What happened in 1858?
Bernadette Soubirous, an illiterate and uneducated 14 year old girl, lived with her parents in the old town jail known as the cachot (or dungeon). They had been turned out of the Boly Mill for failure to pay the rent. The cachot was a single stone room about five yards square, with two small windows opening onto a tiny courtyard, where there was a manure heap above ground and a cesspit beneath the flagstones.
The first vision took place on 11th February 1858; the last on July 16th of the same year. The first two and the last three being separated by gaps of time varying from three days to as many weeks. The other visions were concentrated into the fortnight between February 18th and March 4th. By March 3rd Bernadette was joined by between 3000 and 4000 people who had come to pray with her; by the 4th March this number had grown to around 20,000, in stark contrast to the two women who had accompanied her on the 18th February – one of whom went away unconvinced.
She did not go to school on Thursday 11th February. On this cold foggy morning the Soubirous only had a small fire for cooking, and when the time came to heat up the soup Bernadette found there was no wood left. She suffered from asthma so her mother did not want her to go gathering wood but after much pleading she agreed Bernadette could go with her elder sister Toinette and a friend Jeanne Abadie. The three set off and walked down to the river Gave looking for firewood along the banks. They came to the Massabielle grotto where they saw some wood near the grotto. A small canal ran parallel to the river at this point and the other two girls waded across, but Bernadette did not want to get her feet wet due to her illness. She could not find a place shallow enough to get across without getting wet so came back in front of the grotto to take off her shoes and stockings. As she began to do this she heard a noise. She turned towards the meadow and saw that the trees were not moving at all. She continued to take off her shoes and stockings and heard the same noise and looking at the shrubbery above the grotto noticed it was shaking a great deal and that there was something white behind it that resembled a girl. Bernadette tells us: "I saw a lady in a white dress and a blue sash and she had a yellow rose on each foot, of the same colour as the chain of her rosary. When I saw that I rubbed my eyes, thinking I must be mistaken. I put my hand in my pocket and found my rosary. I wanted to make the sign of the Cross, but could not carry my hand to my forehead; it fell back. Then the vision crossed herself and my hand trembled. I tried again, and this time I was able to do it with her. I told my beads, and the Vision passed hers through her fingers, but did not move her lips. When I finished my rosary, she suddenly vanished."
The Lady, as Bernadette later called her, appeared to Bernadette a total of 19 times. On the 18th February the Lady said "Will you do me the favour of coming here for a fortnight?" The Lady added, "I do not promise to make you happy in this world, but in the next!" During the fifteen days the Lady said to Bernadette: "You will pray for sinners, you will kiss the ground for sinners", "Penance, penance, penance!" "Go and tell the priests to have a chapel built here", "I wish people to come here in procession" and "Go and drink at the fountain and wash yourself in it." On March 25th the Lady said "I am the Immaculate Conception" or in the patois which she spoke to Bernadette "Que soy l'Immaculado Counceptiou."
The last apparition took place on Friday July 16th 1858. After months of controversy and dispute the Commission appointed by the Bishop of Tarbes announced its verdict and said, "We judge that Mary, the Immaculate Mother of God, did really appear to Bernadette Soubirous on 11th February 1858, and on certain subsequent days, to the number of 18 times in all, in the Grotto of Massabielle, near the town of Lourdes; that this apparition bears every mark of truth and that the faithful are justified in believing it as certain."
Even during the apparitions, cures were reported at the Grotto, and they have continued ever since. Many have been declared as miraculous but the greatest miracles at Lourdes have been conversion of sinners and the strength and joy so many pilgrims have found in their faith.
At 22 Bernadette entered the Convent in Nevers and, driven hard, very nearly died the same year. Four years on, in tending the war wounded in the hospital in Nevers, she left behind a trail of laughter and of ease; as troublesome cases arose she was the nurse called to cope with the most stubborn ones. Following the death of Sister Sophie, the oldest and most experienced nun among them, the grace to encourage and sustain the survivors passed to Bernadette. The Sisters of Nevers were able to recognise the treasure given into their keeping and Bernadette's cell became the heart of the house. She died at 35. Bernadette Soubirous was beatified in 1925 and canonised in 1933 by Pope Pius XI.
It is not always realised by those who visit Lourdes that Bernadette's body remains incorrupt and is laid in a glass reliquary in the Convent of St Gildarde in Nevers, where it can be seen today.