St Bernadette Soubirous – 16 April

By Catherine Sheehan

For millions of pilgrims who have visited Lourdes in France, the site of Our Lady’s famous apparitions, the pretty town nestled in the foothills of Pyrenees is a place of beauty and peace. For Bernadette Soubirous (1844-1879), however, to whom Our Lady appeared, it was mostly a place of suffering and hardship.

While she experienced the wonder of the apparitions, she also endured sickness and poverty for most of her life. Like many of the saints, her earthly life was not characterised by happiness.

Bernadette’s father was a miller and when she was 12 he lost his mill due to mismanagement, plunging the entire family into poverty. As a consequence, Bernadette, her three younger siblings, and her mother and father lived together in a single room, formerly a prison cell, situated next to a dung-heap. The room was damp and unhygienic, and Bernadette suffered severely from asthma.

On 11 February 1858, fourteen year-old Bernadette went with some friends to gather firewood in an area of Lourdes known as Massabielle, near the banks of the river Gave. As her friends waded into the river, Bernadette stayed close to a natural grotto, as she feared the freezing cold water would exacerbate her asthma.

She noticed a light shining in the grotto from which a beautiful lady appeared whom Bernadette later described as “so beautiful that to see her again one would be willing to die.”

The lady asked Bernadette to return to the grotto for the next fifteen days during. The beautiful lady appeared and gave Bernadette messages for herself and for the world. During one of the apparitions Our Lady requested that a chapel be built in her honour and that processions take place there.

When Bernadette conveyed this request to the local parish priest he told her to ask the mysterious lady her name. During the final apparition the lady responded to the question by saying simply, “I am the Immaculate Conception”. As an illiterate peasant girl Bernadette had no idea what “Immaculate Conception” meant.

The parish priest however understood well enough as just four years earlier Pope Pius IX had proclaimed the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, teaching that Mary had been conceived without the taint of Original Sin.

Under Our Lady’s direction Bernadette also discovered the spring of water inside the grotto which has been responsible for numerous miraculous healings.

During one of the apparitions Our Lady told Bernadette, “I do not promise you happiness in this world, but in the next.”

Several years after the apparitions, Bernadette joined the Sisters of Charity in Nevers. She continued to suffer from asthma and later contracted tuberculosis of the bones. She also had a tumour in one of her knees causing her excruciating pain.

One of the Sisters recalled that Bernadette remained devoted to the Virgin Mary for the remainder of her life and that when she prayed the Rosary, “Bernadette’s dark, deep-set sparking eyes became heavenly.”

“She was seeing Our Lady in spirit, and looked as though she were in ecstasy.”

Bernadette died while praying the Rosary on 16 April 1879 at the age of 35. Her last words were, “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for me… poor sinner.”

Thirty years after her death, Bernadette’s body was found to be incorrupt and was placed in a glass casket at the Convent in Nevers where it can be viewed today.

Tags: Saints