On February 11, 1858, Soubirous went with her sister Toinette and neighbor Jeanne Abadie to collect some firewood. After taking off her shoes and stockings to wade through the water near the Grotto of Massabielle, she said she heard the sound of two gusts of wind but the trees and bushes nearby did not move. A wild rose in a natural niche in the grotto, did move.
She saw a lady dressed in white, wearing a white dress, a blue girdle, and a yellow rose on each foot, the same color as the chain of her rosary; the beads of the rosary were white. From the dark alcove came a dazzling light.
Soubirous tried to make the sign of the cross but could not, as her hands were trembling. The lady smiled and invited Soubirous to pray the rosary with her. Soubirous tried to keep this a secret, but Toinette told her mother. After parental cross-examination, she and her sister received corporal punishment for their story.
Three days later, February 14, Soubirous returned to the grotto. She had brought holy water as a test that the apparition was not of evil, She threw holy water in her direction. She said if the apparition came from God stay, but if not, she must go. The apparition smiled and bowed.
Soubirous’ companions became afraid when they saw her in ecstasy. She remained ecstatic even as they returned to the village. On February 18, she spoke of being told by the Lady to return to the Grotto over a period of two weeks. The Lady only spoke to her a third time. She told me also that she did not promise to make me happy in this world, but in the next.
Soubirous was ordered by her parents to never go there again. She went anyway. On February 24, Soubirous said the apparition asked for prayer and penitence for the conversion of sinners.
The next day, she said the apparition asked her to dig in the ground and drink from the spring she found there. This made her dirty and disheveled. Some of her supporters were concerned, but she revealed the stream that soon became a focal point for pilgrimages. It was muddy at first, the stream became increasingly clean. Word spread, this water was given to medical patients of all kinds. There were many reports of miraculous cures.
Seven of these cures were confirmed as lacking any medical explanations by Professor Verges in 1860. The first person with a “certified miracle” was a woman whose right hand had been deformed as a consequence of an accident. Several miracles turned out to be short-term improvements or even hoaxes. The Catholic Church and government officials became increasingly concerned. The government fenced off the grotto and issued stiff penalties for anybody trying to get near the off-limits area. Lourdes became a national issue in France. Emperor Napoleon III with an order to reopen the grotto on October 4, 1858. The church had decided to stay away from the controversy altogether.
Soubirous, knowing the local area well, managed to visit the barricaded grotto under cover of darkness. There, on 25 March, 25, she said she was told: “I am the Immaculate Conception” On Easter Sunday, April 7, her examining doctor stated that Soubirous, in ecstasy, was observed to have held her hands over a lit candle without sustaining harm. On July 16, Soubirous went for the last time to the grotto. “I have never seen her so beautiful before,” she reported.
The Catholic Church decided to institute an investigative commission on November 17, 1858. On January 18, 1860, the local bishop “The Virgin Mary did appear indeed to Bernadette Soubirous.” These events established the Marian veneration in Lourdes, which together with Fátima and the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe is one of the most frequented Marian shrines in the world, and to which between 4 and 6 million pilgrims travel annually.
Soubirous described the apparition as a tiny maiden about 12 years old. She insisted the apparition was no taller than herself 4 foot, 7 inches tall, Soubirous was small even by the standards of other poorly nourished children. She described the apparition as dressed in a flowing white robe, with a blue sash around her waist. This was the uniform of a religious group called the Children of Mary, because of her poverty, Soubirous was not allowed to join. Though she was admitted after the apparitions.