Saint Bernadette and Lourdes
SAINT BERNADETTE SOUBIROUS
This is an account of the life of Saint Bernadette 1844-1879. Bernadette Soubirous had fame thrust upon her when Our Lady appeared to her out of a blue sky at Lourdes on February 11th, 1858. She looked on the face of glory, the superbly beautiful face of the heavenly mother and lived to tell the story. In fact she looked at Our Lady many times, on almost every occasion being rapt in ecstasy by God’s power: yet, when she regained her senses, she could describe the visions.
The central theme of Bernadette’s life is the Lourdes grotto, so we shall retell this inspiring story, and then write of her life as a nun and of her death. But to begin, a few short words about her early life.
Bernadette was born in Lourdes in South France on January 7th, 1844. She was the eldest child of François Soubirous and his wife Louise, nee Casterot. After her came eight sisters and brothers, only three of whom grew to be adults.
Her father, François, was a miller by trade: he knew how to grind corn and wheat, ferment dough, and produce choice loaves of wheaten or corn bread. When he married Louise in January, 1843, Francois had some money and this he invested in the Boly Mill where he worked with his wife’s relatives. Unfortunately for him the Boly Mill did not pay well, and so he changed to another one just outside Lourdes. This too was not a success and by 1856, when Bernadette was twelve years of age, François and Louise and their surviving children had become very poor.
In 1856 the parents were compelled by extreme poverty to find lodging in a single dark room of a former prison building; the room was called the “Dungeon”. Beds, tables and chairs, some utensils and a cupboard, these were their sole possessions. Casual labour was their lot: François at Monsieur Cazenave’s stables, Louise at housework or in the fields. Bernadette, her sister Toinette, and their brother Jean-Marie could often be seen in the back streets and parks gathering rags, bones and scraps of metal to make a few pence and supplement their parents’ small earnings. Too often the family went hungry.
Bernadette, the eldest, often had to stay at home to mind the younger ones. So she grew to twelve and then to fourteen, a small little girl afflicted with asthma and with hardly any schooling. What really grieved her was the fact that she had not as yet made her First, Holy Communion.
Each Sunday, the whole families, ill-clad as they were, were to be found in church, for the parents were devout Catholics. And Bernadette, despite her lack of schooling, knew her prayers and carried rosary beads in her pocket. Her mother could say what a good little person she was: obedient, diligent, smart in the local dialect, a mother to the younger ones. It was sad that she could not read or write: just a plain, simple, little girl.
Then, out of the blue, in February 1858 an astounding thing happened to the little one, and from her destitution and deprivation she was to become the best known citizen of her native town.
A Vision of Our Lady
The first remarkable incident came on Thursday, February 11th, which was a very cold winter’s day.
Madame Soubirous was preparing to go fossicking for fallen branches in the woods to keep a fire alight in their “dungeon”, when Bernadette, Toinette, and their companion Jeanne Abadie offered to go. It was about 11.15 a.m.
Off went three of them. They crossed the Old Bridge over the river Gave that ran through Lourdes valley at the base of the town. While crossing they met an old lady called Piguono (the Magpie) and she told them to go to the woods to Monsieur de Lafitte’s meadow where they would certainly find dead branches. So they trotted on for a few hundred yards with the Gave river now on their right, over a rough track sloping downwards, until they reached a spot where the Gave was joined by a canal. Here the riverbank, on their left, was high and rocky: the high part was called Massabielle (Old Hump), and in the face of the bank was a dark cave with a rounded niche higher up on the right, just above the cave. Now to enter De Lafitte’s meadow the children had to wade across the adjoining canal. It was a freezing day, and Bernadette the asthmatic, hesitated before crossing. Toinette and Jeanne Abadie went straight through the water and off into the meadow. Bernadette leaned against a boulder to the right of the cave and began to take off her stockings to brave the water. And as she was doing this a remarkable thing happened.
Here is the story in her own words:
“I heard the sound of wind as in a storm. I turned towards the meadow, and I saw that the trees wee not moving at all…
“I went on taking my stockings off, and was putting one foot into the water, then I heard the same sound in front of me. I looked up and saw a cluster of branches and brambles underneath the topmost opening in the grotto tossing and swaying to and fro, though nothing else stirred all around.
“Behind these branches and within the opening, I saw immediately afterwards a girl in white, no bigger than myself, who greeted me with a slight bow of the head; at the same time, she stretched out her arms slightly away from her body, opening her hands, as in pictures of Our Lady: over her right arm hung a rosary.
“I was afraid. I stepped back. I wanted to call the two little girls; I hadn’t the courage to do so. I rubbed my eyes again and again: I thought I must be mistaken.
“Raising my eyes again, I saw the girl smiling at me most graciously and seeming to invite me to come nearer. But I was still afraid. But I was still afraid. It was not however a fear such as I have at other times, for I would have stayed there forever looking at her: whereas, when you are afraid, you run away quickly.
“Then I thought of saying my prayers. I put my hand in my pocket. I took out the rosary I usually carry on me. I knelt down and I tried to make the sign of the Cross, but I could not lift my hand to my forehead: it fell back.
“The girl meanwhile stepped to one side and turned towards me. This time, she was holding the large beads in her hand. She crossed herself as though to pray. My hand was trembling. I tried again to make the sign of the Cross, and this time I could. After that I was not afraid.
“I said my Rosary. The young girl slipped the beads of hers through her fingers, but she was not moving her lips.
“While I was saying the rosary, I was watching as hard as I could. She was wearing a white dress reaching down to her feet, of which only the toes appeared. The dress was gathered very high at the neck by a hem from which hung a white cord. A white veil covered her head and came down over her shoulders and arms almost to the bottom of her dress. On each foot I saw a yellow rose. The sash of the dress was a blue, and hung down below her knees. The chain of the rosary was yellow; the beads white, big and widely spaced.
“The girl was alive, very young and surrounded with light.
“When I had finished my rosary, she bowed to me smilingly. She retired within the niche and disappeared all of a sudden.”
“Toinette and Jeanne Abadie were back at the canal crossing near the high river bank just fifteen minutes after they had waded over. They immediately saw Bernadette on her knees, staring at the cave or grotto, and Toinette picked up a pebble and threw it at her. “It hit her on the shoulder (said the girl) but she did not stir. She was white, as though she were dead. Jeanne said to me: ‘If she were dead, she would be lying down’.”
Then, in a few moments, Bernadette came back to her senses and saw her companions. “How silly you are to pray there!”, called out Toinette. “Prayers are good anywhere”, came back from Bernadette.
So the three of them made up their bundles of sticks and set off for home. On the way Bernadette whispered to her sister: “I saw a lady dressed in white, with a blue sash and a yellow rose on each foot …” (The ‘lady’ had not told her to keep silent).
When the girls got home, and put their bundles down, Toinette blurted out Bernadette’s story to her mother. ‘A childish tale’ thought Madame Soubirous, and she took a stick to correct them. “Your eyes were playing tricks”, she said to her daughter. “What you saw was a white stone”. “No, Mamma”, answered the girl, “the lady had a lovely face.”
“Then let’s pray to God”, said Mamma. “Maybe it is the soul of one of our relatives in Purgatory”. But François, the father, who was listening from his bed, spoke up: “So you’re starting to make trouble already”. He was sure that the vision must be evil.
By night-time Madame Soubirous had got a promise from her daughter not to go back to the cave. But this was not to be the end of it, rather the beginning of a series of wonderful surprises.
Sunday, February 14th
This first vision of the ‘beautiful lady’ came on a Thursday. By Sunday, February 14th, thanks especially to Jeanne Abadie’s incessant talking, a good few people heard about it. After attending Sunday Mass, Bernadette felt a strong impulse to go back to the grotto for a second visit, but of course her parents had forbidden it. She began to pester her mother, who finally said: “Go and ask your father”. So she and a few other girls ran to M. Cazenave’s stables to ask her dad. He said: “No, you cannot go”. But M. Cazenave spoke up: “Let the little one go; if what she sees carries a rosary, it cannot be anything evil”. And at that, her dad gave in.
So off trooped twenty young school girls, late on Sunday morning, carrying Holy Water from the church to chase away the devil, and curious to see if Bernadette was telling the truth. The girl herself ran like a gazelle down the steep track, and Toinette relates:
“When we reached the grotto at the bottom, she was already on her knees. She made us kneel down and take out her beads”.
Within a few minutes, Bernadette exclaimed: “Look! A bright light!” Then more loudly: “Look at her…She has her rosary over her right arm…She’s looking at us.” The girls looked and looked, but they could see nothing.
Then Bernadette got to her feet and went close to the rounded niche above the cave. She sprinkled the rock vigorously with holy water and said: “If you come from God then stay!”
“The beautiful lady only smiled”, said Bernadette later. So she stepped back, knelt again with her friends, and kept her eyes fixed on the vision.
Hardly they resumed the saying of the rosary when a stone came tumbling down the rock face, struck the large boulder against which Bernadette was leaning and rebounded into the canal. It was silly-headed Jeanne Abadie, arriving late, who had thrown it. Bernadette was startled, and then as the girls watched she fell more deeply into ecstasy so that they cried out: She’s dead!” Then seeing Jeanne Abadie, they shouted at her: “You’ve killed Bernadette!”
Jeanne herself says: “Her face was lit up. All the girls were crying and so was I.”
How could they rouse her? They shouted her name, they shook her, but she remained as if unconscious, yet still smiling. So they tried to lift her up and carry her away, but they could not do it. So off they ran, leaving Toinette behind, some to the Savy Mill on the canal, Jeanne right back to Lourdes to tell Bernadette’s mother.
It was now about 12.45 on the Sunday. Madame Nicolau and her sister Anne-Marie hurried from the Savy Mill at the children’s appeal, but the two of them could not budge the kneeling girl. They called Madame’s son Antoine, a powerful man of twenty-eight years. He came running, and he describes what happened in his own words:
“I remained for a time motionless, watching her. The girls were watching her like me; my mother and aunt were also spellbound . . .
“At length I went up to her, for my mother said to me: ‘Take hold of her, and we’ll bring her home with us’. “I took her by the right arm. She struggled to stay. Her eyes remained fixed upwards. Not a murmur . . . I lifted her by one arm, then the other; my mother took one arm . . . I wiped her eyes and put my hand in front of them to prevent her seeing. I tried to make her bend her head; but she raised it again and re-opened her eyes, with a smile.”
Antoine Nicolau then testifies that it took all his great strength to carry this frail little girl to the Savy Mill, and he was covered in sweat through the effort. Only when they entered the mill-house did Bernadette lower her eyes and come to herself.
The miller says, “I asked her: ‘What do you see in that hole? It is something not very nice?’ And she said: Oh no! I see a very lovely lady. She has a rosary on her arm and her hands are joined.”
(It had been a very deep, prolonged, ecstasy that came over the girl: but as yet it was too much of a puzzle for the simple good people.)
When Bernadette’s mother Louise reached the Savy Mill – Jeanne Abadie had run to get her – she was somewhat beside herself: “You little scamp”, she railed, “What do you mean by making everyone run after you!” But now quite recovered, her daughter replied: “Mamma, I never told anyone to follow me.” Louise, what are you doing?” called out Antoine’s wife. “Why strike her? Your daughter is an angel from heaven!”
At her words, Louise slumped into a chair and burst into tears. Then she took Bernadette by the hand and together they went back to Lourdes.
But with Antoine Nicolau, and twenty school girls telling the story of Sunday February 14th, the whole town began to buzz with gossip.
Third Apparition: February 18th
As for Bernadette, she was back at school on Monday and when asked by the head Sister what had happened on the Sunday, she told the story simply and clearly. “Put it out of your head, my dear: it’s an illusion”, was Sister’s dry comment.
On Tuesday the 16th, a goody buy nosy townswoman named Madame Millet, for whom Louise Soubirous sometimes worked, came on the scene. She met the little one, questioned her carefully, and decided for herself that the girl was truthful. So she persuaded the parents against their will to let Bernadette go with her to the grotto. She, Madame Millet, would be responsible for whatever happened.
So on the Thursday, February 18th, after morning Mass at 6.00 a.m., Madame Millet, her friend Mademoiselle Peyret, and Bernadette set out for the grotto. The ladies brought a blessed candle, and also writing materials to record the name of the ‘beautiful lady’, for they suspected she might be the spirit of the President of the Children of Mary, Elisa Latapie, who had died two months before, and who often wore a white dress, blue sash, and carried a rosary at her wrist.
In front of the grotto the three knelt down, and one of the ladies lit the candle. Suddenly Bernadette exclaimed: “There she is!” They said the rosary, then Bernadette took the pen, ink-pot and paper, and offered them to the ‘lady’ while asking: “Madame, would you be so kind as to write down your name?” then, said Bernadette, for the first time I heard her voice. “She began to laugh and said: ‘There is no need to write down what I have to say.'” (The two ladies could hear nothing).
“Ask her if we may come back”, begged Madame Millet. Bernadette moved towards the niche, then came back and said, “There is nothing to prevent your coming”.
Then, according to the girl, the beautiful lady said to her ‘in a gentle voice’: “Will you do me the favour of coming here for a fortnight?” “After asking my parent’s permission, I will come” agreed Bernadette. Then the Vision said: “I do not promise to make you happy in this world, but in the next”. And the vision disappeared.
Although Madame Millet and her companion were pleased with little Bernadette, they kept saying to her: “Beware! Because if you are telling lies, God will punish you.” And when they got back to the town, they helped Bernadette persuade her mother to allow her to return daily to the grotto, as the ‘lady’ had requested. “Come with us Louise”, they said, “and see for yourself”.
The Fortnight of Visits
Next day, Friday February 19th, several women including Louise Soubirous went with Bernadette to the grotto; it was early in the morning.
The ‘beautiful lady’ was waiting in the niche, and between praying and watching the visionary in motion – ‘her bows and smiles, the radiance of her face, the graciousness of her gestures’ – the group of watchers was quite spell-bound.
“How lovely she is like that!” came from one; “She’s dying”, from another. “What a sinner I am” signed her aunt Bernarde. And the mother Louise cried out: “My God, I implore You, don’t take my child away from me.”
In half an hour the vision was over. Bernadette told the ladies that terrible yells had come from the back of the grotto, voices shouting: “Get out of here!” And she understood that the shouts were as much directed against the Vision of Light standing in the niche as against her. A mysterious fury of evil from the other world!
When Bernadette, her mother and aunt Bernarde got to the grotto early on Sunday February 21st, they found a considerable crowd of people awaiting them: housewives, workmen, the Mayor himself, the Sergeant of Police, three constables, even Doctor Dozous, the medical practitioner who was seldom seen in church. The ‘beautiful lady’ was certainly creating a fuss! Doctor Dozous came more or less under challenge: by staying close to the girl, and examining her pulse during the transports, he would easily show that she was excitable and her brain imbalanced. He would turn the grotto into his consulting room.
What happened? The lady appeared, the girl was captivated and transported, the crowd delighted. And there was Doctor Dozous conducting the test: “I took one of her arms and put my fingers on the radial artery. The pulse was calm and regular, the breathing easy; nothing in the girl indicated any undue nervous excitement…” Dozous, the skeptic, was put back on his heels, and honestly admitted to the other skeptics in Lourdes, “She is a perfectly normal child”.
At 9.00 am, the parish church was crowded for Mass, and as the crowed was dispersing after the ceremonies a disturbance broke out. Some workers who had been down at the grotto were heckled by others who had not: “It’s a pack of lies. The whole thing is ridiculous”, came from the latter, and the former heatedly opposed them. Voices were raised, and as the shouting persisted, several police came on the scene. Nearby in the Town Hall a meeting was called by Mayor Lacade, Public Prosecutor Dutour, Police Commissioner Jacomet, and a few more, to discuss the alleged happenings at Massabielle.
It was decided by the town leaders that some action was needed. Meanwhile Bernadette was attending High Mass with the other school children, and when Mass was over she was called aside by the Public Prosecutor Dutour, Public Commissioner Jacomet, and a few more, to discuss the alleged happenings at Massabielle.
“Do you intend going to the grotto every morning?” he asked.
“Yes Sir: I’ve promised to go every day for a fortnight.”
“But the Sisters, who are very devout, have told you to put it out of your head as a dream, an illusion. Why not follow their advice? You would stop all this bother about you.”
“I feel too much joy when I go to the grotto”.
“You could give it up…and besides, you might be stopped going.”
“I feel myself drawn by an irresistible force.”
“…I must make it clear to you that supposing you were not sincere in your account of apparitions, or supposing you and your parents were to gain any profit from them, you would be liable to prosecution and a severe sentence.”
“I’m not counting on any profit in this life.”
“So you say. But have you not already accepted Madame Millet’s hospitality? Are not your parents hoping to better their position by making use of you and your visions, though they may be nothing but dreams or, worse still, lies?”
“Madame Millet wanted to have me at her house. She came to fetch me. I gave way to her request in order to please her. I was not thinking of myself. I have not lied to her or anyone else.”
Public Prosecutor Dutour was convinced for he was a good man. The little lady was no liar, she was not trying to deceive.
“When she spoke (he wrote down), her unaffected language and quite, earnest tone won one’s confidence.” So he judged that should be left alone to go to the grotto.
Police Commissioner Jacomet, however, was not so minded, and after Sunday’s Vespers in the church he sought out the girl. A group of people, highly suspicious, followed Jacomet to his door siding with Bernadette. But inside the house, she was conducting herself very well. No threat of his to punish or gaol her for her supposed deceptions had any effect. She simply told the policeman over and over, clearly and unembarrassed, the exact things that had happened at the grotto. With all his artfulness, Jacomet could not confuse the child, and he became quite flustered.
In the same building as Jacomet there lived a bachelor named Monsieur Estrade with his sister. Both were present at Jacomet’s interviews. The fact is worth recording for M. Estrade, a customs officer, went next day to the grotto and his account of what he saw is truly fascinating.
M. Estrade’s Account
He says himself he went because of his sister, and in a very frivolous mood prepared to be amused by the superstition, but he came away exalted in spirit. He describes how “a flash of lightning seemed to strike the girl as she knelt before the grotto; that she gave a start of amazement, and then seemed to be born into another life. Her eyes lighted up and sparkled … her soul seemed to be striving to show itself outwardly and proclaim its jubilation.”
“Spontaneously (he says) we men who were present uncovered our heads and bent our knees like the humblest woman. The time for argument was past, and we, like all those present at this heavenly scene, were gazing from the ecstatic girl to the rock, and from the rock to the ecstatic. We saw nothing, we heard nothing, needless to say; but what we could see and comprehend was that a conversation had begun between the mysterious lady and the child whom we had before our eyes … The ecstasy last for about an hour … At length Bernadette stoop up, went and rejoined her mother and became lost in the crowd … (A large audience was present).
“The Lady of the rock (continues Estrade) had veiled herself in vain: I had felt her presence and I was convinced that her motherly gaze had hovered over my head. It was a most solemn hour of my life! I was thrown almost into a delirium of madness by the thought that a cynical, sneering, self-satisfied fellow like me had been permitted to come so close to the Queen of Heaven … We came away from the grotto exclaiming in turns: ‘It’s prodigious! It’s sublime! It’s divine!”
Five hundred people were present on Wednesday, February 24th, when the eighth Apparition occurred; Bernadette’s mother and father were flanking her to protect her from harm. Town authorities were thoroughly alarmed; the local newspaper wrote of “this craze that daily finds fresh devotees.” Policemen stood in the crowd to handle disturbances, but the crowd was more hushed than in a church.
Those very near Bernadette on the 24th heard her sigh deeply and murmur: “Penance, penance, penance” in the midst of her ecstasy. The words were relayed through the crowd; it was the first public message from the ‘beautiful lady’.
Next day, however, the same people began to call out: “The girl is mad”, and they jeered at her. They were provoked by her strange conduct, crawling forwards then backwards into the cave, rooting in the dirt, drinking water and smearing her face, and then plucking leaves off a sour bush and eating them. What was on?
Bernadette explained afterwards: “The Lady said to me: ‘Go and drink at the spring and wash yourself in it’. Not seeing any spring I was going to drink from the Gave. She told me it was not there. She pointed with her finger to the place of the spring. I went there. I saw merely a bit of dirty water; I put my hand in it; but I could not get hold of any. I scratched and the water came, but muddy. Three times I threw it away; the fourth time I was able to drink some.”
“The essence of Lourdes’ miraculous spring comes to life in these few words”, writes Abbe Trochu. “If in actual fact the never-failing spring that was going to be revealed by her timid fingers, was not actually created that minute by a miracle of the Almighty, none the less its discovery was a divine prodigy”. (Trochu, St Bernadette Soubirous, p. 105-6.)
The people, who were ashamed of Bernadette on February 25th, realised afterwards that the ‘Lady’ had been instructing her in the exercise of Penance, and its wonderful fruit in the miraculous spring that came out of the rock: like Moses striking the rock in the desert! Then, they were ashamed of themselves.
“Penance”, and its urgent need, is the first revelation of Lourdes. “Go and tell the priests to have a chapel built there”, was the beautiful lady’s second public message, given on February 27th and 28th.
And straight away, the simple but obedient little girl went to face the lion in the den: the stern, apparently autocratic parish priest, Abbe Peyramale.
The Abbe took her into his house. She immediately gave her message: “Monsieur le Cure, the Lady of the grotto has ordered me to tell the priests that she wishes to have a chapel at Massabielle.”
In a surly tone (as the girl remembers) the Abbe said: “What is this lady?” “She is a very beautiful lady, all surrounded with light, who appears to me at Massabielle”. “I don’t understand (said the Abbe). How has this lady shown herself to you?”
Bernadette told the story simply and clearly, the story she had told M. Dutour and M. Jacomet. (Peyramale later told a friend, that as he listened, he had force back the tears that rose to his eyes.) Without showing any visible emotion, when the girl had finished, the Abbe said:
“What is the lady’s name?”
“I don’t know”
“You have not asked her.”
“Yes, but when I ask her, she smiles but does not reply.”
“And you assert that she has instructed you to tell me that she wants a chapel at Massabielle?”
At this firm assertion of the little maiden, the excitable Abbe flared up. “Girl”, he cried, “you are out of your mind! A lady who goes and perches on a rock, a lady you do not know, a lady who is perhaps as lunatic as you! This lady comes and tells you to invite us to have a chapel built for her! And you accept such messages? And you think we are fools enough to listen to them…”
Then calming down a bit: “Since you stick to this lady, find out first who she is, and if she thinks she has a right to a chapel. Ask her from me to prove it by making the rose-bush at the grotto flower immediately.”
When the Abbe’s outburst was over, Bernadette got up abashed, gave the big man a look that bore no grudge, bowed and left the room.
Two days later, the brave little lady – stubborn,
perhaps, in the lady’s opinion – was back again to confront the priest with the beautiful lady’s next request: “She wants people to come to the grotto in procession.”
“I ask you once again”, said the parish priest, “What is the lady’s name?” “I don’t know, Monsieur le Cure. She does not wish to give it.”
“Well then, since she does not wish to give it, you are a liar. And its scandalous to have workmen leaving their jobs to go and see a liar… You’re causing scandals. A procession to the grotto! If the Lady wants one, its not me she should apply to, but His Lordship the Bishop. Doesn’t she know that? … We’ll give you a torch and you can run your own procession… You’ve no need of priests!”
“I never said anything to anyone; I did not ask them to come with me.”
The interview ended with the enraged Abbe muttering to a fellow-priest who entered the room: “Don’t let her go to the grotto. Let this be the end of it.” The other priest and Bernadette both knew that the Abbe was talking to himself.
March 4th: The Fortnight Ends
Now came March 4th, the last day of the promised fortnight. A wave of expectation ran through the people of Lourdes, though people in the nearby countryside, and even through hundreds in the province. Public authorities became very apprehensive: the police were increased and armed by order of the district Prefect. Lourdes, it was said, resembled a town under siege.
Already before midnight March 3rd, the trample of feet, the rumbling of carts, the neighing of horses, were heard throughout the town and valley. By morning no less than 20, 00 people had assembled in the vicinity of the grotto. The rumour was that something quite spectacular was to happen.
Around 7.00 a.m., the crowd parted to let Bernadette and her relatives get near the grotto. Then the rosary was begun, and at the second decade a perceptible change came over the visionary. “Now she can see her!” came spontaneously from some, and all present went down on their knees. Even Jacomet, the police commissioner was kneeling!
The vision lasted for an hour, with Bernadette moving I and out of the grotto twice. “The Lady came so close to me that I could have touched her”, narrated the girl. Then it was over, and the huge crowd dispersed. Nothing of an over-sensational kind had occurred. Many were disappointed, yet hundreds besieged the ‘dungeon’ of the Soubirous family eager to listen to, or to touch, the girl: the police had to keep guard over her. They noted very carefully that these poorest of the poor would accept no money from nobody, even though it was thrust upon them. Bernadette herself was almost fierce on this point.
Dutifully the little lady called on Abbe Peyramale to remind him yet again of the beautiful Lady’s messages about the chapel and the processions. “Let us tell us her name”, he said again. Then, in a softer tone, “If I knew it was the Blessed Virgin, I would do all she desires … Did she tell you to return there?”
“No, Monsieur le Cure”
“If she comes back, beg her to tell you her name.”
It is told that the Soubirous girl was in tears as she left the Abbe for she could sense that he still thought the visions were imaginary.
The Lady Gives Her Name
Three weeks now went by without incident. People were steadily seen at the grotto. Bernadette was at school. Abbe Peyramale was doing some hard thinking, and when news was brought to him of two surprising bodily cures through application of the spring water, he wondered the more. It was Lent, and as the season advanced a true spirit of penance gripped the town: the confessionals were thronged, and many careless ones came back to the sacraments. Could the ‘finger of God’ be at the grotto?
Then on the Feast of Our Lady’s Annunciation, March 25th, Bernadette experienced again the ‘irresistible urge’ to go to the grotto. When she came with relatives, there were over a thousand people gathered there. The beautiful lady was already in the niche and waiting for her. The rosary and prayers were said, and during her ecstasy the little visionary plucked up her courage and asked her beautiful visitor, once, twice, and then a third time:
“Madame, will you be so kind as to tell me who you are?”
At the third entreaty, the Lady (said Bernadette) opened her arms and lowered them, letting the rosary slip down towards her wrist, then re-joined her hands, raised her eyes and delivered the secret:
“I am the Immaculate Conception.”
As she went from the grotto, Bernadette kept repeating these words, which we did not understand; they were but sounds to her. And when she came before the Abbe Peyramale, she burst out without any formality: “I am the Immaculate Conception.”
“Over My Dead Body”
With the disclosure of the Lady’s name to Abbe Peryamale. the mission of Bernadette seemed to be completed. The girl felt so herself, and in the events that followed she remained steadfast and said to young friends: “God permits it; we must have patience.”
She went straight back to school, earnest in her preparation for her First Holy Communion. The Sisters noticed the subtle changed in her. She was still rather slow in learning but now prayed beautifully, and her sign of the Cross was perfectly done. With the other children she was full of fun.
Down at the grotto some ugly scenes took place when religious cranks emerged claiming that the lovely Lady had also appeared to them. Happenings like these caused the city’s authorities to call for some definite action. The same people had notified the provincial Prefect of religious furnishings, including a statue and a small altar, that had been installed in the grotto. Now they also spoke of the fanaticism.
So it was resolved that Bernadette should be spirited away to a Reception-Hospital at Tarbes, as one suspected of mental derangement. But in this the authorities were to be frustrated for the Abbe Peryamale was fully alerted. He had viewed two people miraculously cured by the spring water; he had seen the outburst of true religious fervour in his own parish. And then, on Sunday, he witnessed a little miracle with his own eyes. A school-girl made her Communion. He hadn’t noticed who she was, but immediately a heavenly halo appeared above this child’s head. The Abbe noted where she returned to in the church; he lifted his eyes to see who the youngster was, and he saw that it was indeed Bernadette. A heavenly sign granted to him! He wept quietly after the Mass for the harsh words he had said to the girl.
So when Mayor Lacade and Public Prosecutor Dutour called on him to obtain his permission for Bernadette’s removal to Tarbes Hospital, the Abbe was thoroughly angry:
“This girl is no invalid (he almost shouted) … She is delicate, she is poor… But in no way does she come under the law that you invoke. She causes no disorder…I am the one responsible for her soul. So kindly tell the district Prefect and his police that they will have to pass over my dead body before they touch a hair on the head of this child!” No further molestation was ever attempted.
Bernadette Grows Up
Between 1858-65 the privileged daughter of the Soubirous lived on and grew to womanhood in her own town. For three of those years she was at school, and then lodged in the Hospital section of the Sisters’ Institution. This was done to give her some peace from the flock of visitors who came to her home (no longer in the Dungeon). The visitors, of course, now sought to see her at the Hospital. She saw very many, but even more were turned aside by the Abbe and the nuns.
The clergy, the sisters, and the more responsible of her friends, remarked on the simplicity of manner of the growing maiden: yet she was quite self-possessed. They saw too how strongly, even fiercely, she rejected any kind of special devotion shown towards her, and how she would accept no gifts of any kind. Her sister and brothers were sternly warned by her about the same thing. Quite an uncanny maturity in a teenager! She dearly loved her parents and her simple ways. She honoured them and helped them in every way she could.
Slowly she grew a bit better at her lessons, gradually developing a neat and personal style of writing. The nuns were able to appoint her catechist to some of the juniors.
Ill-health was her companion. In 1862, when she was eighteen years old, she was given up by the doctor during a severe bout of pneumonia. When the crisis raged, Bernadette asked for water from the grotto-spring and was instantly cured by its use. Yet Our Lady left her with the asthma.
In the same year 1862, Bishop Laurence of Tarbes – Lourdes is a parish of this diocese – approved the Apparitions and allowed processions to the grotto. “We judge (he decreed after exhaustive examination) that Mary, the Immaculate, Mother of God, did truly appear to Bernadette Soubirous on 11th of February, 1858, and on subsequent days, to the number of eighteen times in all, in the grotto of Massabielle, near the town of Lourdes …” The way was now open for the erection of the Church that the beautiful Lady had requested.
And before Bernadette left Lourdes in 1866 to go to the Sisters of Charity, Novitiate at Nevers, she had the supreme joy of walking in procession to the grotto with the Children of Mary. The occasion was the blessing of the newly-built crypt of Lourdes’ famous Basilica.
She Becomes a Nun
On many occasions, as she was growing up, Bernadette was asked: What vocation will you choose? She always answered: “I shall be a nun”. People therefore said: Our Lady predicted this. But, for her part, Bernadette neither affirmed nor denied the inference.
The Sisters of Charity and Religious Instruction, with whom she was lodging at Lourdes, were absolutely determined never to ask her directly to come to them. Any such decision had to be entirely her own. So the growing young lady appeared to dawdle over the matter. Eventually, from a visiting bishop, she discovered that the Sisters would not ask of her the usual ‘dowry” should she decide to come to them, and soon after this her mind was made up.
So in July 1866, with another postulant named Leontine Mouret, she left Lourdes to go to the Sisters of Charity Novitiate and Mother House at Nevers. “On the eve of departure she went down to the grotto with several nuns. She went inside the grille erected there and knelt down. Deep in prayer, her eyes fixed on a statue of the Immaculate placed in the niche, she broke into tears: O Mother Mary, how can I leave you? Then she got up and pressed her lips tightly against the rock below the niche”. (Trochu, p. 247) She turned and went away without looking back. Never again would she see the grotto.
There followed a most affectionate and tearful farewell with her dear parents and family.
Postulant at Nevers
So she came to Nevers, which is a good distance from Lourdes, to enter the novitiate. The Sisters were thrilled at her coming to them.
“What a grace and favour it is for us to receive Mary’s privileged child … For myself, it will be one of the greatest blessings of my life to behold the eyes that have seen the Blessed Virgin.” So wrote Mother Marie Therese-Vauzous, Deputy General and Novice Mistress: the same Vauzous nun that Franz Werfel in The Song of Bernadette deals with so harshly.
Yet despite their real joy at her coming, the nuns were apprehensive of the prospect of trying to form this exceptional young lady in the way of their Rule and Constitution. Already the entire Catholic world knew of her fame, and many held her to be a saint. How, then, could you hope to ‘form’ her? Only, it seemed, by guarding her against, and exhorting her to resist, the dangers of vainglory.
As a first move, and with Bishop Lorcade assenting, the nuns decided to withdraw her absolutely from public curiosity. One last semi-public performance was permitted by the convent authorities. Bernadette was asked to appear before the large community at Nevers, with the other nuns of the district invited, and to give them all an account of the marvellous happenings at the grotto. “All ears were alert and heats were stirred” as the young lady recounted the events once again. Her modesty, however, caused her to falter and some of the nuns had to prod her with questions to draw out the full detail.
Twelve days after arrival, she wrote to her parents: “I am well settled and perfectly happy, and I beg you not to be anxious about me.”
The postulants and novices were delighted with the new arrival. “To our great surprise (wrote novice Lucie Cloris) she was no different from the other postulants except perhaps for a greater shyness.”
The same novice might also have added, “and also because of her health”, for Sister Marie Bernard – this was her new name – was brought to death’s door just three months after coming to Nevers. The first winter’s cold invaded her body, her lungs and chest reacted badly, and the house doctor thought she must die.
To this point in her novitiate Mother Vauzous had been all sweetness and welcome. After Bernadette’s slow recovery from the illness, when she was fully well again, the Novice-Mistress changed her tune. There ensued for the young novice a hard period of eight months, in which she was subjected again and again to biting corrections. Why? To protect her from vainglory, said the Mistress.
Some of Bernadette’s companions in the convent have written that Mother Vauzous was high-born herself, and could hardly tolerate the fact that ‘heaven had chosen a peasant girl for these wondrous favours’. Why had not Our Lady chosen a girl of better breeding and refined manners? From which we gather that snobbery could readily be found in a French convent in the 19th century!
In due time Sister M. Bernard came to her first religious profession pronouncing the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. She was quite delighted to do so, and to dedicate the rest of her life to the service and imitation of Jesus Our Lord.
But when she sat in the community hall and listened to Mother General reading out the residences and apostolic labours to which each of the newly-professed was assigned, she had to sustain a keen rebuff. Her name was not called. She was given no assignment. Mother General, almost in so many words, had exclaimed: She has no talent. She is good for nothing!
It is, of course, an injustice to the Sisters of Charity of Nevers to relate such incidents without qualification. Sister M. Bernard found true happiness in their midst; she was able to manage certain tasks despite long periods of sickness; she was never very talented; but it is yet true to say that the higher superioresses, Mother General and Mother Vauzous, who had Bernadette in charge for most of her religious life, seldom relented in their strict conduct towards the God-favoured young nun.
Abbe Trochu, in his wonderful book St Bernadette Soubirous, speaks of her “Trials of the Heart” which brought her keenest suffering. He explains it in this way: a child in a family, a recruit in a convent, a rookie in the army, any young person placed under parent or superior can sustain correction and learn to accept it, provided they know that the person in authority still loves them and is detached from the correction. But if the sharp reprimand is accompanied by aloofness, and this turns into a continued coldness of attitude, then its effect can be quite chilling.
Now the Abbe finds proof that Sister M. Bernard had to sustain such a coldness of attitude from her two main superioresses for eleven years. It is almost unbelievable, but apparently quite true! Mother Vauzous could only say in her own defence before she died: God must have permitted me to do so to protect the girl from vainglory! Another nun said: “To me it seemed that Mother Vauzous felt herself overshadowed by this highly-favoured young woman”. The crux of the interpersonal difficulty was that Bernadette held “her secrets” to her heart all through her life, and was unable to “open up” to the Novice-Mistress as did the other novices.
In the Community
The daily and weekly life of Sister M. Bernard was quite simple. She followed the convent’s daily programme, became enraptured at her Mass and prayers, diligently performed domestic duties, and served as assistant infirmarian for seven years. Nothing unusual, no ecstasies! In fact, one new postulant, who came to religion because of Bernadette, failed to identify her amongst the others for a whole month. And when she was finally told: There she is!, the postulant exclaimed spontaneously, ‘So that is Bernadette’, with the emphasis on the ‘that’. And Bernadette loved her for the word!
It is most refreshing to read that Sister Bernard was a wit in her own right, and a born mimic. They say she could, and did, imitate all the gestures of the dear old doctor who came to the Infirmary: his fussiness, hand gestures, the voice, the facial gestures. And she could cause gusts of merriment amongst the novices by her mimicry: all of course, in good part.
Apparently, she became quite expert with the embroidering needles and did some beautiful work.
Her favourite spiritual reading came from the New Testament and the Imitation of Christ (Thomas a Kempis).
For four or five years of the thirteen she passed in the convent, she herself was a patient in the Infirmary: no great asset for the work of the community.
It is related that a Superioress chance to remark on this, and said to the sickly young woman: “What are you doing there in bed, you lazy little thing?” “Why, my dear Mother, I’m doing my job” “And what’s your job?” “Being ill”.
The Heart Again
Nevers’ Convent records tell of the distress of heart that came to Bernadette through the deaths of her loved ones. First, her mother Louise who died when forty-one, a few months after her daughter’s entrance. Bernadette knew that mamma was pining, but Louise was dead for two days before the news reached her. When told of it, she collapsed in a faint and had to be revived. She asked: “On what day, and exactly what hour did she die?” “On the 8th of December (1866), between two and three o’ clock as the first procession in honour of the Immaculate Conception was moving towards the crypt above the grotto.” “So much the better (sighed the daughter), for she is in heaven!”
Then in September 1877 the parish priest of Lourdes, Abbe Peyramale went to his Maker. Bernadette sobbed bitterly over “one of the persons, he and Father Sempe, that she had loved most on earth.” Long forgotten were his scoldings of 1858. Not only had he shielded her with his body from her persecutors, he had also defended the Apparitions and the Grotto as soon as he was convinced that the hand of God was there. Then he had organized the girls’ life, he had assisted her impoverished parents to regain their trade of milling. He had lovingly addressed her as ‘daughter’ and corresponded with her at Nevers. And now he was gone to God. It took Bernadette quite some days to become reconciled to his loss.
Although she was but ten years in the convent, she felt with the Abbe’s passing that her own death was not far away. Two more years were to follow.
Long Illness: Death
Her premature death was caused by cancer. In 1867 she developed a tumour on the right knee: it did not develop quickly and so she could go on with her work. A serious aggravation came in the winter of 1877 through a deep-seated abscess, and the tumour increased very much. There was constant pain and decay of the bones set in; the deprivations of her childhood were catching up.
For the last two years of her life she suffered terribly. “I must be a victim”, she often said. Was there some connection between her vocation to suffer and the “three secrets” of Massabielle that she would never reveal to a soul? Abbe Febvre, the convent chaplain, thought there was. “He had a clear conviction”, wrote his nephew Abbe Pico, “that Sister M. Bernard had a mission to live at the Mother House the lessons she received in Lourdes from the lips of Mary Immaculate: to pray, do penance, to mortify herself and to suffer for sinners.” (Trochu, p. 352)
A nun who attended her sick-bed through one night in February 1879 attended the ordeal. “Because of the enormous tumour, her right leg remained outside the bed resting on a chair. The decay of her bones, a painful disease like acute toothache, wring from her incessantly, a dull half-stifled moan. No cries; no articulate sound: no impatient movement: but always the same groaning, spasmodic and gasping, like the groans of a victim offering herself in a willing sacrifice without being able to repress her cry under the knife that is slaughtering her; the groaning of a will that remains steadfast and heroic in a failing body…” (Trochu, p. 363)
In the last days she had to repel the Spirit of Evil and was heard to murmur; “Get out Satan” and to call on the holy name of Jesus. When the last agony came on, she cried out like Our Lord: “My God, My God!”, and then, “I thirst”. Mother Nathalie, her attendant, began the Hail Mary, saying it very slowly. At the words, “Holy Mary”, the dying Bernadette joined in, and it was in repeating, “Mother of God, pray for me…poor sinner…poor sinner”, that she died.
The date was April 16th, 1879. Bernadette was thirty-five years and three months.
“As soon as she was dead”, recalls Sister Dalias, “her face became young and peaceful again, with a look of purity and blessedness.”
Very large crowds came to view the body laid out for burial. Following the obsequies, her corpse was laid in a vault in a small chapel within the convent garden. People came steadily to visit the tomb, and to ask favours of the holy woman. Thirty-two years later, in 1909, when her cause for beatification was advancing, the tomb was opened to reveal her incorrupted body!
Nothing has been told in this story of the peasant girl’s shortcoming. She had a few. Perhaps the most noticeable was her sharpness of speech when any reference was made to, or inferred about, the shabbiness of her parents’ dress, or her own. Then she could flare up for a moment. A stubborn streak was there too, common to the people of the Pyrenees. And in the convent years, when the nuns in charge corrected her sharply, she said to a companion: “I am often seething underneath”, which, as you will gather, speaks of traits of character; imperfections perhaps in certain circumstances, but little more. Mother Vauzous, once said that if she lived to see the day, she would impede the process of beatification: most of all the other nuns, however, spoke exactly the opposite way.
Extraordinary it was, they said, that this remarkable girl and woman had never experienced the slightest touch of vainglory: almost laughingly she spurned any idea. And who could accuse her of the slightest act of deception? A fellow religious said: “I tried seriously to imitate her but had to admit that she was inimitable in her goodness.”
Exceptionally heroic was she in suffering, and seldom has a human being undergone the agonies she bore. Every last twinge she converted into an act of love of God.
Of St Francis of Assisi, a favourite with Bernadette, it has been said: he was not so much a man of prayer, as prayer itself. The nuns at Nevers had the same opinion of this little lady.
When Pope Pius XI issued the Decree on the Heroic Nature of her Virtues in November 1923, he summed it all up in three phrases: “Bernadette was faithful in her mission, she was humble in glory, she was valiant under trial.” (Trochu, p. 379)
Following the approval of the necessary miracles worked at her intercession, Bernadette was declared Blessed in 1925, and canonized as a saint on December 8th, 1933. The feast of the Immaculate Conception was deliberately chosen for this moment of triumph. When the visionary told Abbe Peryamale, the lady said “I am the Immaculate Conception”, the Catholic world had thrilled to heaven’s confirmation of the Christian dogma in this matter pronounced just four years before, December 8th, 1854. For long it was a clearly held belief in the Church that Mary was sinless; the dogma of 1854 made this belief an article of our faith.
The Saint’s body was exhumed from the garden vault and placed in the convent chapel at Nevers.
The Fame of Lourdes
Bernadette and Lourdes! They have been household words in our Church for the past one hundred and twenty-five years. Year by year an average of three to four million pilgrims kneel at the grotto, and then apply the living waters of the famous spring to their bodies. There are few holier spots on earth.
Countless have been the miraculous healings in body, and even more the restorations of peace to the soul.
It is a matter for delight that the Almighty chose such a simple, unlettered, little girl to show steadily to our modern world the reality of His presence, and the power of His goodness.
Nihil Obstat: Peter J. Kenny, S.T.D.
Imprimatur: Peter J. Connors, D.C.L.
Vicar General, Melbourne
11th February, 1983
This article was originally published as a pamphlet by the Australian Catholic Truth Society and has now been reprinted with permission by Society of Saint Peter Canisius Inc.
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