Marie Bernarde Soubirous – from Lourdes

Marie Bernarde Soubirous born Janary 7, 1844.  She was the daughter of François Soubirous a miller, and Louise, a laundress. She was the oldest of nine children. She was baptized at the local parish church on January 9, her parents’ wedding anniversary. Her family was extremely poor economic conditions in France.  She was sick as a child, which may have caused her to not fully grow.  She was only 4 foot 7 inches tall.  She got cholera when she was small and had asthma her whole life.  Soubirous attended the day school conducted by the Sisters of Charity and Christian Instruction from Nevers. She spoke very little French, she didn’t begin to study until she was 13.  She could barely read or write because she was ill so often.  Instead, she spoke Occitan, the language of her region.
Bernadette’s family was so poor they were living in a one-room basement, formerly used as a jail. On February 11, 1858, Bernadette was 14. She was out gathering firewood with her sister and a friend near a small cave, called a grotto.  Bernadette had a vision.  While the other girls crossed a little stream in front of the grotto and walked on.  Bernadette stayed behind looking for a place where she wouldn’t get wet.  She finally sat down to take off her shoes to cross the stream.  When she heard the sound of rushing wind, nothing was moving, except a wild rose in a small crevice. Behind the crevice was a dark alcove.  There was a bright white light and a white figure.  This was the first of 18 visions of what she thought was a small young lady.  But Bernadette’s sister and a friend hadn’t seen it.   

On February 14, after Sunday Mass, Bernadette, her sister, and some other girls went back to the grotto. Bernadette knelt down immediately, saying she saw the apparition again. When one of the girls threw holy water at the niche and another threw a rock from above that shattered on the ground, the apparition disappeared. On her next visit, February 18, Bernadette said the vision asked her to return to the grotto every day for a fortnight.  A fortnight is two weeks.

Almost every day for these two weeks, now called the “holy fortnight”, the vision appeared.   Initially, Bernadette’s parents, especially her mother, were embarrassed.  They tried to forbid her to go. The apparition did not identify herself until the seventeenth vision. Although the townspeople who believed she was telling the truth assumed she saw the Virgin Mary, Bernadette never claimed it to be Mary. She described the lady as wearing a white veil, a blue girdle, and with a yellow rose on each foot, similar to the statue of the Virgin in any village church.

Bernadette’s story caused a sensation with the townspeople, who were divided in their opinions on whether or not she was telling the truth. Some believed her to have a mental illness and demanded she be put in an asylum. The others thought Bernadette’s visions were simple and focused on the need for prayer and penance. On February 25she explained that the vision had told her to drink the water of the spring, to wash in it, and to eat the herb that grew there, as an act of penance. To everyone’s surprise, the next day the grotto was no longer muddy but clear water flowed. On March 2, at the thirteenth vision, Bernadette told her family that the lady said that “a chapel should be built and a procession formed”.

On March 25, Bernadette’s 16th vision happened for over an hour.  During that vision, she asked the woman her name, but the lady just smiled back.  She asked three more times, finally the lady said, “I am the Immaculate Conception”  Even though she was interrogated by officials of both the Catholic Church and the French government, she stuck to her story.

After investigation, Catholic Church authorities confirmed the authenticity of the apparitions in 1862. In the 160 years since Bernette dug up the spring, 70 cures have been verified by the Lourdes Medical Bureau as “inexplicable”.  The Catholic Church thoroughly investigates each claim with “extremely rigorous scientific and medical examinations”.  These claims have failed to find any other explanation.
The Lourdes Commission that examined Bernadette after the visions ran an intensive analysis on the water and found that, while it had a high mineral content, it contained nothing out of the ordinary that would account for the cures attributed to it. Bernadette said that it was faith and prayer that cured the sick: “One must have faith and pray; the water will have no virtue without faith”.

Soubirous’s request to the local priest to build a chapel at the site of her visions eventually caused a number of chapels and churches to be built at Lourdes. The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes is now one of the major Catholic pilgrimage sites in the world. One of the churches built at the site, the Basilica of St. Pius X, can accommodate 25,000 people and was dedicated by Pope John XXIII when he was the Papal Nuncio to France. Close to 5 million pilgrims from all over the world visit Lourdes every year to pray, drink and bathe in the water.

Bernadette didn’t like the attention she was attracting, Bernadette went to the hospice school run by the Sisters of Charity.  While there she learned to read and write. Although she considered joining the Carmelites, her health kept from her entering any of the strict orders. On July 29, 1866, with 42 other candidates, she joined the Sisters of Charity at their motherhouse at Nevers. Her Mistress of Novices was Sister Marie Therese Vauzou. The Mother Superior at the time gave her the name Marie-Bernarde in honor of her godmother who was named “Bernarde”. Bernadette was devoted to Saint Bernard, her patron saint; she copied long texts related to him in notebooks and on bits of paper. Becoming ‘Sister Marie-Bernard’ made her realize the great grace she received from the Queen of Heaven brought with it great responsibilities.  

Bernadette spent the rest of her life at the convent working as an assistant in the infirmary and later as a sacristan, creating beautiful embroidery for altar cloths and vestments. Her sister nuns admired her humility and spirit of sacrifice. One day, asked about the apparitions, she answered, Mary, used me as a broom to remove the dust. When the work is done, the broom is put behind the door again.

She followed the development of Lourdes as a pilgrimage shrine while she still lived at Lourdes but was not present for the consecration of the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in 1876.

Bernadette’s childhood cholera illness left her with severe, chronic asthma.  She contracted tuberculosis of the lungs and bones. For several months before dying, she was unable to take an active part in the convent life. She eventually died of her long-term illness at the age of 35 on 16 April 16, 1879.  This was the Wednesday after Easter.