Marie Bernarde Soubirous was born in Lourdes, France on January 7th, 1844 as the first child to a poor miller, Francois Soubirous and his wife Louise. She was a tenuous, fragile child, and due to her small size she acquired the name Bernadette. Her father’s lack of money meant she was often sent away to be cared for by family and friends, and during the summer of 1857 she went to stay with Marie Aravant in the nearby town of Batres. Aravant appreciated having Bernadette at her home, but was perturbed about her religious development. She attempted to teach her about the Bible, but quickly grew impatient as the teenager failed to show any proficiency for the matter. Eventually, Marie Aravant sought out advice from a local priest. The priest said that Bernadette should be sent back to Lourdes for Catechism classes.
Bernadette arrived back in her hometown shortly after her 14th birthday. While on February 11th, 1858 she was with two friends on the shore of the Gave River. She walked to a great stone headland known as the ‘Big Rock’, or Massabielle, which was a deserted area next to the river. At the bottom of the cliff there was a 25-foot deep and 40-foot wide natural void. Bernadette heard a noise and looked up. The subsequent events that took place would change Bernadette and this area of France forever.
Upon Bernadette raising her head, she witnessed an apparition of a beautiful lady dressed in white and praying. The manifestation disappeared but Bernadette ended up returning to the grotto and saw her again. During her third appearance, on February 18th, the lady apparition spoke and asked the girl to come to the area each day for two weeks. Bernadette obeyed her wishes, and did as she was told. On one occasion, the lady told Bernadette to wash herself in the spring water of the grotto. She noticed there was no spring in the area, so she dug directly into the muddy water and bathed. By the next day, a sturdy spring of water had manifested. On Bernadette’s 13th encounter with the apparition, the lady asked for a chapel to be built in her honor, and on the 16th appearance, she revealed her identity as the ‘Immaculate Conception’. Overall, Bernadette had observed the Holy Virgin Mother 18 times, with the last vision occurring on July 16th, 1858.
On a whim, many people who drank or washed in the grotto’s spring reported miraculous cures. By July 28, 1858 the Bishop of Tarbes had initiated an investigative commission. For over three years, a group of illustrious doctors, clergymen, and scientists studied the claims made by Bernadette and the worshipers at the grotto. On January 18th, 1862, the group ruled that Bernadette was an entirely sane individual who really had witnessed the Virgin Mary. The cures attributed to the spring at Massabieille were declared real, but inexplicable, and the authorities agreed to build a chapel out of respect to the Holy Mother.
The main Basilica at Lourdes now comprises three chapels and there are other churches nearby. Many travel there to simply show their respect, or to receive religious solace. Other who go are critically unwell and hope the healing waters will restore their spirit. Overall, there have been over 4,000 recoveries from illnesses, which have ranged from sores, blindness, tuberculosis to deafness and cancers.
However, Bernadette was not as lucky. In 1866 she joined the sisters of Nevers at the convent of Saint Gildard. As she had always been frail, she continued to suffer from various illnesses and passed away on April 16th, 1879 at the age of 35. In 1925, Bernadette’s perfectly preserved remnants were transferred from the convent chapel to a glass casket in the Nevers chapel. Her body appeared to have survived better in death than it had in life and a doctor, who helped exhume her, later wrote an article for a medical journal saying the state of preservation was not a ‘natural phenomenon’. She was idolized in 1935, and is now a focal point of religious expedition in Lourdes.