The story of Our Lady of Lourdes started on February 11, 1858 in a small town of Lourdes located in the foothills of the Pyrenees mountain range of southern France. Our Lady (the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother Mary) appeared eighteen times to fourteen-year-old Bernadette Soubirous near that small town between February 11th and July 16th.
Bernadette was the eldest of six children who could neither read nor write and spoke only the Burgundian dialect of her area. Her family was near poverty, and on the day of the first apparition she and two companions went to gather firewood along the bank of the River Gave to help her mother.
Her attention was drawn to the noise of rustling bushes near the grotto and caves on the riverbank. Bernadette saw, in the cave now filled with light, a beautiful young girl of sixteen or seventeen. She described this girl as “dressed in a white robe, girded at the waist with a blue ribbon. She wore upon her head a white veil which gave just a glimpse of hair. Her feet were bare but covered by the last folds of her robe and a yellow rose was upon each of them. She held on her right arm a rosary of white beads with a chain of gold shining like the two roses on her feet.” Bernadette knelt and began to pray the rosary. At the end of the five decades the woman smiled and disappeared.
The young Bernadette was drawn to the location and returned the next Sunday, February 18 and then more frequently, thereafter. During these visits, Our Lady had several messages which she told Bernadette need not be written down, suggesting that most important was to listen to Her words with an open heart. During the third apparition, Our Lady began her message telling young Bernadette, “I do not promise to make you happy in this world but in the other” which can be interpreted to mean heaven, or the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth – wherever there is love. On February 25, the ninth apparition, Mary instructed Bernadette to dig the ground near the grotto, from which a spring came forth that to this day is used to supply the baths for pilgrims to Lourdes. This miraculous event that would lead to many more miracles.
At the apparition of March 3, Bernadette was instructed by Our Lady to “tell the priests that people should come here in procession and that a chapel should be built on the site.” On the Feast of the Annunciation, March 25, the Blessed Virgin told Bernadette in the dialect of Lourdes, “I am the Immaculate Conception.” The local clergy were convinced of the truth of Bernadette’s visions when she told them of this name – as this dogma had been defined by Pope Pius IX just a few years earlier on December 8, 1854 – and the young, illiterate Bernadette could not possibly know of this proclamation.
Over the five months and eighteen appearances, Mary appeared only to Bernadette, although many people began accompanying the girl to the grotto. At first it was just her friends or close relatives, but eventually the entire town knew of the mysterious appearances and many began to follow Bernadette to the holy site. The people noticed that Bernadette’s appearance would change and her face would become transfigured and illuminated – Bernadette would go into a trance-like state. Those who accompanied Bernadette did not see Our Lady, they only saw Bernadette and the peaceful, contented state that she entered. The crowds became very large and eight thousand were reportedly present on March 4, 1858. The locale Prefect ordered the Grotto closed after April 7, 1858 and the crowds ceased, as did Mary’s appearances. On the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Bernadette was drawn to the Grotto, where she saw Our Lady for the last time on Earth.
Our Lady’s request was realized as at the site today, there are six churches and chapels located near the Grotto where the Blessed Mother appeared. The Basilica of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception at Lourdes was consecrated in 1876 and the faithful flock in pious pilgrimage to the holy grotto. Over three million reportedly come to the Lourdes Sanctuary each year – many of them sick and hope to be added to the list of over 7,000 miraculous cures. Some of the sick, immerse themselves in baths of the miraculous water from the spring of the grotto to find a remedy to their ailments. As of this date, there have been seventy documented miraculous cures at the shrine. Even visitors not seeking cures have their faith and devotion aroused as they recommit themselves to conform their lives to the Christian message. Great emphasis is placed on devotion to the Eucharist and just as at the wedding feast of Cana, Mary points to her Son. Wonderful processions are held at the Lourdes Sanctuary – the procession of the Blessed Sacrament in the day and the nighttime procession where pilgrims from all parts of the world follow the statue of the Blessed Mother with lit candles while singing devotional songs.
The liturgical feast of Our Lady of Lourdes was established for February 11, approved by Pope Leo XIII, and first granted to the Diocese of Tarbes in the year 1890. Less than twenty years later, on November 13, 1907, his successor, Pope St. Pius X proclaimed that it be observed throughout the universal Church.
The visionary Bernadette entered the convent at the Sisters of Nevers in 1866 where she took the name of Sister Mary Bernard. She worked there as sacristan and avoided publicity as best she could. She declared that her “mission in Lourdes is finished” and she withdrew to give all the space to Mary. She never returned to the Grotto at Lourdes again. She died on April 16, 1879 at the young age of thirty-five, was beatified in 1925 by Pope Pius XI and canonized by him on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, December 8, 1933. She appears in the church records as St. Mary Bernard but in the hearts of the faithful she is remembered as St. Bernadette with her feast day celebrated on April 16.
Websites accessed on or about 2-8-2021 (see considerations and information about Links at https://churchwonders.com/about/)
The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes – https://www.lourdes-france.org/en/
University of Dayton, International Marian Research Institute, Mauriello, Matthew R., Reverend. Article first appearing in the Fairfield County Catholic Journal, January 1996 – https://udayton.edu/imri/mary/o/our-lady-of-lourdes.php