family’s status as well as Bernadette’s ignorance. For example, Father Pomian discovered during catechism class that Bernadette hadn’t already learned about the mystery of the Holy Trinity by age 14.
When Bernadette arrived at the rectory and told Pastor Peyramale about Aqueró’s desire for a procession, he questioned her with such intensity of emotions, that she left the rectory having forgotten to tell him about Aqueró’s other request for a chapel to be built at the grotto.
Later that evening, she returned with Dominiquette Cazenave and said, “Reverend Pastor, Aqueró told me: ‘Go tell the priests to have a chapel built here.’” – Lourdes, Histoire authentique, R. Laurentin, Vol. 5, page 192
Dominiquette helped translate between Bernadette’s patios and the French used by some of the questioners who had gathered in the rectory.
At this time, Bernadette knew only a few words in French, couldn’t read or write, hadn’t made her First Communion and was having difficulty in memorizing the French catechism. Also, Bernadette’s memory was not strong. This made studying difficult and caused her to forget parts of the visions when later questioned. In fact, the intense reaction and down putting of Peyramale caused her to forget most of the details of this particular apparition. Bernadette was always straight forward about what she couldn’t answer because she had forgotten.
On March 3, the crowd pressed in all around her and broke Bernadette’s candle. Aqueró didn’t appear when she prayed the rosary. On the advice of her Uncle Sajous, she went back later when the crowd had thinned out for the day. Aqueró appeared for the fourteenth time.
Bernadette reported to Peyramale, “Reverend Pastor, the lady still wants her chapel.”
“Did you ask her name?”
“Yes, but all she does is smile.”
“All right, if she wants a chapel, let her give her name, and let her make the rosebush at the grotto bloom!”
- Lourdes, Histoire authentique, R. Laurentin, Vol. 5 page 231
On March 4, Bernadette returned to the grotto with family members and Jean-Marie Cazenaue, a strong man who drove the stage coach. Bernadette had asked him to help her get through the crowds. The fifteenth apparition appeared but said nothing that Bernadette repeated.
Many demanded miracles from her. She told them to pray themselves and to wash in the spring. Others couldn’t bear to witness Bernadette’s poverty and tried to give money to her or her family. Bernadette refused it all. People tried to trade her for her rosary. She refused all offers for that as well.
Things calmed down a bit after this as Bernadette felt no draw to return to the grotto. Visitors continued to drink and wash in the spring water.
Meanwhile, Bernadette did her chores and struggled to memorize her catechism. During her free time, she played outdoor games with the younger children with great abandon. People expected her to be performing healing miracles and were disappointed to see her playing like a child.
On March 25, Annunciation Day, she awoke before dawn to the familiar feeling of being drawn to the grotto. Her mother didn’t want her to go because her asthma had flared up during the previous few days. But Bernadette said that she felt better and her family could accompany her.
When Aqueró appeared, Bernadette didn’t let her happiness distract her from her mission from Pastor Peyramale. She tried three times to ask Aqueró for her name. Three times Aqueró only smiled.
At the fourth attempt, Aqueró stopped smiling. She slipped her rosary over her right arm, unfolded her hands and reached them toward the ground. Then she folded her hands at her breast, raised her eyes to heaven and said, “I am the Immaculate Conception.” - Lourdes, Histoire authentique, R. Laurentin, Vol. 6 page 95-99 and 121
At the end of the vision, Bernadette repeated the phrase over and over to herself so she wouldn’t forget it. People along the way to the rectory heard her saying it.
She burst into Pastor Peyramale’s office and shouted, “I am the Immaculate Conception!”
When she saw him jump up and begin to react with anger, she clarified, “Aqueró said, ‘I am the Immaculate Conception.’”
Pastor Peyramale calmed down a bit and said, “A lady cannot bear that name!”
He tried to recall his theology, let’s see now, the virgin was conceived without sin . . . her conception was immaculate . . . but how can she say she is conception? He turned to Bernadette, “You’re mistaken! Do you know what that means?”
Bernadette shook her head.
“Then how can you say that, if you didn’t understand?”
“I repeated it all the way here.”
- Lourdes, Histoire authentique, R. Laurentin, Vol. 6 page 129
Pastor Peyramale sent her home so that he could think. It wasn’t until later that evening that someone finally explained to Bernadette what the words “Immaculate Conception” meant.
(The Immaculate Conception is a dogma of the Roman Catholic Church that says that from the moment she was conceived, The Blessed Virgin Mary was kept free from original sin. Most Protestants reject this dogma specifically because the idea of Immaculate Conception was not taught in the bible.
It’s possible that the Blessed Virgin Mary referred to herself as the Immaculate Conception because the dogma had been declared only four years earlier and was still a topic of conversation in the Church. It’s also possible that Bernadette had heard the term in reference to the Blessed Virgin Mary during her childhood, perhaps in French during mass in Bartés and incorporated the phrase into her visions.)
She was overjoyed to learn that Aqueró was really the Blessed Virgin Mary. Pastor Peyramale would soon become the strongest supporter of Bernadette and the Grotto at Lourdes.
A medical inquiry followed in which three doctors could not point to any mental disorder in Bernadette. Many other visits with questioners took place.
The seventeenth apparition occurred on April 7. Bernadette held a large candle in her hand. During the vision, witnesses saw her hands engulfed in flames. But when she emerged from the ecstasy, her hands were unscarred and susceptible to pain as shown when someone in the crowd snuck up to test her by holding a flame to her hand.
Bernadette continued to be questioned by authorities in the government and the Church. She answered with a combination of courtesy and steadfastness to her experience. In other words, she never contradicted what she had said previously about the apparitions no matter how hard the questioners tried to trip her up. She mostly remained courteous when they insulted her although sometimes she shut down and refused to answer any more questions.
She struggled with annoyance as to the trivial nature of some of the questions. For example, she readily admitted to having not noticed the color of the lady’s hair as most of it was under her veil.
Also, due to her poor memory she was unable to keep track of the dates and some of the sequence of the apparitions.
During these questionings, she revealed that the Lady had told her three secrets and taught her a prayer that was for her only. Bernadette never shared these secrets with anyone.
The consistency of her words and demeanor during all of these question sessions greatly impressed the Church and soon they began referring to Bernadette as the example or baseline in questioning other visionaries.
Some were dismissed as overly excited children; others were dismissed due to their conduct afterwards. However, one named Marie Courrech was at first treated like a copycat visionary, but her piety and conduct during and afterwards proved to be as steadfast as Bernadette’s.
Alas, the church discounted her story, possibly because the “PR team” didn’t want any attention to be diverted from Bernadette, the living saint. Marie was unable to enter a convent, because she was an orphan and a servant with no dowry. She remained pious throughout her life and believed that her visions of the Holy Virgin gave her special healing powers of prediction and understanding. She helped her community in this lay capacity.
Bernadette suffering from asthma, continued to be subjected to questionings. When pressed by people who wanted Bernadette to convince them to go to the grotto, she said, “You must have faith or else you must not go.” - Père Cros’ Journal of Inquire, page 184
Finally on June 3, Bernadette had learned her catechism and was able to receive her First Communion.
There next came a time when visitors to the grotto were fighting with authorities. For example, a fence was erected by the authorities, then torn down by the pilgrims, then erected again. Bernadette had nothing to do with the goings on at the grotto.
On July 16, Bernadette felt the familiar feeling of attraction to the grotto. At 8:00 p.m., she walked there with family members along a different route.
They ended up on the other side of the Gave de Pau River, facing the rocks and the barriers. They joined other groups kneeling in prayer. Her family members could not even see the grotto. But Bernadette had a clear view of the beautiful lady. They silently prayed the rosary together and then Bernadette stood up. She later said, “I saw neither the boards nor the Gave; it seemed to me I was at the grotto, no farther away than at the other times. I saw nothing but the Blessed Virgin.” – Père Cros’ Journal of Inquire, Page 101
At this point, the histories of St. Bernadette and the Grotto of Lourdes split. A few words on the Grotto of Lourdes before rejoining Bernadette:
The number of pilgrims visiting the grotto continued to grow. Countless miraculous healings were attributed to bathing or drinking the water of the spring. Volunteers assisted the ill in all aspects of attendance - travel, meals, and physical caretaking. Politicians and church authorities continued to be involved. Upon the report of the medical/miracle review board, the Roman Catholic Church named the site, The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes.
Novelists wrote about Bernadette, Our Lady of Lourdes, and the grotto. Then they publicly argued over whose version was truer.
Prominent people witnessed or experienced healings. Miracles occurred there every day usually during the Eucharistic Parade before Holy Communion.
Sadly, some of the support for the Grotto of Lourdes came out in the form of anti-Republic, anti-Reformation, and even anti-Semitism. Nazi collaborator and Vichy Leader Marshal Philippe Pétain’s name is actually on a plaque for donating funds to one of the building projects.
Franz Werfel, a Jewish Viennese writer, hid from the National Socialists at Lourdes on his way to safety in America. He was inspired to write THE SONG OF BERNADETTE, published in 1941.
In 1943, an Academy Award-winning movie based on that title was released. People complained that the movie was not true to the novel, which in fact, was not true to the facts. But both are definitely worth enjoying with the understanding that they are works of fiction.
Throughout all the talking, writing, and politicking, pilgrims attended, the sick were healed, and volunteers worked tirelessly assisting those in need of help with this spiritual healing process. These thousands of anonymous volunteers are true heroes and their good works continue.
The Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes has become a welcoming international and multi-denominational healing pilgrimage site. Check out The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes to find out more about the Lourdes of today. (If any dearworthy readers have been to Lourdes, please share a bit of the experience below in the comments section.)
Back to Bernadette, who in later years, when asked if she’d like to go back to the grotto, said, “If I was a little bird, I’d go to the grotto morning and night.” – Achieves Cros, A V.2 e, page 72.
The crowds and attention were too much for Bernadette who believed that her mission for the Blessed Virgin Mary was over and that she should be put behind the door like a broom after the room is swept.
Meanwhile she continued to suffer from asthma and the constant visitors who questioned her relentlessly. Written historical records of these interviews fill volumes. Granted, they have value in the uncovering of the true story; however, they are repetitive and one can imagine quite a cross for Bernadette to bear.
Here are examples from both ends of the extreme:
In July 1858, Comte de Broussard, an atheist, tried to catch Bernadette in a lie. He was thrown off by her simplicity and self-assurance. He wrote of the conversation that took place after he asked her to show him how the ‘belle dame’ smiled:
“Oh, sir, you’d have to be from heaven to imitate that smile.”
“Can’t you do it for me? I’m a non-believer, and don’t hold with apparitions.”
The child’s countenance darkened and her expression became severe. “Then, sir, you think I’m a liar?” I was completely disarmed. No, Bernadette was not a liar, and I was on the point of going down on my knees to ask her forgiveness. “Since you are a sinner,” she went on, “I will show you the Virgin’s smile.”
Since then . . . I have lost my wife and my two daughters, but it seems to me that I am far from being alone in the world. I live with the Virgin’s smile.
– Lourdes; Documents Authentiques, R. Laurentin, B. Billet Vol. 3. page 74, n. 244.
– Lourdes; Documents Authentiques, R. Laurentin, B. Billet Vol. 3. page 74, n. 244.
At the end of January 1860, an educated priest, Father Junqua, showed up in Lourdes and insisted that Bernadette come out on a cold, rainy evening so that he could interview her at his lodging. Even though Bernadette was tired, ill, and coughing, he questioned her extensively. At the end of the interview the priest was proud to have recorded the following himself:
I said, “Show me your rosary.” (The girl showed her beads, a simple rosary with a metal attached.) “Will you give me this rosary? I will pay you later.”
“No sir, I don’t want to give or sell you my beads.”
“But I’d really like a souvenir from you. I traveled so far to see you! Truly, you owe me your rosary.”
And Bernadette gave it to me. I seized this heavenly quarry upon which the tears of the child fell more than once, for she actually used these beads in the presence of the vision. What a treasure! Oh, if anyone were to take this precious relic from me, he would be the cruelest of enemies.
“May I pay you for this rosary, my daughter? Here’s a coin.”
“No sir, I’ll buy another one with my own money.”
– Lourdes; Documents Authentiques, R. Laurentin, B. Billet Vol. 5, page 74, n. 903
Then he tried to get her to cut her shawl and give him half of it. She refused. And finally, he had her kneel down to receive his blessing.
Bernadette had a particular gift in her faulty memory that allowed her to forget when she was treated poorly and retained no memory of this exchange. It should also be noted that her original two-cent rosary had already been stolen from her bed or her pocket and what she actually gave him was a replacement.
Although she continued to struggle with her letters and numbers, she received Confirmation on Sunday, February 6, 1860.
By the spring of 1860 at age 16, Bernadette was working as a babysitter, studying, helping out at home, and reluctantly but obediently, meeting with all types of visitors for questionings.
Up to this point, she had refused to leave her family, but she was wearying of the crowds. Pastor Peyramale arranged for Bernadette to be placed with the Sisters of Nevers as a boarding student. Her chronic illness allowed her to attend under the “unable-to-pay” status.
Bernadette, who was already attending the day school with the other charity cases, was now moved up to the class with the boarders who were not poor. She was unhappy about this arrangement.
However, with this consistent schooling, she finally learned how to read, write, and speak French. She was happiest playing games with the younger students during recreation. Her fun was often interrupted and she was ordered to meet with visitors in the parlor. Sometimes she cried at the relentlessness of these visits, but she obeyed.
She continued to refuse to accept money and dropped any money handed to her as if it were on fire. The sisters told her she had to place the money in the poor box for the sisters. Bernadette told the visitors to put the money into the box themselves.
Bernadette was the first saint to have been photographed. These new photographers arranged their subject as if they were painted portraits. Subjects had to hold still for six minutes before the process was complete. Bernadette was able to hold still for that long, but in many of the images, she looks more than annoyed. She found it ridiculous that she was made to wear what the photographer thought of as her peasant’s clothes.
Most of these photos were copied and sold as post cards or prayer cards. Bernadette was taught to autograph these cards for visitors. She usually signed, “Pray for Bernadette,” because so many people asked for her prayers but few offered to pray for her. Bernadette continued to suffer asthma attacks, but supposedly preferred them to visitors.
One visitor, Joseph Fabisch, had been commissioned to sculpt a statue of our Lady of Lourdes based on Bernadette’s specific description. He questioned Bernadette relentlessly as to the details of the Virgin’s appearance. Yet, he had an odd habit of not actually listening to her.
The statue placed in the niche at the grotto of Lourdes, bears only a passing resemblance to what Bernadette described. First of all, she was quite clear that no artist could recreate the beauty of the Lady even if she had the words to describe it. But also, Bernadette always told her questioners that the lady looked like a young girl and was about Bernadette’s height. Most people chose to hear her say that the Virgin was an adult maternal image.
Bernadette was also upset because the statue faces upward toward heaven and the neck looks oddly elongated when seen from below.
On January 18, 1862, Bishop Laurence who had been assigned to head the commission investigating the apparitions, signed the Episcopal document declaring, “We judge that Mary Immaculate, Mother of God, has truly appeared to Bernadette Soubirous.” – Lourdes Documents Authentiques, R. Laurentin, and D. Billet, Vol 6, page 237
Bernadette was being wooed by other convents, but decided that the Sisters of Charity at Nevers was the best place for her because they did not woo her. Also, she enjoyed working with the sick at the hospice in Lourdes and believed that she’d be able to continue this work.
She was worried that her ill health and lack of dowry made her undesirable, but she was assured that when a true vocation was recognized in poor girls, they were accepted without a dowry.
So Bernadette announced that she would like to become a nun with the Sisters of Charity at Nevers. Her request was granted on April 4, 1864.
Bernadette’s bouts of ill health and constant visits and interviews delayed her entry. It wasn’t until the early summer of 1866 that she visited family and prepared to leave Lourdes. She and her travel companions arrived at the motherhouse in Nevers on July 7.
On July 29, 1866, she joined nineteen novices making their profession. She was giving the religious name, Sister Marie Bernarde.
Mother Marie-Thérèse Vauzou was the sister in charge of the novices. They loved and feared her at the same time. She became a replacement mother to them, and she expected them to share all their secrets with her. Bernadette refused to share the three secrets that the Blessed Virgin had told her.
Mother Vauzou held this against Bernadette for the rest of her life, and she also felt that it was her particular duty to constantly tell Bernadette that she was worthless in order to keep her humble.
In the beginning, Bernadette shed many tears over this constant down putting by someone she loved so much, but eventually she became resigned.
Mother Vauzou and the other mothers quickly learned of Bernadette’s talent in reassuring homesick novices. They regularly sent them to Bernadette to be sized up and given heart-to-heart talks.
Bernadette loved recreation time, worked hard at duties, prayed often, and avoided visitors whenever she could.
There are several instances recorded of Bernadette being asked by visitors to the church if they could meet Sister Marie Bernarde. She always responded yes and then walked away. Someone else would have to tell the visitor that they were just speaking to Sister Marie Bernarde.
Bernadette loved to laugh. Sister Louise Brusson recorded the following incident in the novitiate:
One day when we were on refectory duty, we sat down at the table after the rest had gone. That day there was a platter of carrots, sliced into thin circles. They were hard. Sister Marie Bernarde picked at the plate with a fork and sent the carrots rolling down the table. It was impossible not to laugh. Sister Marie Bernarde was laughing so hard that we all did too. We couldn’t eat anymore. At the end of the meal, Sister Marie Bernarde turned to me and said, “Let’s go.”
I understood. We left to make our culp (confession) to the mistress of novices.
- Procès Apostolique de Nevers, archives of the convent of St. Gildard n. 86
Once, Bernadette became so sick, that she was prepared for death and given last rites. She also received a special permission to be “admitted to her profession,” or made into a full sister. She was too weak to say the prayers, so they were said for her.
And then she recovered. When she got out of the infirmary bed, she put on the veil of novice and returned to the novitiate.
Bernadette’s mother died in December, 1866 at 41 years of age after giving birth to nine children, only four of whom survived to adulthood. Bernadette’s sister, Toinette, married and gave birth to five children, all of whom died before their fifth birthday. These heartbreaking facts are included to show how terrible health conditions were at this time in history.
Imagine suffering chronic asthma without an inhaler and a stomach disorder without food allergy tests or special diets. Also, diseases spread easily before the development of vaccines and proper hygienic practices.
Bernadette made her profession of vows on October 30, 1867 at age 23. At the ceremony, the mother superior spoke of Bernadette’s unworthiness to be assigned a place at one of the outlying sister houses and said that she may as well stay at the mother house and work in the infirmary since she was sick so often and that would be convenient.
Witnesses understood that her words were spoken in an effort to keep Bernadette humble, as assignments to the mother house were considered plum.
Bernadette experienced a relative peak of good health and excelled in this area of service. She took precise notes relating to medicines and their doses, she was not repulsed by the “dirty work,” she soothed the dying, and encouraged the novices who worried that they’d be sent home due to their illnesses. She was made Head Infirmarian during the spring of 1870.
The mother-house doctor, physician, and President of the Medical Society of Nevers, Dr. Robert Saint-Cyr, wrote this evaluation of Sister Marie Bernarde on September 3, 1872:
“An Infirmarian who does her work to perfection, short, frail looking, she is twenty-seven years old. Possessing a calm and gentle nature, she cares for the patients with great intelligence, overlooking nothing she has been ordered to do. Accordingly, she enjoys great authority and for my part, my complete confidence.”
- Ecrits de Saint Bernadette, A. Ravier, page 309
She received word of her father’s death in early spring, 1871. At this point, she lost all desire to travel home for a visit.
As Bernadette’s health began its long final decline in the autumn of 1873, and she spent much time in bed, another sister was named Head Infirmarian and Bernadette was named the assistant.
Later she was named Sacristan. She performed these church duties with a simple reverence. She also took good care of the liturgical linens and her needlework was meticulous.
Bernadette worked even in her sick bed either sewing or decorating Easter eggs. In those days, the eggs were dyed first and then they were scraped with a pen knife to create the design. Bernadette’s favorite symbol was the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
One would think that all of her prayers were to the Blessed Virgin Mary, but no. She prayed to Jesus all the time. She dedicated everything she did and all of her suffering to Him.
Of course, she often prayed to the Blessed Virgin Mary for intercession and also to her beloved St. Joseph, whom she prayed for intercession when needing particular assistance. For example, when due to her illness, she was having trouble praying, she’d pray, “St. Joseph, help me pray!” Sometimes these exclamations were the only type of prayer she could do.
Bernadette’s condition got so bad, especially during the winters, that she was given last rites two more times, but then recovered.
She had been diagnosed with tuberculosis of the bones and suffered with a tumor, terrible inflammation, and decay of her knee. She was treated with a silicate dressing. She managed several recoveries and was able to get around and do some tasks through the autumn of 1878. Then she became bedridden for the final time.
She repeated often that the Virgin had told her that she didn’t promise to make her happy in this life but the next. She insisted that the night nurses sleep even when she couldn’t, which was often, and she continued to advise them about their particular paths.
In January 1979, Dr. Robert Saint-Cyr was so frustrated by Bernadette’s condition that he told her she was a “bizarre patient.”
Upset by his words and attitude, she gave up, “No more of this - let him not return.” – Logiade Bernadette, R. Laurentine and M.T. Bourgeade, note 546
Her suffering - the pain of her knee, copious bed sores, coughing up of blood, difficulty breathing, and inability to eat food, became unbearable.
But she bore it for Jesus. She regularly flung her arms out in an attempt to be one with Jesus on the Cross.
She asked for the removal of all the religious pictures that she had earlier pinned to her bed curtains so she could focus only on the crucifix.
Her final hours of life were filled with suffering and love for Jesus. She was again given last rites as well as a special blessing delivered to her from the pope.
Between cries of pain, she said, “My God, I love you with all my heart, all my soul, and all my strength.” - Logiade Bernadette, R. Laurentin and M. Bourgeade, page 589
She held tightly to the crucifix in her hands and repeated the words of the Hail Mary with the sisters kneeling by the bed. She then gestured for something to drink, made the sign of the cross, took a sip, and died. It was a little after 3:00 p.m. on April 16, 1879. She was 35.
Gracious Father, whose Son Jesus Christ went about healing the sick: We praise you for the gift of healing, whether granted directly or through the work of dedicated physicians, surgeons, and nurses; and we pray you to keep us always grateful for deliverance from illness whenever it pleases you to heal us, and patient and cheerful in affliction when for any reason you call us to endure it; and this we ask through your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and ever.
BERNADETTE SPEAKS: A LIFE OF SAINT BERNADETTE SOUBIROUS IN HER OWN WORDS by René Laurentin
LOURDES: BODY AND SPIRIT IN THE SECULAR AGE by Ruth Harris
MY LIFE WITH THE SAINTS by James Martin, SJ
LIVES OF THE SAINTS, VOL. II by Alban Butler
I’m blessed to be enjoying good health right now. But there was a time, between September 2010 and December 2011, in which I suffered from periodic, unexplained, early morning fainting. I was treated for vitamin deficiency, hormonal fluctuations, food sensitivities, and stress. The frustration was that after each diagnosis and treatment, I’d be fine for a while and then BAM, it would happen again.
The worst part was the vertigo that followed. If it wasn’t for my chiropractor, I’d probably still be sitting on the couch watching all four Pirates of the Caribbean movies on an endless loop. Yet, even with his care, I spent a lot of time unable to do what I was supposed to be doing.
After ten weeks of no fainting, I got up on the morning of December 19, 2011, and felt the familiar signs that I was just about to faint and refused to lie down before I fell down. I tried to mind-over-matter myself because it was simply outrageous that this was happening to me again.
I failed. During my face plant onto the hardwood kitchen floor, I knocked my teeth through my lip. After receiving 17 stitches, I was referred to a cardiologist.
There, I was diagnosed with an overactive faint reflex brought on by low blood pressure. The treatment is to drink lots of liquids throughout the day and salt my food liberally. I’ve been fine ever since and enjoy my daily handful of medicinal potato chips.
I’m pretty proud of myself for not using the word “stupid” any time in the above paragraphs, because I was thinking it every day -- This is so stupid. What the heck am I doing wrong? God please help me to figure out what I’m doing wrong.
Sometimes though, as St. Bernadette shows us, our illnesses are not our fault and our doctors can’t always help us, so we should do what we can and turn the rest over to God.
Again, I’m feeling much better now. And, I’m having an awesome time playing Lent Madness. There is just something so gratifying to me to have found folks whose love of the saints is as off-kilter as mine.
St. Bernadette of Lourdes, this recipe is for you in honor of your humor, wit, and need in life for something yummy and nutritious. God bless you in heaven:
CARROT SPICE BREAD
½ cup butter milk
¼ cup (1/2 stick) melted butter
½ teaspoon vanilla
½ cup white sugar
½ cup brown sugar
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup wheat flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice
1 cup shredded carrots
½ cup chopped pecans
½ cup raisins
1. Preheat over to 350 degrees F.
2. Whisk eggs, buttermilk, melted butter, and vanilla in large mixing bowl.
2. Whisk eggs, buttermilk, melted butter, and vanilla in large mixing bowl.
3. Stir in the white and brown sugars.
4. In another bowl, combine all-purpose flour, whole wheat flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, and pumpkin pie spice.
5. Stir dry ingredients into wet ingredients.
6. Add carrots, pecans, and raisins. Stir.
7. Pour into bread pan.
8. Bake on middle rack for around 60 minutes. Stick toothpick into middle of loaf. If it comes out clean, it’s done.
9. Cool in pan for 10 minutes.
10.Turn out onto wire rack to cool completely or at least cool to the touch before slicing and serving with butter or cream cheese.