The year was 1858 and the place was the French foothills of the Pyrenees. A young girl named Bernadette Soubirous, her sister Toinette, and their friend Jeanne Abadie were out gathering firewood for their families. Toinette and Abadie crossed a stream to gather wood on the other side, but Bernadette hesitated, fearing that wading in the cold water would bring on an asthma attack.
When her sister and friend moved out of her sight, she decided to take a chance anyway, and started to remove her shoes. It was at that moment that she was startled by a great noise like thunder. Turning towards a grotto behind her, she saw a single rosebush swaying as if being blown by a strong wind. Almost immediately she also saw a golden cloud form over the rosebush and a young and beautiful lady appear in the cloud. The lady smiled at Bernadette and motioned for her to come closer. All the fear that Bernadette had felt a few moments earlier faded away at the sight of this lady. She felt safe as if with her mother.
The Lady was dressed in an ivory-colored robe tied at the waist with a sapphire-colored sash. A long ivory-colored mantle trimmed in gold hung in folds flowing down to her feet. On her bare feet were two golden roses than shone like the gold trim on her mantle. Bernadette was awestruck by the vision of this Lady and didn’t speak, nor did the Lady. Bernadette found herself reaching for her rosary, which she always carried with her, and dropping down on her knees. It was then that Bernadette noticed the pearl rosary hanging on the Lady’s right arm, which she now also took into her delicate hands. Bernadette tried to lift her hand to cross herself before reciting the rosary, however, her arm seemed paralyzed. It was only after the Lady crossed herself that Bernadette was able to move her arm and do likewise. Bernadette prayed aloud, by herself. The Lady was silent except at the end of each decade when she recited, with Bernadette, the Gloria. When Bernadette finished praying the Rosary, the Lady and the golden cloud disappeared.
Bernadette had many other visions of the Lady in the grotto. At first her parents were very upset and unbelieving of the visions. Her mother thought that either Bernadette was imagining things or that what she was seeing was demonic. Word spread in the small village about her visions of this mysterious lady and crowds of people started following Bernadette to the grotto. Many ridiculed her, but some were supportive. One woman thought Bernadette might be encountering the spirit of one of her deceased friends. Bernadette’s family implored her to take holy water and throw some on the Lady. She did take some with her, but poured in on the ground.
The Lady repeatedly asked Bernadette to pray for the conversion of sinners and asked for penance for sins. When she instructed Bernadette to wash herself and drink from a place at the base of the grotto, Bernadette was perplexed. She looked, but could find no water. The Lady told her to dig in the ground, which Bernadette did, which caused quite a stir among the onlookers. Some thought she was insane. Bernadette continued to dig in the gravel and dirt until the ground started to feel damp. Then a trickle of water appeared and more started bubbling up from the ground forming a small puddle. Following the Lady’s instructions, Bernadette rubbed the water on her body and cupped some in her hands and drank it.
Still Bernadette’s mother refused to believe her daughter and other family members continued to ridicule her. When Bernadette spoke to the Lady about this, the Lady replied, “I do not promise to make you happy in this world, but in the next.”
The next request of the Lady to Bernadette was to have a chapel built on the site of her visits. For Bernadette, a shy, 14-year-old girl, this was an impossible task. She felt compelled, though, to go to the parish priest with the request. She received a curt dismissal from him with these words: “Tell the beautiful Lady that the Cure of Lourdes is not in the habit of dealing with mysterious strangers. If she wants a chapel and has the right to one, she must reveal her identity.”
On the Feast of the Annunciation, March 25, 1858, Bernadette got the answer to her question. “I am the Immaculate Conception,” replied the beautiful Lady. Bernadette was so excited to have an answer for the priest that she immediately set out for the rectory, repeating the words over and over to herself so as not to forget them. Although Bernadette didn’t understand the words, when she repeated them to the priest he was convinced that the mysterious Lady was the Blessed Virgin Mary. He knew that Bernadette, a poor, uneducated young girl, could not have been aware of the term “Immaculate Conception,” especially since this was a newly-proclaimed dogma in the Church that most people were not familiar with.
In 1864, Bernadette entered the order of the Sisters of Nevers and went to live in a convent. Two years later a chapel was erected and dedicated to Our Lady of Lourdes. The puddle that had appeared when Bernadette scratched at the soil continued to get larger and larger and today produces 32,000 gallons of water daily. Thousands of pilgrims visit Lourdes each year to bathe in the miraculous waters. Today Lourdes is the most well-known healing and pilgrimage site in the world.
On January 18, 1862, the Church officially confirmed the apparitions at Lourdes. Sixteen years later, in 1879, Sister Bernadette died. Her body, however, on display in the Sister’s Chapel, has never decomposed. Bernadette was canonized on December 8, 1933.
From Johnnette Benkovic’s Graceful Living: Meditations to Help You Grow Closer to God Day by Day
“I am the Immaculate Conception.”
—The Blessed Virgin to St. Bernadette Soubirous
Do I understand the meaning of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception—that Mary was conceived without the blemish of original sin? I will ask the Blessed Mother today to enhance my appreciation of this great truth.
Blessed Mother, our Lady of Lourdes, we thank you for appearing to the child Bernadette so as to show the world the power of God. The miracles brought forth then and even until now are a great testimony of His Love and Mercy. Thank you, Mother, not only for the miraculous healing power of the waters of Lourdes, but also for the love and compassion that prevails there. We thank our Father in heaven for you, dear Mother and also for Saint Bernadette and we implore your intercessions for us that we will always be like little children, docile and loving and open to His Will. Amen.
image: Andreas F. Borchert/ Wikimedia Commons