Bernadette Soubirous was born at the Boly Mill in the small village of Lourdes, France, at 2:00 in the afternoon, on Sunday, January 7th, 1844. She was the first child of Francois and Louise Soubirous. Two days later she was baptized and given the formal name, Bernarde-Marie.
Misfortune visited the Soubirous Family in November, 1844, when Louise’s bodice caught fire, causing severe burns. Since she could no longer nurse her ten-month-old child, Bernadette was sent to a wet nurse in Bartres, a village three miles from Lourdes. Francois and Louise agreed to pay Marie Lagus five francs a month for nursing their child. Surely this separation was the cause of great sorrow to the young couple, and, after being apart for eleven months, Bernadette was finally re-united with her parents in Lourdes.
Faith was always strong in the lives of this devout, Catholic family, which, over the years would have grown to nine children. However, Francois and Louise buried five of the children before they reached age ten. Again, in 1848 the family, Soubirous, came upon misfortune. By May of 1856, the weary parents and their four children were forced to move into one room, a former prison cell, which they would inhabit for more than two years. The entire family was mocked and ridiculed, and bore upon their shoulders the heaviness of dire poverty, total destitution, the coldness of the mountain winters, and far too many illnesses.
It was during this period that Bernadette began to show extraordinary signs of sanctity. She was a blessing to her parents, taking charge of her younger brothers and sister, while her parents performed odd jobs in order to put meager meals on the table.
To assist her parents financially, the eldest child also worked, from time-to-time, at her aunt’s pub where she waited tables. But Bernadette was never a strong child. And at the age of 11+, she contracted Cholera. Though she recovered, her health plagued Francois and Louise, and so, when an invitation was given to the Soubirous’s to send Bernadette to the high mountain village of Bartres, they decided it would be good for their eldest daughter’s health. There would also be one fewer mouth to feed, which would somewhat ease the struggles of Francois and Louise.
At Bartres, Bernadette was sent out to tend sheep in the fields. This was not a happy time. The family to which she had been entrusted became cold and perhaps even brutal to the weakened, thirteen year old. The master of the house had, upon occasion, even struck Bernadette, which was totally unjustified – for truly, Bernadette was an exceptional young girl, who showed only respect toward her elders.
Francois would walk the journey from Lourdes to Bartres to surprise his daughter. Oh, you can imagine the joy this brought her! Bernadette never complained of her unhappiness. She did, however, constantly ask her father to allow her to return to Lourdes so that she could go to school to prepare for her First Holy Communion.
On one particular visit, Francois heard his Bernadette weeping. He quickened his pace and ran to see what could have happened. Bernadette, who had become very fond of her sheep, giving many of them their own names, was sickened at the sight of their wool. She settled down long enough to point out that many of her sheep had turned green. Oh, Bernadette, her father sympathetically chided, what have you done, my child? You must have let them eat too much grass! Bernadette, again, broke into tears. Finally, the grinning parent stroked her head – and explained that the green sheep had been marked by the master to be sold. After tending sheep for six months, Bernadette, who had not yet learned to read and write, was finally allowed to return to her family in Lourdes, and begin her education and preparations to receive her First Holy Communion.
Several weeks after her return to Lourdes, Bernadette, her sister, and a childhood friend went outdoors in the bitter cold to fetch sticks for cooking and heating their prison cell. Her asthma surely affected her in the coldness of the winter, and when the trio came to the river crossing, her companions bid Bernadette to stay behind, pointing out that wading through the water would cause her bitter discomfort.
As the two younger girls crossed the waters, Bernadette felt a strange wind blow. She turned around to see a bright light in a rocky grotto. Unafraid, she hastened to see what caused the brightness. As she approached, she saw a beautiful lady dressed in white with a blue sash, and on each foot there was a single, golden rose, the exact color of the lady’s rosary.
Bernadette’s first reaction to the woman wasn’t to question who she might be – but rather, how did she get up into that niche! So humble was this child! And it never entered her mind that it could possibly be a visitor from heaven. She pulled her rosary from her pocket and began to pray. It was this precious rosary, which her parents had taught her to recite, that always made her feel at peace. Though there were no words exchanged during the first apparition, Bernadette knew that this first visit of February 11, 1858, would not be the last. SHE MOTIONED ME TO COME MUCH CLOSER! SHE LOOKED AT ME AS ONE PERSON LOOKS AT ANOTHER!
Three days later, the young child felt a calling within, an irresitible force, inviting her to the cave. She answered the call, but on the way to the grotto, she stopped at the Church where she filled a bottle with holy water. If the beautiful lady appeared again, she was prepared to sprinkle the vision, saying, If you are of God, stay. If not, leave! THE MORE I SPRINKLED HOLY WATER, THE MORE SHE SMILED!
Reputable villagers began accompanying the seeress to the grotto. On one occasion, they implored her to take along paper and pen so that the lady could write down her name, and explain exactly what she expected. Bernadette obeyed. But when she asked the lady to write down her name, the vision smiled again. Warmly. And replied, WHAT I HAVE TO SAY TO YOU DOES NOT NEED TO BE WRITTEN. HOWEVER, MAY I ASK YOU TO DO ME THE FAVOR OF COMING HERE FOR 15 DAYS? I CANNOT PROMISE YOU HAPPINESS IN THIS LIFE, ONLY IN THE OTHER! Bernadette reported, faithfully, without flowery exaggerations, every word her visitor spoke. No one knew quite what to think.
For the fourth apparition, Bernadette began to bring along with her a blessed candle, which later would become an important factor in the conversion of the faithful.
Upon the completion of the sixth apparition, Bernadette went to visit the priest of the parish. The Commissioner of Police also interrogated her, roughly, trying to force her to admit that someone had put her up to these imaginary visions. The young girl remained firm in her beliefs.
The seventh vision brought three personal secrets which Bernadette never shared with anyone. It was at this gathering that a doctor, lawyer, a member of the town council, and the future mayor of Lourdes attended. All wished to witness the behavior of the visionary.
By the eighth visit, more than 300 curious people assembled. The lady repeated three times: PENANCE, PENANCE, PENANCE. She also requested that Bernadette crawl on her knees into the grotto and kiss the ground – as a sign of repentance. Before the lady vanished, she said, PRAY TO GOD FOR SINNERS!
The beautiful lady, at the ninth visit, asked her guest to drink from the spring, to wash her face, and to eat of the grasses — extended signs of repentance. Since Bernadette saw no spring, she assumed that the lady meant the nearby river. However, the visitor pointed her to the ground under the grotto rock, and there Bernadette dug with her fingers. A small amount of water appeared, and, after four attempts to sift the mud from the water, Bernadette drank and cleansed herself. Soon after, the spring flowed freely for all to see. After this event, the Imperial Prosecutor of Lourdes ordered Bernadette to his office. His interrogation was harsh and threatening to the child of 14. He threatened to put her in prison if she did not promise to halt her visits to the grotto. Bernadette responded, BUT SIR, I PROMISED THE LADY I WOULD COME FOR 15 DAYS. WOULD YOU WANT ME TO BREAK MY PROMISE? The Imperial Prosecutor, stunned by the simplicity of the child, backed off.
۱,۱۰۰ people attended the eleventh apparition. As the crowds became larger, the civil authorities became more nervous. Again Bernadette was hastened to the Magistrate’s office. And again, her firm, sincere responses left the authorities baffled.
During the twelfth vision, 1,300 people attended, including both of Bernadette s parents. The next day, 1,600 people were present. The lady said, GO TO YOUR PRIEST AND ASK HIM TO BUILD A CHAPEL HERE, AND INVITE THE PEOPLE TO COME IN PROCESSION.
The following day, after word reached the people that the priest had been asked to build a chapel, 4,000 pilgrims came. But the lady did not appear. Later that afternoon, Bernadette, accompanied by an uncle and a cousin, went to the grotto and received her fourteenth visit.
At the fifteenth apparition, 8,000 were present. The lady repeated the request for a chapel – and for processions. After the request was delivered to the parish priest, the irresitible force which Bernadette had experienced each time she had a vision, ceased for twenty days. During this period of silence, Bernadette threw herself into the preparations for receiving her First Holy Communion.
On March 25, the feast of the Annunciation, again the young girl felt the invitation to Come to the Waters . During this apparition, Bernadette asked the lady, WOULD YOU BE SO KIND AS TO TELL ME YOUR NAME? Three times she asked the question. Upon the fourth attempt, the lady raised her eyes toward heaven, crossed her arms, covering her breasts with her hands, and replied, I AM THE IMMACULATE CONCEPTION! These words were not understood by the uneducated visionary, so she repeated them to herself many times so she would not forget the important words. Yet they were most probably the last words spoken by her beautiful visitor – or – at least they were the last words Bernadette repeated to the interrogators.
The miracle of the candle occurred during the seventeenth apparition. For fifteen minutes during Bernadette’s ecstasy, she cupped her hand over the burning candle, while feeling no discomfort. Upon the completion of the vision, Bernadette immediately felt the flame of the candle, and dropped it onto the ground. An attending doctor, witnessing the entire event, examined Bernadette’s hands. The fact that they were unharmed was the cause of his conversion.
Again, there was an interval of three months where Bernadette did not receive any calling to come to the grotto. It was during this period that the young girl received her First Communion. And, the grotto, to the sadness of many, was ordered closed by the civil authorities. Since it was blocked-off, how could Bernadette answer the irresistible force calling her on July 15, 1858? Was she to disobey the law? Her aunt directed her to the property across from the River Gave, and there Bernadette saw her Visitor for the final time. Few eye-witnesses were present. Obviously Bernadette felt that this vision was so private, so sacred, that she never mentioned it to anyone. The grotto was reopened on November 5, 1858, by order of the Emperor