Biography of St. Bernadette

St. BernadetteOn February 11th 1858 Bernadette Soubirous, a 14 year old peasant girl, was collecting firewood with friends at the grotto of Massabielle, on the outskirts of Lourdes. The grotto was used as a common for pigs to grub, dirty and filled with rubbish washed up from the river. Her friends had gone ahead and Bernadette said,

“I came back towards the grotto and started taking off my stockings. I had hardly taken off the first stocking when I heard a sound like a gust of wind. Then I turned my head towards the meadow. I saw the trees quite still: I went on taking off my stockings. I heard the same sound again. As I raised my head to look at the grotto, I saw a Lady dressed in white, wearing a white dress, a blue girdle and a yellow rose on each foot, the same colour as the chain of her rosary; the beads of the rosary were white.” [1]

In total Bernadette was to have 18 visions of the “beautiful lady” “so lovely that, when you have seen her once you would willingly die to see her again!” [1]

Born January 7th 1844, Bernadette came from a loving and religiously devoted family. Her father had run Boly Mill, but an easy-going good nature unsuited to business led him to lose his livelihood. The family were soon living in extreme poverty. A relative let them live in a former prison cell, now considered too insanitary for prisoners.

Despite these hardships Bernadette always showed great courtesy and kindliness to others and was well liked. However ill health (her childhood included cholera and asthma) and poverty meant that she missed the opportunity to receive proper schooling. At 13, to relieve financial pressure at home and in the hope of improving her health she was sent to the neighbouring mountain hamlet of Bartrès, to the home of Marie Arevant, where she helped in the fields and around the house. However Bernadette was unhappy away from home and worried that she was unable to prepare for her First Holy Communion, so she begged to be able to return to Lourdes. She returned to school but at 14 she was still studying the basic catechism with 7 year old children.

On the way home from Massabielle, Bernadette reluctantly told her companions about her vision of the Lady. They told her parents and Bernadette’s mother forbade her to return to the grotto. Bernadette was usually an obedient child, but after Mass on Sunday she made her way to the grotto and again saw a vision of the Lady. Having finally won over her mother, Bernadette’s third visit took place on Thursday February 18th, accompanied by a few adults. This time the Lady spoke to her, asking if she could do her the favour of coming to the grotto for the next fortnight.

Hundreds of people accompanied Bernadette to the grotto during that fortnight. Witnesses remarked on the deep absorption and ecstasy she displayed. However, there were as many sceptics as believers at this stage. The police and town leaders brought Bernadette in for questioning several times, they also tried to stop her from visiting the grotto. She was tested to see whether she was a fraud or insane. However they were unable to find a flaw in her tales and her innocence and belief in the truth of her visions shone through.

It was on the 9th visitation that the Lady asked Bernadette to drink from the spring and eat of the grasses. There was no spring at the base of the grotto so Bernadette scrabbled in a muddy patch, drinking a few drops of muddy water that appeared there. Many people immediately condemned her as insane. Over the next few days a spring began to flow and this water became the source of miraculous healing.

The main message that Our Lady transmitted through Bernadette during that fortnight was the need for penance, and to pray for sinners. However the Lady also asked Bernadette to go to the Parish priest and request the building of a chapel at the site of the grotto. Fr. Dominique Peyramale was initially sceptical and hostile to the idea. He asked for a sign and to know the Lady’s name. On March 25th, after several requests the Lady answered “que soy era Immaculada Councepciou” (“I am the Immaculate Conception”). Bernadette repeated it to the priest and then asked what it meant; it was a term she had not heard before. The Immaculate Conception – the doctrine of the birth of the Virgin Mary without original sin – had only been pronounced by the Pope four years before and as yet was still primarily known only by priests. Fr. Peyramale was later to become a staunch supporter of Bernadette.

On Friday July 16th Bernadette made one final pilgrimage to the Lady. The authorities had boarded up the grotto and Bernadette was not allowed in (later intervention by Emperor Napoleon III opened the grotto again), however she prayed from across the river and said that she had felt the presence of the Lady.

After the apparitions Lourdes began to attract people from all over the country. Bernadette bore the demands of her ‘celebrity’ with patience. Finally, however, she entered the Convent of the Sisters of Charity at Nevers at the age of 22. Here she could avoid much of the attention of the outside world, although she was to be dogged by questions from civil and church authorities for the rest of her life. As Sr. Marie Bernade she was noted for her humility, obedience and cheerful attitudes, inspiring young novices who spent time with her, even though Bernadette called herself “the stupid one”. Starting out as an assistant in the infirmary her health continued to worsen and she became a sacristan, creating beautifully embroidered altar cloths and vestments. On one occasion she wryly remarked that her only function was to “suffer”. Contracting tuberculosis of the bone of the right knee she was asked why she didn’t go to Lourdes for healing, she replied“It is not for me”.

Bernadette died at the age of 35, on April 16th, 1879. She was beatified June 14th, 1925 and canonized on December 8th, 1933 (the feast of the Immaculate Conception) by Pope Pius Xl. Bernadette’s body was exhumed 3 times, each time appearing incorrupt. It was placed in a gold and glass reliquary in what is now the Chapel of Saint Bernadette at the mother house of Nevers. It is a place of pilgrimage today, while the Grotto of Lourdes itself attracts almost 5 million pilgrims a year from around the world.

The Feast day of Our Lady of Lourdes is February 11th. St. Bernadette’s Feast day is April 16th.

[1] Laurentin, Rene: “Bernadette Speaks: a life of St. Bernadette Soubirous in her own words”. Pauline Books & Media 1999