Lourdes is a small town in the French Pyrenees. Every year it is the pilgrimage destination of over three million pilgrims. It has over 400 hotels, the Ciergerie Lourdaise produces a ton of candles every day, and the post office handles six-and-a-half million postcards a year.
In 1858, a sickly 14-year-old girl called Bernadette Soubirous experienced a series of visions of Our Lady and discovered a clear water spring in a cave.
Bernadette witnessed a total of 17 visions in the spring of 1858 and is often also credited with having witnessed an 18th on the evening before she left Lourdes. The reactions of the Catholic Church to her testimony has resulted in the creation of one of the biggest centres of pilgrimage - of any religion - in the world.
The First Apparition
On 11 February 1858 at about 11am, Bernadette, her sister and a friend went to search for firewood in a copse of trees in an area called Massabielle, near the river which runs through Lourdes. Bernadette was frail and often ill, so when her friend and sister took off their stockings in order to wade across the river she remained where she was. A strange silence had fallen around Bernadette, and it was here that the first apparition occurred. Bernadette narrates what happened in her own account of the apparitions:
I saw a Lady dressed in white. She wore a white dress and a white veil with a blue waistband and a yellow rose on each of her feet. Her rosary was yellow too... The Lady took the rosary from her arm and made the sign of the Cross. I wanted and managed to do likewise. I got down on my knees and began to recite the Rosary with the beautiful Lady. The apparition moved the rosary beads between her fingers without moving her lips. When it was over she made a sign for me to come near, but I did not dare to... Then suddenly, she disappeared.
Neither Antoinette (her sister) nor Jeanne (her friend) witnessed this apparition with Bernadette. Bernadette told them what had happened on their way home. Bernadette's sister then told their mother what had happened. Bernadette's mother feared that her oldest daughter was hallucinating, so she beat the two girls for 'telling stories', and Bernadette was forbidden from going to the grotto again1.
The Second Apparition
14 February, 1858. Bernadette managed to persuade her mother to give her permission to return to the grotto, so after high Mass she and the same two companions went - taking with them a bottle of holy water from the parish church. As Bernadette prayed she saw the second apparition and sprinkled it with the water asking it 'to say if It were of God, otherwise to go away'. The Lady only smiled. As before, the others could not see anything. The events were interrupted by Bernadette's friend Jeanne who rolled a large rock down from the top of Massabielle, it crashed close to the grotto but Bernadette remained entranced on her knees. The others panicked and ran to a nearby mill for help, and the miller (with great difficulty) carried the oblivious Bernadette back home. He was astonished by her weight and despite his attempts to distract her she seemed to be smiling at something he could not see. This incident led to the first general interest among the residents of Lourdes in events at the grotto. Predominantly people disapproved - Bernadette's mother was very angry and upset. On the following day Bernadette was rebuked in the street as she left school, a woman she did not know slapped her for 'putting on comedies'. But there was another theory, more sympathetic to Bernadette, that she was seeing the spirit of a girl who had died the year before. A rich woman who occasionally employed Bernadette was interested in this theory and arranged to take Bernadette back to the grotto early the next morning.
The Third Apparition
On 18 February, 1858, the apparition lasted a long time. The rich woman was pestering Bernadette while she was praying, telling her to ask the apparition to write her name - Bernadette gestured to the woman to be silent.
The third time I went to the grotto was on the following Thursday. Some respectable people went along with me. These had advised me to bring paper, pen and ink and to ask the Lady if she had something to say and to be good enough to write it down. Presenting the paper pen and ink to the apparition I asked would you be so good as to write down your name and what you want of me. This was the reply: 'What I want you to do does not have to be written down. Would you be so good as to come back here for 15 days? I do not promise you happiness in this world, but in the next.'
This was to be the beginning of what is now known as 'the fortnight of apparitions'. In the 15 days between 18 February and 4 March, Bernadette saw the Lady 14 times.
The Fourth Apparition
19 February, 1858, the apparition is reported to have happened early in the morning. Around 12 people accompanied Bernadette to the grotto - the apparition lasted around a quarter of an hour. For the first time Bernadette brought a blessed candle with her.
The Fifth Apparition
This apparition occurred on 20 February, it was conducted in silence - Bernadette in her ecstasy recited the Rosary with the Lady. Around 35 people were with her.
The Sixth Apparition
21 February, 1858, it was the first Sunday in Lent and around a hundred people were at the grotto including Bernadette's mother and her aunt. After the apparition, Police Commissioner Jacomet took Bernadette to his house in the centre of town to interrogate her. The interview ended with him loosing his temper with her - and an angry crowd gathered around his house until Bernadette was taken home by her father.
The Commissioner had no idea of what to make of Bernadette, he decided that she was 'sincere, sane, modest, not trying to attract attention, not in it for the money, not being manipulated by some enterprising adult, and quite incomprehensible'. He forbade her to go back to Massabielle again.
The following day Bernadette ignored the prohibition, but the Lady did not appear. At the same time, the mayor lifted the police ban on Bernadette going to the grotto in light of fast growing public opinion in her favour.
The Seventh Apparition
On 23 February, 1858, Bernadette's vision lasted nearly an hour, three personal secrets were confided to her, with the instructions not to reveal them to anybody. Again there were around a hundred people present, including Dr Dozous, a medical specialist and pronounced atheist , he had come to the grotto to observe Bernadette at first hand and to uncover in the name of medical science the 'Sham of Massabielle'. Douzous went home deeply shaken in his incredulity. He would be converted and become one of the most prominent witnesses to the events at Lourdes.
The Eighth Apparition
24 February, 1858, 2-300 people were present in the grotto. The Lady said to Bernadette:
Repentance! Repentance! Repentance! Pray to God for sinners!
Then the apparition asked her 'to climb on her knees into the grotto and to kiss the ground in a sign of repentance for sinners'. This marked the beginning of the 'Penitential Phase' of the visions.
The Ninth Apparition
This apparition occurred around 5am, over 300 people were present, once again, Bernadette was told to go on her knees into the grotto, and it is this ninth apparition, which explains the origins of the spring of water:
The vision told me to go and drink from the spring. Since I could not see it, I went to drink from the river. She told me it was not there I was to drink and with her finger pointed under the rock. I went there and found only a little brackish water. I put my hand into it but was unable to take any. Then I dug with my hands and so was able to take some. Three times, I threw the water away since it was dirty: then, the fourth time, I managed to drink. She made me eat some of the grass which grew around the spring.
Because nobody else could see or hear the instructions from Bernadette's vision her 'antics' caused a fresh outburst of mockery, later that day she was summoned to be interrogated again, this time by the town's imperial prosecutor. This interview was another failure from the point of view of the authorities. The prosecutor lost the thread of his arguments once he had eliminated all the usual motives and became so flustered that 'he could not find the hole in his inkwell'. Once again a noisy crowd gathered outside, and afterwards Bernadette's humorous account of the meeting caused the town to laugh at the prosecutor. Yet, on the day after the interrogation, the Lady did not appear to Bernadette.
The Tenth Apparition
On 27 February, 1858, around 800 people were gathered in Massabielle to witness Bernadette's ecstasy and her gestures of penitence.
The Eleventh Apparition
28 February, 1858, at around 7am the apparition came. Over a thousand people were there among whom was Commandant Renault who had been sent by the Prefect of Tarbes-Massy to report on the 'extraordinary events'. After the apparition, Bernadette was taken to appear before the Examining Magistrate for the area. On being threatened with prison if the events were continued she responded with sincerity and firmness in her determination to fulfil her promise to the Lady.
The Twelfth Apparition
The apparition on 1 March, 1858, came at 7am. Bernadette was accompanied by around 1300 people. For the first time a priest came to the grotto to witness proceedings.
The Thirteenth Apparition
2 March, 1858, Bernadette's aunts and around 1600 people were at the grotto.
She told me to go to tell the priests to build a shrine there. I went to the parish priest to give him the message. He stared at me for a moment and then spoke to me reassuringly: what is the Lady's name? I told him I did not know. He told me to ask her name
Father Peyramale did not receive Bernadette's message well. For the first time he was confronted with the need for a decision, his perplexed anger confused Bernadette, who only remembered part of the message. Finally, he told her to get out. Only when she had returned home did Bernadette remember that the Lady had asked not only for a church to be built on Massabielle, but that people should come in pilgrimage and procession there. So Bernadette arranged to go back to the parish priest later that day. Father Peyramale considered response was to ask for the Lady's name and to demand as a miraculous sign, that the rose bush in the grotto should flower at once.
The Fourteenth Apparition
On 3 March, 1858, Bernadette went with her mother to the grotto; some 4000 people were waiting there for her. The vision did not appear, the crowd were disappointed and angry. Bernadette went home and then to school, after her lessons she felt 'an irresistible force' and that afternoon she returned to the grotto with her uncle and cousin, no-one else was there: the vision appeared. On this day, Bernadette's parish priest went to seek advice form his friend, an Abbé, in nearby Tarbes, when Bernadette came to see him for the third time she found him changed. He was no longer beset by doubts but stern, sceptical and reproving. The police thoroughly investigated the grotto - but found nothing amiss.
The Fifteenth Apparition
On Thursday, 4 March, 1858, the last apparition of the fortnight, the police once again investigated the grotto, and Bernadette's ecstasy was witnessed by between 7-8000 people. The apparition lasted three quarters of an hour and involved the, by now, usual prayers, ecstasy and penitential gestures, once again requests to the Lady for her name were received only with a smile. As a result, the crowd were angry and disappointed, but the public authorities were relieved - feeling that their cynicism was vindicated. Once again, Bernadette went to her parish priest to convey the Lady's requests; once again, he demands to know the Lady's name.
The First Interval
From 5 to 24 March, 1858, Bernadette did not go to the grotto. She no longer felt that 'irresistible force' inviting her. Although during this time, the authorities continued to investigate and interrogate her.
During this time, however, the 'cult' of Lourdes continued to grow. Rumours of miraculous cures occasioned by the spring in the grotto began to spread - although Bernadette denied causing any cures. Sick people began to come in greater numbers to the grotto, candles, statues and money were left there.
The Sixteenth Apparition
On 25 March, 1858, the Feast of the Annunciation, Bernadette awoke with a strong desire to visit the grotto. Her parents made her wait until 5am; despite the three-week lull there were around 100 people there waiting for her. On this occasion Bernadette asked the Lady for her name four times for she knew 'without an answer there could never be a chapel'. The lady raised her eyes to the sky and said (in the local dialect),
Que soy era Immaculada Councepciou.
Bernadette left at once and headed straight for the presbytery, repeating the meaningless sounds all the way. When she reached, Father Peyramale she simply said the same words to him:
I am the Immaculate Conception.
Peyramale was considerably shocked. The Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception had been the subject of theological debate for many years - the theory being that Our Lady was herself without 'original sin' when she was born - it had only been officially recognised by the Vatican in 1854, only four years before. It would have been inconceivable for Bernadette to have been familiar with the concept2. But from that day Father Peyramale was convinced that these were genuine apparitions of the Mother of God.
The Second Interval
This lasted nearly ten days. The events of 25 March had brought the goings on in the grotto even more to the forefront of public attention and renewed the influx of pilgrims. With the 16th apparition, Bernadette's troubles and sufferings returned and worsened - on 27 March she was subjected to a medical and psychiatric evaluation by three doctors. The intention of this was to get Bernadette remaindered in a sanatorium for people suffering from nervous problems and mental imbalance. The interrogation and examination lasted over two hours. On 31 March the doctors returned with a report which was a masterpiece of compromise - the matter was in their eyes to be adjourned.
The Seventeenth Apparition
7 April, 1858, was the occasion of 'The miracle of the Candle'. For some ten to 15 minutes during her ecstasy, Bernadette held her hand cupped around the flame of her candle and totally oblivious to the fact that the flame was licking around her fingers. The crowd cried out that she was burning, but Dr Dozous warned them to leave her alone. When she came out of the ecstasy he went straight to her and examined her fingers - they were quite unaffected. On 9 April, 1858, he told the Commissar:
I have examined her hands: there is not the slightest trace of a burn. Now I believe! I have seen with my own eyes.
This was also the first time that souvenir sellers were reported as working among the crowds.
Two years later Bernadette left Lourdes to live in a hospice of the Sisters of Nevers, and in 1866, at the age of 22, she left Lourdes for ever and entered the Sisters convent in the town of Nevers, half way across France. She remained a nun until she died in 1879 after several long and painful illnesses, aged only 35. She never returned to the grotto.
Bernadette underwent a great deal of suffering in the last three years before her death - she had TB with ankylosis of the knee, a back that was almost completely peeled of skin from bed sores as well as having advanced decay of the lungs - all of this makes the subsequent state of her corpse all the more unusual, as her corpse has not yet begun to decompose.
A Place of Miracles?
It is interesting to note that between some of the apparitions Bernadette was herself taken to a thermal spa near to Lourdes to effect an asthma cure, this is when fuss about 'cures' affected in the spring in the grotto of Lourdes was spreading halfway across France. Four of the cures which were shortly to be proclaimed as miracles had taken place during the period of the apparitions, Bernadette had herself met two 'truthful and sincere' people who claimed cures, but she did not seek a cure at Lourdes herself. When she was asked by an English tourist about the miracles in April 1859, she replied 'there's no truth in all that'. When two other visitors asked her if she knew anything of any cures she said 'I have been told that there have been miracles, but... I have not seen them'. She explicitly denied contributing to any of them, and for her own case Bernadette preferred thermalism.
The Catholic Church has recognised 66 cures at Lourdes as miraculous - one of the most recent being the case of Mr Jean-Pierre Bely who was cured in 1987 of multiple sclerosis.