On Feb. 11, the Catholic Church celebrates the liturgical memorial of Our Lady of Lourdes, recalling a series of 18 appearances that the Blessed Virgin Mary made to a 14-year-old French peasant girl, Saint Bernadette Soubirous.
The Marian apparitions began Feb. 11, 1858, ended July 16 that year and
received the local bishop's approval after a four-year inquiry.
Coming soon after the 1854 dogmatic definition of her Immaculate
Conception, the Virgin Mary's appearances at Lourdes turned the town
into a popular travel destination.
Thousands of people say their medical
conditions have been cured through pilgrimage, prayer and the water
flowing from a spring to which Bernadette was directed by the Blessed
Virgin. Experts have verified 67 cases of miraculous healing at Lourdes
St. Bernadette also has her own liturgical memorial, which occurs Feb.
18 in France and Canada and April 16 elsewhere. Born in January 1844,
the future visionary was the first child of her parents Francois and
Louise, who both worked in a mill run by Francois. Their family life was
loving but difficult. Many of Bernadette's siblings died in childhood,
and she developed asthma. Economic hardship and an injury suffered by
her father cost them the mill in 1854.
Years of poverty followed, during which Bernadette often had to live
apart from her parents and work rather than attending school. In January
1858 she returned to her family, whose members were living in a cramped
single room. Strongly committed to her faith, Bernadette made an effort
to learn the Church's teachings despite her lack of formal education.
On Feb. 11, 1858, Bernadette went to gather firewood with her sister
and a friend. As she approached a grotto near a river, she saw a light
coming from a spot near a rosebush. The light surrounded a woman who
wore a white dress and held a rosary. Seeing the lady in white make the
sign of the Cross, Bernadette knelt, took out her own rosary, and began
to pray. When she finished praying, the woman motioned for her to
approach. But she remained still, and the vision disappeared.
Her companions had seen nothing. Bernadette described the lady in white
to them, demanding they tell no one. But the secret came out later that
day. The next Sunday, Bernadette returned to the grotto, where she saw
the woman again. The identity of the apparition, however, would remain
unknown for several weeks.
Some adults accompanied Bernadette on her third trip, on Feb. 18,
though they did not see the vision she received. The woman in white
asked the girl to return for two weeks. “She told me also,” Bernadette
later wrote, “that she did not promise to make me happy in this world,
but in the next.” A group of family members and others went with her to
the cave the next day, but only the young peasant girl saw the woman and
heard her words.
Over the next few days, the number of people in attendance at the cave
swelled to more than 100. A parish priest, Father Peyramale, became
concerned – as did the police. On Feb. 24, 250 people saw Bernadette
break into tears, but only she heard the woman’s message: “Penance!
Penance! Penance! Pray to God for sinners. Go, kiss the ground for the
conversion of sinners.”
A larger crowd was there on Feb. 25 – but they were shocked to see
Bernadette drinking from a muddy stream and eating weeds. The apparition
had told her to drink the water, and the weed-eating was a penitential
act. Onlookers, meanwhile, saw only the girl’s unusual behavior, and
popular fascination turned to ridicule and suspicion.
On Feb. 27, Bernadette made a joyful discovery: the spring from which
she drank was not muddy now, but clear. As the crowds continued to
gather, this change was noticed, and a woman with a paralyzed arm came
to the water hoping to be healed. Four years later, her case would be
recognized as the first miraculous healing at Lourdes. Public interest
continued, and Bernadette heard a recurring message from the vision:
“Go, tell the priests to bring people here in procession and have a
chapel built here.”
While others were quick to conclude that Bernadette was seeing the
Virgin Mary, the visionary herself did not claim to know the woman’s
identity. As she conveyed the repeated message to Fr. Peyramale, the
priest grew frustrated and told Bernadette to ask the woman her name.
But when she did so, the woman smiled and remained silent. Her identity
remained a mystery after the initial two-week period.
Three weeks later, on the Feast of the Annunciation, Bernadette visited
the cave again. When she saw the lady, she kept asking to know her
identity. Finally, the woman folded her hands, looked up and said: “I am
the Immaculate Conception.” The seer, devout but uneducated, did not
know what these words meant. She related them to Fr. Peyramale, who was
stunned and informed his bishop.
Bernadette saw the Blessed Virgin Mary two more times in 1858: on the
Wednesday after Easter, and on the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. In
1862, the local bishop declared the apparitions worthy of belief.
St. Bernadette left Lourdes in 1866 to join a religious order in
central France, where she died after several years of illness in 1879.
By the time of her death, a basilica had been built and consecrated at
the apparition site, under the leadership of Fr. Peyramale.