Bernadette Soubirous was the daughter of a miller and laundress born on 7 January 1844. She was the eldest of nine children and raised in a humble cottage. Bernadette was baptized at the local parish church, St. Pierre’s two days later, on 9 January, the same day as her parents’ wedding anniversary. Her godmother was her mother’s sister who was a moderately wealthy widow and owned a tavern. Hard times befell France and the family lived in extreme poverty. Soubirous was a sickly child and contracted cholera as a toddler, a disease that killed Madame Récamier. However, in Bernadette’s case although she did not die, she did suffer from severe asthma for the rest of her life.
On 11 February 1858, at the age of fourteen, Bernadette Soubrious, her younger sister, and a friend were sent to gather wood to cook dinner. They were gathering wood in an area near some poplars. At one point they came to stream and to prevent wetting her stockings, she stopped to remove them and sat near an alcove, niche, or grotto.
As Bernadette bent down to take off her stockings the wind suddenly whipped up. She was so startled she looked up, but the poplars were not moving with the wind. Bernadette was puzzled. She bent down again to take off her stockings and again she heard the wind. This time when she looked up she “would have uttered a loud cry if she had not been choked with fear. She trembled in all her limbs, and fell to the earth dazzled, completely overcome by what she had seen.”
There within the darkness of the grotto was an amazing figure of a heavenly woman of “incomparable splendor.” She was young, oval-faced, blue-eyed, and exhibited an “air of eternal grandeur.” The angelic woman seemed to have an expression of love and peace about her, and, a dazzling light encompassed her whole body with “surpassing brightness.”
This angelic and virginal figure was dressed in a robe created from some unknown material that was as brilliant and white as fresh fallen snow. The robe was long, had a train, and fell to her unshod feet, exposing her toes. Tied at the waist was a blue girdle that fell in two long bands, nearly touching her feet.
The amazing angelic figure was not ostentatious in her dress. She wore no jewelry — no rings, no diadem, no necklace. But she did have a chaplet (a garland) of white beads that fell from her hands, and, as she stood there, each bead was sliding gently through her fingers. She also wore a pure white veil that was fastened to her head and fell to the lower edge of her robe.
Another version of Bernadette’s experience was provided in 1896 gives more detail:
“Suddenly she hears the sound of a rushing wind, but, to her astonishment, the leaves of the trees do not rustle. She thinks she must be mistaken, but again the sound is heard. She raises her had, looks in front of her, gives a startled, cry, and sinks to her knees stricken with awe and wonder. Following Bernadette’s sworn testimony, the substance of her story is that she saw in the upper niche a woman of wondrous grace and beauty, of majestic and heavenly mien, of middle height, apparently about twenty years of age. Her robe, of a material the child could not describe, was white, her waist was bound by a blue cincture, the ends reaching nearly to the feet, on each of which blossomed a rose. A white veil covered the heads and shoulders. There was a complete absence of jewels or ornaments … The hands, which were joined in prayer, held a large chapelet, the beads of which were white, and the chain connecting them yellow in colour. No word was spoken. The apparition simply gazed down on the awe-struck figure of Bernadette, prostrate on the ground; then, making the sign of the cross, disappeared.”
The grotto where these visitations occurred had a floor that consisted of river silt left by the river Gave when it overflowed. At the back was a damp area that concealed a spring. The grotto itself was used on occasion as shelter when some herder was overtaken by a storm. Fisherman also found shelter there too.
Bernadette Soubirous would see this angelic woman eighteen times between 11 February and 16 July. Each time she related these visitations to others. Nonetheless, some people did not believe her. Even Bernadette’s mother was skeptical and claimed she must be experiencing hallucinations. But Bernadette’s sister and friend reported that Bernadette fell on her knees and that her face and countenance were “transfigured by ecstasy.”
As news of Bernadette’s vision spread, it created a sensation throughout the area. During one early vision Bernadette was told to drink the water and wash in it. The next day the muddy stream was suddenly clear, which then convinced even more people Bernadette’s visions where authentic. In addition, eventually, the angelic and virginal figure identified herself as “the Immaculate Conception.” She also requested a church be built on the site noting that the area was possessed healing powers.
Hundreds of people came to the area after news about Bernadette’s visions came to light. Of course, not everyone believed as pointed out by the Graphic:
“The local weekly journal, the Lavedan, … showed its hostility from the beginning, speaking with the highest contempt of the people’s credibility. Dr. Duzons, M. Pougat, President of the Tribunal, and number of barristers determined to keep a close watch over Bernadette. The clergy maintained an attitude of reserve by the express desire of the diocesan, Mgr. Laurence, Bishop of Tarbes.”
Because of all the controversy over what Bernadette had seen, supposedly at one point she was forbidden to visit the Grotto. However, she refused stating:
“I have promised the Vision, and when the moment comes something within me forces me to go there.”
Bernadette’s continued visits caused people to share her miraculous story and the spread of it became impossible to stop. People also flocked to the area and believers began to follow her on her pilgrimage to witness for themselves her being transfixed. Moreover, when these believers achieved miraculous healing themselves, it further confirmed Bernadette’s claims of having had a vision and having seen the Immaculate Conception.
The same year that Samuel Clemens began writing under the pen name of Mark Twain, was the same year that there were so many stories of cures and healing by Bernadette Soubirous, church authorities acknowledged and confirmed her story. The angelic figure had also requested that a church be built, which resulted in several churches being built.
“Finally, a cachet was given to Bernadette’s apparitions, when on 2 July 1876, thirty French bishops assembled at Lourdes to consecrate the magnificent Gothic basilica built over the Grotto and to crown the statue of her who had said to Bernadette “Je suis l’Immaculee Conception,” with a diadem presented by Pope Pius IX”
Of those who conducted pilgrimages to the spot it was reported in 1895 that believers were of all types:
“The pilgrims who take part belong to every condition of life. It is quite a mistake to exclusively associate these manifestations with priest, monks and nuns. Nobles, soldiers, professional men, merchants, and workmen are as enthusiastic as the pious mother of a family visit the wonderful sport for the first. … All may be seen carrying the lighted taper, shielded from the wind by a paper funnel stamped with a blue figure of St. Mary. Here and there, too, may be seen a cripple or an invalid joining in the inspiring chant of the Hymn of Lourdes, with its fifty-eight quatrains, the chorus being repeated after each verse.”
More good news for Bernadette Soubirous followed in 1925 because that was the year that she became venerated as a Christian mystic and Saint in the Catholic Church. Then on 8 December 1933 she was canonized by Pius XI. It was reported that the procession that entered St. Peter’s found it illuminated with more than 13,000 electric candles that were placed in hundreds of candelabras and brackets. Today, because of Bernadette, her visions, and her sainthood, the area remains popular and continues to be visited by pilgrims “either for purpose of devotion or to bathe in the healing pool and the water of Lourdes.”
Of Bernadette’s experience it was stated:
“Whatever estimate may be formed of Bernadette and her visions, it is satisfactory to be able to point out that no mercenary advantage was gained by either her or her family. Her own life was afterwards spent as a religieuse devoted to the poor and the sick. Old Soubirous, her father, continued to earn a frugal livelihood as a miler’s man, while her sister Marie married a peasant. The vast sums that were contributed from all parts were applied towards the embellishment of the Grotto and its approaches, and the erection of the magnificent basilica and its crypt, the latter known as the Church of the Rosary.”
-  Hammond, William Alexander, On Certain Conditions of Nervous Derangement, Somnambulism-Hypnotism-Hysteria-Hysteroid Affections, etc., 1881, p. 137.
-  Donahoe’s Magazine, Volume 5, 1881, p. 395
-  “The Lordes Pilgrimage,” in Graphic, 25 May 1895 p. 360.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid.
-  Hammond, William Alexander, Spiritualism and Allied Causes and Conditions, 1876, p. 314.
-  “The Lordes Pilgrimage,” p. 360.