On December 8, 1854, Pope Pius IX proclaimed the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in the apostolic constitution Ineffabilis Deus. A little more than three years later, on February 11, 1858, a young lady appeared to Bernadette Soubirous. This began a series of visions. During the apparition on March 25, the lady identified herself with the words: “I am the Immaculate Conception.”
Each year over 2 million people make their way through the mountainous country of southeastern France to Lourdes. They come seeking cures, hoping to find answers, believing, and praying. At Lourdes, people recall the Lady dressed in white, with a blue sash, yellow roses at her feet, and a Rosary on her arm—the Blessed Virgin Mary.
On February 11, 1858, Mary appeared to 14-year-old Bernadette Soubirous. This was the first of 18 visits, many of them with 20,000 people present. When Bernadette asked the Lady’s identity, she replied, “I am the Immaculate Conception.” Just four years earlier, the pope had proclaimed it a dogma that Mary was conceived immaculate without original sin. The Blessed Virgin, through Bernadette, had come to call sinners to a change of heart. Her message was a request for prayer and penance. She also instructed Bernadette to tell the priests that a chapel was to be built on the site and processions held.
On February 25, 1858, the Lady told Bernadette to dig in the dirt and drink of the stream. Bernadette began to dig, and after several attempts she was able to find the water to drink. The water continued to flow from where she had dug with her hands until it was producing over 32,000 gallons of water a day—as it still does. There have been over 5,000 cures recorded but less than 100 of them have been declared miraculous by the Church. Most of these have taken place during the blessing with the Blessed Sacrament.
The First Apparition – Thursday, February 11, 1858:
After dinner on the Thursday before Ash Wednesday, Bernadette’s mother told her children that there was no more wood in the house. Bernadette and her sister, Toinette, and a neighbor friend, Jeanne Abadie, went to the river Gave to gather wood. They had to cross a canal of cold water. Fearing that she would have an asthma attack, Bernadette stayed on the bank, and the other two girls crossed the stream and picked up wood under the grotto until they disappeared along the Gave.
Bernadette heard a great noise like the sound of a storm, but nothing was moving. She was frightened and stood straight up, loosing all power of speech and thought. She turned her head towards the Grotto of Massabieille and saw in the opening of the rock a rosebush, one only, moving as if it were very windy. Almost at the same time, there came out of the interior of the grotto a golden-colored cloud, and soon afterwards, a Lady, young and beautiful –exceedingly beautiful — the likes of whom she had never seen, came and placed herself at the entrance of the opening above the rosebush. She looked at Bernadette and immediately smiled and signaled her to advance, in a way that a mother motions her child to come near. Bernadette took out her rosary and knelt before the Lady, who also had a rosary on her right arm. When Bernadette tried to begin saying the rosary by making the sign of the cross, her arm was paralyzed. It was only after the Lady had made the sign of the cross herself that Bernadette was able to do the same. As Bernadette prayed the rosary, the Lady passed the beads of her rosary between her fingers, but remained silent. She did recite the Gloria’s with her, however. When the recitation of the rosary was finished, the Lady returned to the interior of the rock and the golden cloud disappeared with her.
Bernadette told her sister of the extraordinary things that had happened to her at the grotto, asking her to keep it a secret. Throughout the day the image of the Lady remained in her mind. In the evening at the family prayer Bernadette was troubled and began to cry. When her mother asked what was the matter, her sister told her everything. Bernadette’s mother told her that these were illusions, and forbid her to return to Massabieille.
Bernadette could not sleep that night. The face of the Lady, so good and so gracious, returned incessantly to her memory. It was useless to recall what her mother had said because she did not believe that she had been deceived. Her conviction of this was unshakable. She went on to describe the Beautiful Lady in detail:
“She has the appearance of a young girl of sixteen or seventeen. She is dressed in a white robe, girdled at the waist with a blue ribbon which flows down all around it. A yoke closes it in graceful pleats at the base of the neck. The sleeves are long and tight-fitting. She wears upon her head a veil which is also white. This veil gives just a glimpse of her hair and then falls down at the back below her waist. Her feet are bare but covered by the last folds of her robe except at the point where a yellow rose shines upon each of them. She holds on her right arm a rosary of white beads with a chain of gold shinning like the two roses on her feet.” On Sunday, Bernadette’s mother allowed her to return to the grotto.
The Second Apparition – Sunday, February 14, 1858:
The three little girls started out, armed with a vial of holy water. If what their elders said was true, they might need this to ward off malign influences. Instead of throwing the water at the Lady, Bernadette poured the water quietly on the ground. Then she turned and told her companion that, judging by the Beautiful Lady’s smile, She was pleased by this action. Before Jeanne Abadie, who was just arriving, could explain that she had thrown a stone for fun, the others had scattered in every direction, screaming for help as they ran. When Toinette reached the cachot (home) and poured out her story, her mother seized a switch and headed for the site. By now the whole town was talking. Fortunately for the unhappy little Bernadette, one local woman of considerable prominence interpreted the apparitions in a different light from most of the townspeople. She got Louise’s permission to let her daughter Bernadette accompany her and a friend to the grotto.
The Third Apparition – Thursday, February 18, 1858:
All three went first to early Mass. Then they set out for the grotto. Madame Millet carried a blessed candle; Antoinette Peyret a pen, paper and ink to record anything that might be said. The Beautiful Lady said to Bernadette: “There is no need for me to write down what I have to say to you. Will you be so kind as to come here every day for fifteen days?” No explicit reason was given for this request, but a definite pledge accompanied it: though she did not promise that Bernadette would be happy in the world, the Beautiful Lady gave her word that happiness would be waiting in heaven.
The Fourth Apparition – Friday, February 19, 1858:
Bernadette’s parents and her aunt accompanied her to the Grotto along with some neighbors. Shortly after Bernadette began to pray the Rosary, everyone present noticed that her face was transfigured and illuminated.
The Fifth Apparition – Saturday, February 20, 1858:
On Her fifth visit, the Beautiful Lady taught Bernadette a prayer, which she recited daily for the rest of her life. She never revealed the prayer to anyone, but she did say that she was told to always bring a blessed candle with her. Candles now burn perpetually at the Shrine.
The Sixth Apparition – Sunday, February 21, 1858:
The Beautiful Lady told Bernadette on this occasion to “pray for sinners”, which she never failed to do. Several hundred people were present on that day, including Dr. Dozous, a prominent physician in Lourdes. He told the crowd that he could find nothing abnormal about Bernadette’s physical condition, even when her mental state was trancelike: “Her pulse was regular, her respiration easy, and nothing indicated nervous excitement.”
A meeting was called by the citizens of the town, and sharp differences of opinion were expressed regarding the apparitions. They expressed concern for the dangers that could accompany gatherings of such large crowds. They persuaded the Procurer Imperial, M. Dutour, to officially forbid Bernadette to return to the Grotto. Bernadette responded that she could not give her word to refrain from going to the Grotto because she had promised the Beautiful Lady she would do so. Dutour dismissed her, and discussed this matter with two local officials: M. Jacomet, the Chief of Police; and M. Estrade, who was to become Bernadette’s and Dutour’s friend and who was also to perform an invaluable service by listening in at future conversations and scrupulously recording them word for word.
Estrade recorded a conversation between the Chief of Police and Bernadette. During that meeting, M. Jacomet deliberately tried to confuse Bernadette to change her account of the apparitions. When that attempt failed, the Chief of Police released Bernadette to the custody of her father with an admonition that he take her home and guarantee that there would be no further disturbances. But the interior call which was urging her on was stronger than any earthly admonition.
On Monday, February 22, 1858, Bernadette returned to the Grotto after school. Two policemen saw her and followed her, and so did the usual crowd. The policemen stood at respectful attention as she knelt down in her accustomed place. But as she arose, they sprang forward and asked her if she still insisted that she had seen a Beautiful Lady. “No, this time I saw nothing at all,” she answered. She was allowed to go home, but she was taunted and threatened. People said mockingly that the Beautiful Lady was afraid of the police and had found some safer place to go.
The Seventh Apparition – Tuesday, February 23, 1858:
Approximately two hundred people were present at this apparition. When Bernadette’s appearance was once more transformed, the men present removed their hats and fell to their knees. Bernadette appeared to be gravely serious and listening, and then joyful, and she would occasionally bow low. At the conclusion of the vision, which lasted an hour, Bernadette moved on her knees toward the rose bush and kissed the ground. When asked what the Lady had said, Bernadette replied that the Lady had entrusted her with three secrets, which she never revealed.
The Eighth Apparition – Wednesday, February 24, 1858:
During the eighth apparition, Bernadette turned and faced the crowd of more than four hundred people, and three times she repeated, “penitence, penitence, penitence!”
The Ninth Apparition – Thursday, February 25, 1858:
During this apparition, the Beautiful Lady told Bernadette to, “drink from the fountain and bathe in it.” Bernadette was puzzled; there had never been a fountain at Massabieille, or any kind of a natural spring. She began to scratch the loose gravel off the ground which encircled her. As she did so, she noticed that the ground beneath her was moist, and that a little pool was forming and bubbles were rising from it. She cupped her hands together and drank, and then washed her face. The next day, the pool was overflowing and water was dripping down over the rock. The following day, the trickle had become a real stream. Of course, it was immediately said — and has been said by skeptics ever since — that the spring was there all the time. The fact remains that Bernadette did find the spring as the result of a direct command.
The Tenth Apparition – Saturday, February 27, 1858:
On this occasion, the Beautiful Lady told Bernadette to “kiss the ground on behalf of sinners.” She immediately did so, and the crowd followed her example.
The Eleventh Apparition – Sunday, February 28, 1858:
There were approximately two thousand spectators at the Grotto that morning. The Lady asked Bernadette to tell the clergy to build a chapel on the site of the Grotto.
The Twelfth Apparition – Monday, March 1, 1858:
During this apparition, the Lady commented to Bernadette that she was not using her own Rosary, which was an accurate statement. Bernadette had been asked by Pauline Sans to use Pauline’s Rosary at the Grotto that day.
The Thirteenth Apparition – Tuesday, March 2, 1858:
Bernadette arrived at the Grotto early in the morning, prayed the Rosary in the presence of the Lady, who remained silent except for the Gloria’s.
The Fourteenth Apparition – Wednesday, March 3, 1858:
During this apparition, the Lady repeated that She wanted a chapel built by the clergy and, additionally, that She wanted people to come to this chapel in processional form. Bernadette was terribly afraid of the parish priest, Abbe Peyramale. It had been difficult for her to go to him the first time about building a chapel, but it took a great deal of courage for her to present herself to him a second time about processions. He dismissed her curtly, ordering her to tell the Beautiful Lady that the Cure of Lourdes was not in the habit of dealing with mysterious strangers; that if She wanted a chapel — if She had a right to one — She must reveal Her identity.
The Fifteenth Apparition – Thursday, March 4, 1858:
By now, most everyone in France knew that March 4th was the last of the fifteen days that Bernadette had promised the Lady that she would be present at the Grotto. Twenty thousand people were present that day, including an entire military garrison in full-dress uniform. As Bernadette approached the apparition site, a path was cleared for her, and the soldiers who accompanied her did so with respect. After the apparition, Bernadette told the crowd that she would continue coming to the Grotto because the Beautiful Lady had said nothing in the form of a farewell. The crowd was disappointed and disillusioned. They had seen Bernadette transfigured with a strange radiance, but they had hoped to also share her vision, to hear the same voice that she did, and they expected that, at the very least, the rosebush would burst into a sudden miraculous bloom.
The Sixteenth Apparition – Thursday, March 25, 1858:
During the sixteenth apparition, which occurred on the Feast of the Annunciation, the Beautiful Lady revealed her identity to Bernadette: “Que soy era Immaculado Conception”, I am the Immaculate Conception. Bernadette was not sure what this name meant, but people who needed no explanation flocked to Lourdes in greater numbers than ever before. Baron Massy, a local official, ordered Bernadette to be examined by three more physicians. They found her to be physically and mentally sound.
The Seventeenth Apparition – Wednesday, April 7, 1858:
Bernadette had never failed to bring a lighted candle to the Grotto since the first time she had been instructed to do so by the Beautiful Lady. During this apparition, she unconsciously placed one of her hands over the flame of the candle. People witnessed the flame burning through her fingers. Bernadette did not even hear the cries of horror which arose from the crowd. She continued to pray for at least fifteen minutes while the flame burned through her hand. She emerged quietly from prayer unscathed. Then Dr. Dozous took another candle and, without warning, touched the flame to her hand. Bernadette immediately cried out in pain. Shortly after this apparition, the Prefect took matters into his own hands and ordered the Grotto closed, and the rustic altar was dismantled.
The Eighteenth Apparition – Friday, July 16, 1858:
Bernadette seemed relieved that she was becoming less of a public figure. Several months had passed, and after receiving communion on the feast of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, Bernadette felt an irresistible urge to return to the Grotto. Since the barricade was still in place, she and her aunt could not get as close to the sacred spot as they wanted, so they knelt in the grass, and the Beautiful Lady appeared to her one last time.
Bernardette after the apparitions
Bernadette joined the order of the Sisters of Charity. Throughout her life she remained sickly, but attended patiently to her duties as infirmarian and sacristan. She died a holy death on April 16, 1879. She was 34 years old. Bernadette was buried on the convent grounds in Nevers, France. Her body was exhumed thirty years later on September 22, 1909, in the presence of two doctors, several appointed officials, and nuns from the local convent. When Bernadette’s coffin was opened, there was no odor, and her body was completely untouched by the laws of nature.
A second exhumation took place on April 3, 1919. The body of the then declared Venerable was found in the same state of preservation as ten years earlier, except that the face was slightly discolored, due to the washing it had undergone during the first exhumation. A worker in wax was entrusted with the task of coating the face of the Saint who had been dead forty years. The sacred relic (Bernadette’s body) was placed in a coffin of gold and glass and can be viewed to this very day in the Chapel of Saint Bernadette at the motherhouse in Nevers, France.
Today we celebrate the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes. We may never travel to Lourdes and join in the processions, but we can know always that we have a Mother to help us and lead us to her Son, Jesus. And so we pray to her:
Grant us, O merciful God, protection in
that we, who keep the Memorial of the
Immaculate Mother of God,
may, with the help of her intercession,
rise up from our iniquities.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
Who lives and reigns with you in the unity
of the Holy Spirit,
One God, for ever and ever.