Located in the foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains with a population of approximately 4,000 inhabitants, Lourdes was a quiet, modest, county town in the mid-1800s. It was best known for the Château fort de Lourdes, a fortified castle that rises up from a rocky hill at its center, and the town was a place people passed through on their way to further destinations in the mountains that ran along the Spanish Border.
On Thursday, February 11, 1858, at the age of 13, Bernadette Soubirous, accompanied by her sister and a friend, went to Massabielle on the banks of the Gave River to collect deadwood. While removing her socks in order to cross the stream, she heard a noise like a gust of wind, she looked up towards the Grotto: “She has the appearance of a young girl of sixteen or seventeen. She is dressed in a white robe, girdled at the waist with a blue ribbon that flows down all around it. A yoke closes it in graceful pleats at the base of the neck. The sleeves are long and tight-fitting. She wears upon her head a veil which is also white. This veil gives just a glimpse of her hair and then falls down at the back below her waist. Her feet are bare but covered by the last folds of her robe except at the point where a yellow rose shines upon each of them. She holds on her right arm a rosary of white beads with a chain of gold shining like the two roses on her feet.” The beautiful Lady smiled at Bernadette and asked her to say her rosary. Bernadette said her prayers and when she was finished, she looked up, and the lady had vanished. Bernadette caught up to her 2 companions and discovered that they were upset with her. What have you been doing? Playing in the river, while we are out here collecting wood? Bernadette told them about the vision she had just witnessed. The girls told Bernadette she was silly and probably just seeing things.
Three days later, on Sunday, February 14, Bernadette felt an inner force drawing her to the Grotto. Originally forbidden to return there by her parents, Bernadette’s mother ultimately allowed her to return to the grotto. After praying the first decade of the Rosary, she saw the same Lady appear again and she sprinkled Holy Water at her. The Lady smiled and bowed her head. When the Rosary ended the Lady disappeared.
On Thursday, February 18, For the first time, the Lady spoke. After early Mass, Bernadette set out for the grotto with a woman, one who carried a blessed candle, and the other a pen, paper, and ink to record anything that might be said. The Beautiful Lady said to Bernadette: “There is no need for me to write down what I have to say to you. Will you be so kind as to come here every day for fifteen days?” No explicit reason was given for this request, but a definite pledge accompanied it: though she did not promise that Bernadette would be happy in the world, the Beautiful Lady gave her word that happiness would be waiting in heaven.
On Friday, February 19, Bernadette came to the Grotto accompanied by her parents and her aunt, and some neighbors. She carried with her, a lighted, blessed candle. Shortly after Bernadette began to pray the Rosary, everyone present noticed that her face was transfigured and illuminated.
On Saturday, February 20, the Lady taught her a personal prayer, which she recited daily for the rest of her life. She never revealed the prayer to anyone but she did say that she was told to always bring a blessed candle with her. This the origin of carrying candles and lighting them in front of the Grotto. At the end of the vision, Bernadette is overcome with great sadness.
On Sunday, February 21, the Lady appeared to Bernadette very early in the morning and told Bernadette on this occasion to “pray for sinners”, which she never failed to do. Over 100 people were present. including Dr. Dozous, a prominent physician in Lourdes. He told the crowd that he could find nothing abnormal about Bernadette’s physical condition, even when her mental state was trancelike: “Her pulse was regular, her respiration easy, and nothing indicated nervous excitement.”
A meeting was called by the citizens of the town, and sharp differences of opinion were expressed regarding the apparitions. They expressed concern for the dangers that could accompany the gatherings of such large crowds. They persuaded the Procurer Imperial, M. Dutour, to officially forbid Bernadette to return to the Grotto. Bernadette responded that she could not give her word to refrain from going to the Grotto because she had promised the Beautiful Lady she would do so. Dutour dismissed her and discussed this matter with two local officials: M. Jacomet, the Chief of Police; and M. Estrade, who was to become Bernadette’s and Dutour’s friend and who was also to perform an invaluable service by listening in at future conversations and scrupulously recording them word for word.
Estrade recorded a conversation between the Chief of Police and Bernadette. During that meeting, M. Jacomet wanted Bernadette to tell what she saw. Bernadette would only speak of “AQUÉRO” (“that thing” in local dialect). He deliberately tried to confuse Bernadette to change her account of the apparitions. When that attempt failed, the Chief of Police released Bernadette to the custody of her father with an admonition that he take her home and guarantee that there would be no further disturbances. But the interior call which was urging her on was stronger than any earthly admonition.
On Monday, February 22, Bernadette returned to the Grotto after school. Two policemen saw her and followed her, and so did the usual crowd. The policemen stood at respectful attention as she knelt down in her accustomed place. But as she arose, they sprang forward and asked her if she still insisted that she had seen a Beautiful Lady. “No, this time I saw nothing at all,” she answered. She was allowed to go home, but she was taunted and threatened. People said mockingly that the Beautiful Lady was afraid of the police and had found some safer place to go.
On Tuesday, February 23, surrounded by nearly 200 people, Bernadette arrived at the Grotto. This time, the Apparition revealed to her a secret “only for her alone.” When Bernadette’s appearance was once more transformed, the men present removed their hats and fell to their knees. She appeared to be gravely serious and listening, and then joyful, and she would occasionally bow low. At the conclusion of the vision, which lasted an hour, Bernadette moved on her knees toward the rose bush and kissed the ground.
On Wednesday, February 24, with nearly 400 people in attendance, the beautiful Lady gave the following message, which Bernadette repeated to the crowd: “Penance! Penance! Penance!” She then asked her to “Pray to God for sinners. Kiss the ground as an act of penance for sinners!”
On Thursday, February 25, with many people present, the beautiful Lady asked Bernadette to, “drink from the fountain and bathe in it.” Bernadette was puzzled; there had never been a fountain at Massabieille or any kind of a natural spring. She began to scratch the loose gravel off the ground which encircled her. I only found a little muddy water. On the fourth attempt, I was able to drink. She also made me eat the bitter herbs that were found near the spring, and then the vision left and went away.” In front of the crowd that was asking “Do you think that she is mad doing things like that?” she replied; “It is for sinners.”
The next day, the pool was overflowing, and water was dripping down over the rock. The following day, the trickle had become a real stream. Of course, it was immediately said — and has been said by skeptics ever since — that the spring was there all the time. The fact remains that Bernadette did find the spring as the result of a direct command.
On Saturday, February 27, 800 people were present. The Apparition was silent. Bernadette drank the water from the spring and carried out her usual acts of penance.
On Sunday, February 28, over 1,000 people were present at the ecstasy. Bernadette prayed, kissed the ground, and moved on her knees as a sign of penance. There were approximately two thousand spectators at the Grotto that morning. She was then taken to the house of Judge Ribes who threatened to put her in prison.
On Monday, March 1, over 2,000 people assembled, and among them, for the first time, was a priest. During this apparition, the Lady commented to Bernadette that she was not using her own Rosary, which was an accurate statement. Bernadette had been asked by Pauline Sans to use Pauline’s Rosary at the Grotto that day. In the night, Catherine Latapie, a woman from Loubajac, a village located 7 kilometers from Lourdes, went to the Grotto. She plunged her dislocated arm into the water of the spring, and her arm and her hand regained their movement. This was later declared the first miracle of Lourdes by the church on January 18, 1862.
On Tuesday, March 2, the crowd becomes larger and larger. The Lady asked her: “Go and tell the priests that to build a chapel here.” Bernadette spoke of this to Fr. Peyramale, the Parish Priest of Lourdes. He wanted to know only one thing: the Lady’s name. He demanded another test; to see the wild rose bush flower at the Grotto in the middle of winter.
On Wednesday, March 3, from 7:00 am, in the presence of 3,000 people, Bernadette arrived at the Grotto, but the vision did not appear! After school, she heard the inner invitation of the Lady. During this apparition, the Lady repeated that She wanted a chapel built by the clergy and, additionally, that She wanted people to come to this chapel in processional form. Bernadette was terribly afraid of the parish priest, Fr. Peyramale. It had been difficult for her to go to him the first time about building a chapel, but it took a great deal of courage for her to present herself to him a second time about processions. He dismissed her curtly, ordering her to tell the Beautiful Lady that the Cure of Lourdes was not in the habit of dealing with mysterious strangers; that if She wanted a chapel — if She had a right to one — She must reveal Her identity. When Bernadette again asked for her name, the response was a smile.
On Thursday, March 4, the ever-greater crowd (over 10,000 people, including an entire military garrison in full-dress uniform) knew that this was the last of the fifteen days that Bernadette had promised the Lady that she would be present at the Grotto. As Bernadette approached the apparition site, a path was cleared for her, and the soldiers who accompanied her did so with respect. After the apparition, Bernadette told the crowd that she would continue coming to the Grotto because the Beautiful Lady had said nothing in the form of a farewell. The crowd was disappointed and disillusioned. They had seen Bernadette transfigured with a strange radiance, but they had hoped to also share her vision, to hear the same voice that she did, and they expected that, at the very least, the rosebush would burst into a sudden miraculous bloom.
On Thursday, March 25, the vision finally revealed her name, but the wild rose bush, on which she stood during the Apparitions, did not bloom. Bernadette recounted: “She extended her arms towards the ground, then joined them as though in prayer and said Que soy era Immaculada Concepciou (I am the Immaculate Conception)”. The young visionary left and, running all the way, repeated continuously the words that she did not understand. These words troubled the brave Parish Priest. Bernadette was ignorant of the fact that this theological expression was assigned to the Blessed Virgin. Four years earlier, in 1854, Pope Pius IX declared this a truth of the Catholic Faith (a dogma.) Baron Massy, a local official, ordered Bernadette to be examined by three more physicians. They found her to be physically and mentally sound.
On Wednesday, April 7, Bernadette brought, as she always had, a blessed, lighted candle to the Grotto. During this apparition, she unconsciously placed one of her hands over the flame of the candle. People witnessed the flame burning through her fingers. Bernadette did not even hear the cries of horror which arose from the crowd. She continued to pray for at least fifteen minutes while the flame burned through her hand. She emerged quietly from prayer unscathed. Then Dr. Dozous, who had witnessed this, took another candle and, without warning, touched the flame to her hand. Bernadette immediately cried out in pain.
Shortly after this apparition, the Prefect took matters into his own hands and ordered the Grotto closed, and the rustic altar was dismantled. During the apparition, Bernadette had to keep her candle alight. The flame licked around her hand without burning it. A medical doctor, Dr. Douzous, immediately witnessed this fact.
Several months later, on Friday, July 16, at the Feast of Our Lady of Mt Carmel, Bernadette received the mysterious call to the Grotto, but her way was blocked and closed off by a barrier. Thus she and her aunt arrived across from the Grotto to the other side of the Gave River. Bernadette said, “I felt that I was in front of the Grotto, at the same distance as before, I saw only the Blessed Virgin, and she was more beautiful than ever!” This was the last apparition of the Lady to Bernadette at Lourdes.
In 1866, at the age of 22, Bernadette joined the order of the Sisters of Charity. Growing up she suffered from bouts of asthma, and she remained sickly throughout her life, but she attended patiently to her duties as an infirmarian and sacristan. She died a holy death on April 16, 1879. She was 34 years old. Bernadette was buried on the convent grounds in Nevers, France. Her body was exhumed thirty years later on September 22, 1909, in the presence of two doctors, several appointed officials, and nuns from the local convent. When Bernadette’s coffin was opened, there was no odor, and her body was completely untouched by the laws of nature.
A second exhumation took place on April 3, 1919. The body of the then-declared Venerable was found in the same state of preservation as ten years earlier, except that the face was slightly discolored, due to the washing it had undergone during the first exhumation. A worker in wax was entrusted with the task of coating the face of the Saint who had been dead for forty years. The sacred relic (Bernadette’s body) was placed in a coffin of gold and glass and can be viewed to this very day in the Chapel of Saint Bernadette at the motherhouse in Nevers, France. On 8 December 1933, Pope Pius XI, declared Bernadette Soubirous, a saint of the Catholic Church.
Since the apparitions, Lourdes has dealt with more than 7000 cases of unexplained cures. As of today, 70 of these unexplained cures have been recognized as miraculous by the Church, the latest one being that of Sister Bernadette MORIAU from Beauvais, France, a nun who suffered from decades of debilitating back pain. A few days after her return from Lourdes in July 2008, she felt an overwhelming sense of well-being. She stood up, removed a brace, straightened her gnarled foot that had been twisted sideways for years, and began to walk normally. Her unexplained cure was declared a miracle by the Catholic Church on February 11, 2018.
A pilgrimage to Lourdes should always include a minimum of three nights, or two full days in order to fully experience everything the Shrine has to offer, including bathing in the miraculous waters, while still allowing enough time for personal reflection and prayer.
Now one of the most visited Marian Shrines in the world, there are many things to see and do in Lourdes, and the best way to start your pilgrimage tour is on a guided tour with a local English-speaking professional who will recount the stories of Bernadette, her life and the apparitions that took place in this sacred place. After watching a short video presentation, the local guide will lead you in the Footsteps of St. Bernadette, beginning with a visit to the Grotto where the Virgin Mary announced herself as the Immaculate Conception during an apparition in 1858. You will celebrate Mass here at least once during the course of your pilgrimage, and have the opportunity to return here many times for prayer and reflection, as well as have the opportunity to drink water from the nearby miraculous spring and have plenty of time to immerse yourself in the healing baths.
While in Lourdes your guide will bring you to the Boly Mill, which is the watermill where St. Bernadette was born and where she lived with her parents in relative prosperity for ten years. She will call it “the happiness water mill.” Gradually, the Soubirous family suffered serious health problems, water mills were shutting down, and eventually, they were obliged to leave the Boly Mill and were finally given free accommodation in the Cachot, a single, dark and unhealthy room, in the town’s abandoned prison, a place described by Imperial Attorney Dufour as “a sordid and dark hovel where no human being could live.” You will visit the Cachot and see where Bernadette became trapped in a spiral of misery and suffered from ill health.
You will visit the Basilica of the Rosary, which was built between 1883 and 1889 to replace the original chapel that was built on the site of the apparitions of the Virgin Mary. St. Bernadette described Our Lady as holding a rosary in her hand and the Basilica of the Rosary is dedicated to this theme. Its three arches depict the joyful, sorrowful, and glorious mysteries, and around the central dome, the transepts and the sanctuary contain 15 Chapels of the Mysteries, which are decorated with mosaics depicting the 15 mysteries of the rosary (the five joyous, five sorrowful, and five glorious.) Like a rosary, it features two unique elliptical ramps embracing a square that can hold almost 80,000 people. It is here that you will have an opportunity to attend the candlelight procession and Rosary each night after dinner.
You will also visit the Basilica of Saint Pius X, a large concrete church also known as the Underground Basilica, which can hold 25,000 worshippers, and have the opportunity to make the 1.5 Kilometer Way of the Cross (le Chemin de Croix) located on the hill overlooking the Grotto of Massabielle, where each Station depicts the Passion of Christ with “life-size” figures made of cast iron and painted gold.
A place of both Physical and Spiritual Healing, a Pilgrimage Tour to Lourdes will leave you feeling renewed in Spirit and with a deeper understanding of Our Lord and Our Lady’s Love for you.
Here are some Pilgrimage Tours that include visits to Lourdes:
Pictures of the English Dominican Pilgrimage to Lourdes: