Saint Bernadette and the Visions at Lourdes

Peasant Girl Sees 18 Visions of the "Lady"

The Pope Arrives In Lourdes
The Pope arrives in Lourdes, 2008. Pascal Parrot / Getty Images

Bernadette, a peasant of Lourdes, reported 18 visions of the “Lady” which were met at first with skepticism by family and the local priest, before finally being accepted as authentic. She became a nun, and was beatified and then canonized as a saint after her death. The location of the visions is a very popular destination for religious pilgrims and people seeking a miracle cure.

Bernadette’s Origins and Childhood

Bernadette of Lourdes, born January 7, 1844, was a peasant girl born in Lourdes, France as Marie Bernarde Soubirous.

  She was the eldest of six surviving children of Francois and Louise Castérot Soubirous.  She was called Bernadette, a diminutive of her name Bernarde, because of her small size.  The family was poor and she grew up malnourished and sickly.

Her mother had brought a mill in Lourdes to her marriage as part of her dowry, but Louis Soubirous did not run it successfully.  With many children and failing finances, the family often favored Bernadette at mealtimes to try to improve her health.  She had little education.

When Bernadette was about twelve years old, the family sent her to work for another family for hire, working as a shepherdess, alone with the sheep and, as she later recounted, her rosary. She was known for her cheerfulness and goodness as well as her frailty.

When she was fourteen, Bernadette returned to her family, unable to continue her work. She found comfort in reciting the rosary.

She began a belated study for her First Communion.

Visions

On February 11, 1858, Bernadette and two friends were in the woods in the cold weather collecting kindling.  They came to the Grotto of Massabielle, where, according to the story told by the children, Bernadette heard a noise.  She saw a white-garbed young girl with a blue sash, yellow roses on her feet, and a rosary on her arm.

  She understood the woman to be the Virgin Mary. Bernadette began to pray, confusing her friends, who saw nothing.

When she got home, Bernadette told her parents what she had seen, and they forbid her to return to the grotto.  She told the story to a priest at confession, and he got her permission to discuss this with the parish priest.

Three days after the first vision, she returned, despite her parents’ command. She saw another vision of The Lady, as she called it.  Then, on February 18, four more days later, she returned again, and saw a third vision. This time, according to Bernadette, the Lady of the vision told her to return every 15 days.  Bernadette quoted her as saying to her, "I do not promise to make you happy in this world, but in the next."

Reactions and More Visions

Stories of Bernadette’s visions spread, and soon, large crowds began to go to the grotto to watch her.  Others could not see what she saw, but they did report that she looked different during the visions.  The Lady of the vision gave her messages and began to perform miracles.  A key message was "Pray and do penance for the conversion of the world."

On February 25, for Bernadette’s ninth vision, the Lady told Bernadette to drink water bubbling from the ground – and when Bernadette complied, the water, which had been muddy, cleared, and then flowed towards the crowd.

Those who used the water also reported miracles.

On March 2, the Lady asked Bernadette to tell the priests to build a chapel at the grotto. And on March 25, the Lady announced “I am the Immaculate Conception.”  She said that she did not understand what that meant, and asked the priests to explain it to her. (Pope Pius IX had declared the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception in December of 1854.) The "Lady" made her eighteenth and last appearance on July 16.

Some believed Bernadette’s stories of her visions, others did not. Bernadette was, with her poor health, not happy with the attention and the people who sought her out.  The sisters at the convent school and the local officials decided that she would board at school, and she began to live with the Sisters of Nevers.  When her health permitted, she helped the sisters in their work caring for the sick.

The Bishop of Tarbes formally recognized the visions as being authentic.

Becoming a Nun

The sisters were not enthusiastic about Bernadette becoming one of them, but after the Bishop of Nevers agreed, she was admitted. She received her habit and joined the Congregation of the Sisters of Charity of Nevers in July of 1866, taking the name Sister Marie-Bernarde.  She made her profession in October of 1867.

She lived at the convent of Saint Gildard until 1879, suffering often from her asthmatic condition and tuberculosis of the bone. She did not have the best relationship with many of the nuns at the convent.

She refused offers to take her to the healing waters at Lourdes that she had discovered in her visions, asserting they were not for her.  She died on April 16, 1879, at Nevers.

Sainthood

When Bernadette’s body was exhumed and examined in 1909, 1919, and 1925, it was reported to be perfectly preserved or mummified. She was beatified in 1925 and canonized under Pope Pius XI on December 8, 1933.

Legacy

The location of the visions, Lourdes, remains a popular destination for Catholic seekers and for those wanting healing form illness.  By the late 20th century, the site was seeing as many as four million visitors each year.

In 1943, the Academy Award was won by a film based on Bernadette’s life, “Song of Bernadette.”

In 2008, Pope Benedict XVI traveled to the Basilica of the Rosary in Lourdes, France, to celebrate mass at the site on the 150th anniversary of the appearance of the Virgin Mary to Bernadette.