The Marian Apparitions at Lourdes were reported in 1858 by Saint Bernadette Soubirous, a 14-year-old miller’s daughter from the town of Lourdes in southern France. From February 11 to July 16, 1858, she reported 18 apparitions of “a Lady”. Despite initial skepticism from the Roman Catholic Church, these claims were eventually declared to be worthy of belief after a canonical investigation, and the apparition is known as Our Lady of Lourdes.
On Thursday February 11, 1858, a week before Lent would begin on Ash Wednesday February 17, a 14-year-old Bernadette was out gathering firewood with her sister and a friend at the grotto of Massabielle outside Lourdes, when she reportedly had the first of 18 visions of what she termed “a small young lady” (uo petito damizelo) standing in a niche in the rock. Her sister and her friend stated that they had seen nothing. On her third visit, she said that the “beautiful lady” asked her to return to the grotto every day for 15 days. At first her mother had forbidden her to go, but Bernadette persuaded her mother to allow her. The apparition did not identify herself until the 17th vision, although the townspeople who believed she was telling the truth assumed she saw the Virgin Mary. Bernadette never claimed it to be Mary, calling what she saw simply “Aquerò” (or rather “that thing”), aquerò (pronounced [aˈk(e)ɾɔ]) being Gascon Occitan for that. Bernadette described the lady as wearing a white veil and a blue girdle; she had a golden rose on each foot and held a rosary of pearls.
Bernadette’s story caused a sensation with the townspeople, who were divided in their opinions on whether or not Bernadette was telling the truth. She soon had a large number of people following her on her daily journey, some out of curiosity and others who firmly believed that they were witnessing a miracle. Lourdes became a national issue in France.
On July 16, 1858, Bernadette visited the Grotto for the last time and said “I have never seen her so beautiful before.” On January 18, 1860, the local bishop declared: The Virgin Mary did appear indeed to Bernadette Soubirous. In 1958, Pope Pius XII issued the encyclical Le Pelerinage de Lourdes on the 100th anniversary of the apparitions. Pope John Paul II visited Lourdes three times; Pope Benedict XVI visited Lourdes on September 15, 2008, to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the apparitions.
On realising that she alone, and not her companions, had seen the apparition, Bernadette Soubirous asked her sister Toinette not to tell anyone what had happened. Toinette, however, was unable to keep silent, and told their mother, Louise Soubirous. Both girls received a beating, and Bernadette was forbidden by her mother to return to the Grotto again. A few days passed and Bernadette asked for permission to go again with her siblings and the permission was granted.
“The second time was the following Sunday. I went back because I felt myself interiorly impelled. My mother had forbidden me to go. After High Mass, the two other girls and myself went to ask my mother again. She did not want to let us go, she said that she was afraid that I should fall in the water; she was afraid that I would not be back for Vespers. I promised that I would. Then she gave me permission to go.
“I went to the Parish Church to get a little bottle of holy water, to throw over the Vision, if I were to see her at the grotto. When we arrived, we all took our rosaries and we knelt down to say them. I had hardly finished the first decade when I saw the same Lady. Then I started to throw holy water in her direction, and at the same time I said that if she came from God she was to stay, but if not, she must go. She started to smile, and bowed; and the more I sprinkled her with holy water, the more she smiled and bowed her head and the more I saw her make signs. Then I was seized with fright and I hurried to sprinkle her with holy water until the bottle was empty. Then I went on saying my rosary. When I had finished it she disappeared and we came back to Vespers. This was the second time.”
Troubled by the notion that the apparition might represent an evil spirit, Bernadette used the holy water as a test. A further reassuring sign was the apparition’s beautiful bare feet; demonic apparitions (even while in human form) were believed to have cloven hooves or animal paws.
The Apparition did not speak until the third appearance, and therefore its identity was a matter of considerable speculation. Pious villagers Jeanne-Marie Milhet and Antionette Peyret, on hearing Bernadette’s description of the apparition, considered it may have been a revenant, a soul returning from purgatory. Although not part of Catholic doctrine, the concept of the revenant was deeply rooted in Pyrenean superstition; further, revenants frequently manifested to young children. The previous October, the head of the local chapter of the Children of Mary, a woman named Elisa Latapie, had died. According to tradition, revenants rarely spoke, but communicated their messages in writing, and so Milhet and Peyrey furnished Bernadette with paper, a pen, and an inkpot to take with her, in case the apparition should make use of them.
“The third time was the following Thursday. The Lady only spoke to me the third time. I went to the grotto with a few matured people, who advised me to take paper and ink, and to ask her, if she had anything to say to me, to have the goodness to put it on paper. I said these words to the Lady. She smiled and said that it was not necessary for her to write what she had to say to me, but asked if I would do her the favour of coming for a fortnight. I told her that I would. She told me also that she did not promise to make me happy in this world, but in the next.”
Although she spoke in Occitan, the regional language which Bernadette (whose French was poor) used, the apparition used remarkably formal language in her request: “Would you have the goodness to come here for fifteen days?” (in Occitan: “Boulet aoue ra gracia de bié aci penden quinze dias?”; in French:“Voulez-vous me faire la grâce de venir ici pendant quinze jours?”) This significance of this politeness was not lost on the observers. It would be very unusual for anyone to adopt this formal form of address when speaking to a penniless, working-class peasant girl such as Bernadette.
Armed with a lighted candle for protection, Bernadette came to the grotto. This originated the custom of carrying lighted candles to the grotto. Eight people were present including Bernadette’s mother and two of her aunts, one of whom, Aunt Bernarde, was her godmother and the most influential member of her mother’s family.Bernadette reported that the lady asked her to leave her candle there. She said “It belongs to my aunt, I’ll have to ask her; but if she agrees, I will.”
Thirty people were present. Bernadette reported later that the lady had taught her a prayer, which she said every day of her life, but never wrote down or repeated to anyone. By this time, the news was spreading to other towns, and many people assumed that Bernadette’s lady was the Virgin Mary, although Bernadette herself seemed content not to try to establish her identity.
Over 100 people were present, and Bernadette was afterwards interrogated by Dominique Jacomet, the Police Commissioner. Her father, François Soubirous, eventually assured the commissioner that the affair would cease.
About 150 people were present. Jean-Baptiste Estrade (a tax inspector), Duffo (a court official), and the officers from the garrison were present. Bernadette said later that the lady had told her a secret, which was for her alone; this secret was never revealed to anyone.
About 250 people were present. The message of the lady was “Penance! Penance! Penance! Pray to God for sinners. Kiss the ground as an act of penance for sinners!”
“(The Lady) told me that I should go and drink at the fountain and wash myself. Seeing no fountain I went to drink at the Gave. She said it was not there; she pointed with her finger that I was to go in under the rock. I went, and I found a puddle of water which was more like mud, and the quantity was so small that I could hardly gather a little in the hollow of my hand. Nevertheless I obeyed, and started scratching the ground; after doing that I was able to take some. The water was so dirty that three times I threw it away. The fourth time I was able to drink it. She made me eat grass growing in the same place where I had drunk; once only; I do not know why. Then the Vision disappeared and I went home.” Bernadette was interrogated again. The spring reportedly began to flow a day later.
About 800 people were present.
Over 1,000 people were present. Bernadette was questioned by Judge Ribes afterwards.
There were almost 1,500 people present. Local housewife Catherine Latapie, nine months pregnant, who had a paralysis of the ulnar nerve in one arm following an accident, reported regaining full movement after bathing her arm in the spring. Simultaneously, she went into labor and had to leave almost immediately to give birth. She gave an account of these events to local physician Dr. Pierre Romaine Dozous, who began to collect information on healings at the spring. This was the first of the scientifically unattributable events to take place at Lourdes.
The lady commanded Bernadette: “Go, tell the priests to come here in procession and to build a chapel here.” (Another source says: “Go and tell the priest to build a chapel here and to have people come in procession.”) Accompanied by her two aunts, Bernadette went to ask Father Peyramale; he called Bernadette a liar, forbade her to go to the grotto, and dismissed her. Bernadette was determined and returned with one of the priest’s friends to ask again. After Bernadette was thoroughly questioned before the parish clergy and dismissed, the parish priests could not agree on what course to take. Peyramale decided to go to Tarbes to visit the bishop. The bishop determined that Peyramale should remain away from the grotto.
Previously, Father Peyramale had told Bernadette that the requests for the procession and chapel could not be fulfilled unless and until the lady’s name was known. On this occasion, Bernadette asked for the lady’s name; according to Bernadette the lady only smiled.
Over 9,000 people were present. “The third time I went to see M. le Curé, to tell him that a Lady had ordered me to go and say to the priests that they were to have a chapel built there, he looked at me for a moment, and then he said to me in a rather gruff tone, ‘Who is this lady?’ I answered that I did not know. Then he commissioned me to ask her name and to come and tell him. The next day when I arrived at the grotto I recited my rosary and then asked her, from M. le Curé what her name was, but all she did was to smile. When I got back I went to M. le Curé to tell him that I discharged his commission, and her only response was her smile; then he said she was laughing at me and that I would do well not to go to her again. But, I could not help going.”
“I went every day for a fortnight, and each day I asked her who she was–and this petition always made her smile. After the fortnight I asked her three times consecutively. She always smiled. At last I tried for the fourth time. She stopped smiling. With her arms down, she raised her eyes to heaven and then, folding her hands over her breast she said, ‘I am the Immaculate Conception.’ Then I went back to M. le Curé to tell him that she had said she was the Immaculate Conception, and he asked was I absolutely certain. I said yes, and so as not to forget the words, I had repeated them all the way home.”
Dr. Pierre Romaine Dozous, the town physician, originally watched the apparitions from a skeptical viewpoint. He believed Bernadette, whom he knew well, was in her right mind aside from the apparitions; he planned to write a medical article discussing the idea that one can have illusions or hallucinations without being insane.
He reported: “Bernadette seemed to be even more absorbed than usual in the Appearance upon which her gaze was riveted. I witnessed, as did also every one else there present, the fact which I am about to narrate. (…) The child was just beginning to make the usual ascent on her knees when suddenly she stopped and, her right hand joining her left, the flame of the big candle passed between the fingers of the latter. Though fanned by a fairly strong breeze, the flame produced no effect upon the skin which it was touching. (…) I then asked the person who was holding the candle to light it again and give it to me. I put it several times in succession under Bernadette’s left hand but she drew it away quickly, saying ‘You are burning me!’. I record this fact just as I have seen it without attempting to explain it. Many persons who were present at the time can confirm what I have said.”
On 8 June 1858, the mayor of Lourdes barricaded the grotto and stationed guards to prevent public access. Visitors were fined for kneeling near the grotto or talking about the grotto.
This was the final appearance. Because the grotto was barricaded by the local government, Bernadette knelt outside the fence by the riverbank. “I thought I was at the Grotto, at the same distance as I was the other times. All I saw was Our Lady … She was more beautiful than ever.
The grotto reopened to the public in October 1858, by order of Emperor Louis Napoleon III. Bernadette received no further apparitions after the 18th and did not feel any desire to visit the Grotto afterwards, but the people kept on visiting.
Several churches were eventually built at Lourdes, including the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes and the Basilica of St. Pius X in which 25,000 people can attend mass. Lourdes has since grown to be the greatest Marian shrine of the Roman Catholic Church, receiving several million pilgrims each year. Within France, only Paris has more hotels than Lourdes.
Bernadette Soubirous was canonized as a saint by the Catholic Church in 1933, and her Feast Day is celebrated on April 16.
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