Bernadette Soubirous, Our Lady of Lourdes, Lourdes, Its Grotto, Apparitions and Cures, by Monsignor John Walsh
It is only one of the curious phases of contemporaneous religious experience to note the variety of contending impressions Which the names of Lourdes and Notre Dame de Lourdes register. To the believer and the client of Mary, the Mother of God, they suggest, if not inspire, faith, hope and charity. To the unbeliever, scoffer and indifferent, contempt, derision or a puzzled surprise and interest.
Lourdes of itself is of no consequence. Neither in situation, population nor industrially has it any distinction accord ing to worldly weights and measures. Prior to its one great awakening it was even off the highways of France, hidden under the shadows of the Pyrenees, grouped straggly about its little swift-flowing, glacier-fed cave, and the home of the very poor, simple and good.
Lourdes owes its fame to a little daughter of the poor and unknown, Bernadette Soubirous, a tiny, earthly, asthmatic being of this world, or her own small, cheerless world and Notre Dame, Our Lady, Mary Mother of God, Virgin and Queen of another world. Bernadette’s father was Francois Soubirous, a bankrupt miller and now day laborer, and her mother, Louise Casterot, a sustaining helpmate of piety and courage.
In France the Virgin is Notre Dame, Our Lady. In Spain Neustra Senora, Our Lady. In Italy she is Madonna, My Lady. The varying degrees of proprietorship are an index of racial temperament. This is the same Notre Dame whose name crowns and glorifies so many French cathedrals. This is the identical Madonna whose radiant, winsome face looks at us from so many Italian canvases. It argues a keen religious instinct of the proprieties, that when in Italy she is made the guardian of a Church, she is Santa Maria, but when invoked in entreaty, she is Madonna, and when portrayed by inspired artists she is the same.
And here is the incomprehensible thing! No one save a madman would think of doing violence to a church because it has the Madonna for a guardian. The canvas is not under valued because it lives and speaks through the eyes and lips of Notre Dame. The devotees who invoke her by these familiar and tender titles do not arouse our anger, though they may be estranged from our sympathy.
We know why Notre Dame of Lourdes appeals to the enthusiasm, piety and love of the many, but why does she stir the resentments, hostility and incredulousness of the few? Is she here, as often in other aspects, a touchstone, a test, a measure of personal character? Was Zola a better or a worse man because he heaped ribaldry and ridicule on the marvels of her power and intercession done at Lourdes?
These marvels are the key to the query and the riddle. A quiescent Madonna or a Madonna only active in invisible gifts and favors will at least be spared the scornful criticism of enemies, but a Madonna appearing in her glorious and trans figured personality, and accrediting her presence by a multitude of wondrous cures, startles a world that has lost consciousness of a world and a life beyond the present and the visible and the tangible, and the shock reveals itself in intemperate phrases of denial and belittlement. Perhaps, then, we should qualify our summary of facts and conclusions and acknowledge that it is not so much the Madonna as her works that are discredited.
To meet this new issue our attitude must be readjusted. It is not the Madonna who claims our apologetic. It is her works which we are justified in calling her miracles. What of them?
In 1908 was commemorated the golden jubilee of the apparition of Our Lady at Lourdes. Within that half century 3,962 extraordinary cures are recorded and attested, with a maximum of 236 in 1898. The record is official, professional and detailed. The diagnosis antecedent and subsequent to a cure the physician in charge of the patient prior to the cure, his opinion, a supervision of the cured for assurance it was a permanent cure are carefully registered in the medical department at Lourdes called the Bureau des Constatations Medicales or Bureau of Verifications in charge of eminent physicians, one of whom, Doctor Boissarie in chief control for twenty years, is thus panegyrized by the Bishop of Tarbes: “Before you make a statement on the reality of a cure your judicially critical mind weighs carefully the testimony of physicians which sets forth the nature and gravity of the illness before the cure. Nor are you soon or easily satisfied either with the fact of the ailment or with the fact of the cure.” Obviously and without straining any of the verities, such a type of man is a safe custodian of the facts and a dependable interpreter of their genesis and processes. His attitude toward them is representative of the candor of scrutiny and the tardiness of acceptance and hesitancy of endorsement with which the authorities of the Catholic Church have from the beginning dealt with them. This statement which may be reinforced with conclusive evidence should be overwhelmingly adequate to counteract the contention of critics who maintain that self-interest and self-aggrandizement have been the impelling motives of the Church in giving these miracles her ill-considered and hasty imprimatur.
An analysis of the other devices whereby the objectors to the supernatural origin of these cures try to fortify their negation is no less interesting. Neurasthenia, or nerve exhaustion, is the favorite disability with which they afflict these unfortunates, not from any personal information, but a priori, as the logicians say, from the fact of their cure. Unquestionably there have been such recoveries under the intense emotion and excitement be gotten by religious fervor, religious processions, sacred chants and invocations and all the fervid activities of a pilgrimage. But these are noted and classified. They are tagged common places, not phenomena. In the aggregate of 3,962 cures for fifty years only 278 are credited to nervous disorders, which would be less than the fourteenth part of the total.
Another curative guess was some unknown chemical property in the water of the grotto. The water was analyzed by a chemist of repute and declared devoid of any healing property of a natural efficacy. Then Bernheim, chief of the famous school of Nancy, ventured auto-suggestion and hallucination as the healers, which extravaganza prompted the distinguished Hilaire Belloc to inject this pertinent query: Why then cannot men in similar great numbers suggest themselves into health in Pimlico or the Isle of Man?” Why should Lourdes have a monopoly of cures by suggestion?
To the Christian pilgrim and the unbelieving visitant of open mind of that Lourdes shrine, its prestige is not the product of neurotic or imaginary alleviations. It rests on a firmer and a surer basis. Its medicinal and curative efficacy has to do chiefly and numerically with organic diseases and lesions. Let any fair minded critic take leisure to read “Our Lady of Lourdes” by Henri Lasserre, or the “Work of Lourdes” by Doctor Boissarie, or “Lourdes” by J. Jorgensen, or Monsignor Benson’s “Lourdes,” and learn for him self whether the catalogue of marvels, of cures there described with every technical detail of symptom, duration and name of diseased patient, may be brushed aside with a mere negative, or as a matter easily explicable or negligible.
Doctor Lehmann, the distinguished Danish physician, offers this pertinent comment: The cure of an organic lesion would be a genuine miracle, but such a cure has never been verified.” I look the list of cures over with all their harrowing and repulsive details, as well authenticated as any series of facts ever recorded, and this is the result of my unbiased survey: lupus, malignant tuberculosis in its third or fatal stage, tumor, abscess, fistula, necrosis, blindness from atrophy of the optic nerve, inflammation of the frontal sinus, stomach ulcers where portions of stomach had been excised without cure, coxalgia and Pott’s disease. If these are not organic lesions then medical nomenclature must be recast. And now a closing word for our own within the Catholic fold!
At this veritable copy of the real Grotto shrine of Lourdes, encased in a chapel-casket where the most precious in art out-rivals architecture to provide a home for it, may the harvest of those who love the Mother of God in her Immaculate Conception grow in abundance from year to year!
It is the ex-voto gift of him who three decades of years ago, a pilgrim at Lourdes, promised to give his parish and the city of his birth this splendid memorial of his visit.
In our hymn to the Blessed Mother of God, oft repeated, we chant and entreat “Monstra te esse matrem,” show thyself a Mother. We know that prayer will not go unheeded because she is our Mother and we need her Maternal care. In the visible world, in the sphere where the flesh is sorely tried, Lourdes is the answer to that prayer and the unfailing witness that she is our Mother.
Blessed be her name forever!
- Monsignor John Walsh
Saint Peter’s Rectory
Troy, New York
Feast of the Purification
Lourdes, The Grotto, Bernadette
Supernaturally and in the realm of soul, faith and grace, Lourdes is a bridge crossing a chasm. The chasm is the unseen, unexplored, low-lying abyss between heaven and earth, God and His creatures, the soul here and its destiny hereafter. Natural and supernatural have their distinct horizons. One is within our bodily vision. The other transcending sense and ken is the object of faith the soul’s vision clarified and strengthened by grace, God’s gift. The evidence of the supernatural is miracle. A miracle is God’s manifestation His presence in the natural. A saint is a creature of miracles accredited by the unerring judgment of the Church employing the most skillful human agencies for their verification.
Lourdes is the citadel – the school of the supernatural because there miracles have been and are in evidence. The contact of the divine on the human is there obtrusive and compelling. Its consciousness grips the intelligence, heart, eyes and senses of the beholder whether formal pilgrim or casual visitor. The observant, candid man of science is bewildered and confesses that there the recognized and accepted bound aries of nature are crossed by that which, if not a miracle, yet mocks at intelligible explanation.
Geographically and locally Lourdes was a very humble town sixty years ago. It lies sheltered at the foot of the Pyrenees and over it the frowning mountain casts a long shadow. It is situated in the department of the Hautes Pyrenees. Over the uneven ground its houses were grouped irregularity around a huge isolated rock an acropolis, on the summit of which still stands the venerable remnant of what was once a fortified castle which tradition says resisted the assaults of Charlemagne in his war against the infidel Saracens. In the middle ages it was a nest of freebooters who levied head-money on the adjacent territory, then a Bastile unlocked by the Revolution, re-locked again as a prison under the Empire and finally converted into a barrack by the Restoration. Nearby in the recesses of the mountains are the warm baths of the Bareges, Saint Sauveur, Cauteret and Bagneres de Begorre. The post-road on which traveled the diligences conveying the summer visitors to the baths ran through Lourdes where the passengers stopped for lunch and tarried long enough to visit the castle and enjoy the scenery before resuming their journey. A small swift-flowing, full tide river, the Gave, coming north from the mountains south of Cauteret and Saint Pierre runs to the right of the town, strikes the rock-pedestal of the ancient castle and is abruptly diverted at right angles to the west and the ocean. The rapid high current in the summer months indicates it is fed and has its cradle in ice and snow.
An ancient bridge just above the first houses of the town crosses the river and serves as a means of transit to the meadows, forests, over the brook Merlasse, and mountains on the left. A short distance above this bridge and opposite the citadel, the Gave was tapped and the escaping water formed a canal or rather a series of canals which seamed the meadow called the Chalet or Lahtte’s Meadow, of which canals, Savy’s, so-called from the owner of the mill, rejoined the river under Massabieille, “the old rock.” As the Gave makes a detour between the Castle rock and Massabieille the purpose of the canals, three in all, was to irrigate the triangular meadow and provide waterpower and situations for other mills. The direct road at that day from Lourdes into the country over the old stone bridge ran south of the canal and up the Espelugues hill; our interest focuses on this hill and its face where it fronts on the Gave looking north. This face was so rugged and bold and bare that in the patois of the country it was called Massabieille, “old rock.” Wrought into the stony face of Massabieille is the Grotto of Lourdes, its feet washed partly by the canal and the river because here they met.
Those who have seen the Grotto will recall the numerous caverns, large and small, with which it is pitted. This rock grotto and a steep rough hillock a little to the west be longed to the Commune of Lourdes. To the hillock the poor of the town brought their pigs to feed, and when a storm threatened, the overhanging brow of the grotto gave them and the fishermen shelter. Above the caverns the rocks of Massabieille mounted into a pinnacle, since shorn to give place to the famous Basilica now crowning the grotto. This peak was garlanded with ivy, box, heather, moss, wild roses, hazels and a few trees. In 1858 this locality in solitariness and wildness had no rival in all the neighborhood of Lourdes. It was approached by no road or path. To reach it one must either clamber down the mountain, or go through Savy’s mill which was built across the canal and served as a bridge between the road crossing the old stone bridge and the island meadow called the Chalet or Lafitte, and then wade across Savy’s canal at its entrance into the Gave. Only the poor of the town went there to gather firewood when the weather was fair. All these details are necessary to understand Bernadette’s story to be told later. February eleventh, 1858, was the beginning of Carnival week, and at Tarbes, the Episcopal See of Lourdes, the feast of the shepherdess and patron of Paris, Saint Genevieve, was celebrated by privilege. It was a leaden, cold, comfortless day for the poor, but the better-favored relieved the cheerlessness with just a tinge of revelry. It was approaching noon, and whilst the hustle and joy of family gatherings was in plentiful evidence, the severest pinch of the cold and discomfort was felt in a wretched house in the Rue Petits-fosses where there was but little wood even to cook the scanty meal.
The occupants of the house were Francois Soubirous, his wife Louise and their four children – two boys and two girls – the eldest child being Bernadette. The father was still a young man, a miller by trade, once owner of a mill now lost, and in order to provide for his family obliged to hire out for promiscuous jobs. This Bernadette, to whom we are now introduced, was one of the two chief factors in the apparitions of Lourdes, and henceforth its history and the glory and celebrity of the Grotto will be forever linked with her name. This promise of a future of renown and the extraordinary privileges with which she was favored make it imperative we should know her better. After birth her mother, unable to suckle her, persuaded a peasant neighbor living at Bartres to take her to nurse, where she remained after weaning. Her parents paid five francs a month for her care and lodging. When old enough to be useful and there was prospect of re turning home, the peasants who had formed a strong affection for her were able to retain her with the compromise they would keep her without charge. To reimburse themselves they gave her the custody of their sheep, and thus growing up alone in an extern family her solitude and loneliness were still more intensified by her employment of caring for the sheep on the unfrequented hillsides.
She was now in her fourteenth year and looked like a child of eleven. She suffered from a severe asthma, which though very painful at times, she was always patient and tranquil in her resignation. The shepherd-girl was innocent, simple, humble and devout. Hers was that pure leaven of girlhood which leaventh all the rest. The Rosary was her constant companion. She knew only her Pyreneean patois and the prayers of the beads. She was without knowledge of the catechism, illiterate, and had not yet received her first Communion. That she might be taught her catechism and prepared for Communion she was returned to the home of her parents, though so very poor, a fortnight before this Thursday, February eleventh, 1858. Her mother was anxious for her, she was so fragile and the asthma gripped her breath so alarmingly at times. Whilst the other children ran about in the open bare-legged in their sabots, Bernadette was protected with stockings and kept indoors.
The First Apparition
With what a slighting of approved and standardized efficiency does Heaven select its heralds ! Well has it been said, the life of every child is nothing but a prophecy for those who know the interpretation. Bernadette was without her interpreter for a brief spell and during this interval she was the victim of persecution and derision.
What happened on that Thursday Bernadette will be her own simple narrator as her story is recorded by Jean Baptiste Lestrade, receiver of taxes in Lourdes, at first an unbeliever and later an ardent advocate. It is taken from his book, “Les Apparitions de Lourdes, Souvenirs Intimes d un Temoin,” published in 1899.
“‘It was a Thursday, Bernadette related, and a cold dark day. After we had finished dinner, mother told us that there was no more firewood and she was sorry about it. My sister Toinette and I then offered to go and gather driftwood along the river-side. My mother said that she could not let us do that because the weather was so bad and we might easily fall into the Gave. Then Jeanne Abadie, who lived next door, came in, and said she would like to go with us. She had to take care of her little brother, but she took him home again and came back a moment after and said that she had been allowed to go. Mother did not quite like to let us go, but we begged her and now that there were three of us she gave us leave. First we Went out on the road to the cemetery: firewood is often unloaded there and you can find sticks and shavings, but there was nothing that day. Then we went along the banks of the Gave till we came to the bridge. We discussed there whether we ought to go up or down the river. We decided to go down and went along the road to the woods till we came to the Merlasse brook. Then we went through Savy’s mill and on to Monsieur Lafitte’s meadows. When we reached the end of the meadows, almost opposite the grotto at Messabieille, we were stopped by the canal. There was not much water in it as the mill was not working, but I was afraid of wading across because it was so cold. Jeanne Abadie and my sister were not afraid. They took their sabots in their hands and went over. When they had reached the other side they shouted across to me that the water was very cold, and they stooped down as if to rub their feet to warm them. That made me still more afraid, and I was sure that if I stepped into the water my asthma would come on again. I then asked Jeanne Abadie, who was bigger and stronger than I, to come and carry me over. No, I am sure I won t,* Jeanne answered. * You are a tiresome person to bring out on an errand like this; if you can’t come over by yourself, then stay where you are. With this they gathered a few sticks below the grotto, and then disappeared along the river banks.
“‘When they had left me, she went on, I threw some stones into the water so as to step over on them, but it was no use. I then decided to take off my sabots and wade across the canal as Jeanne and my sister had done.
“‘I had already taken off one of my stockings when I suddenly heard a great noise like a storm coming. I looked to the right and the left, at the trees beside the river, but not a thing moved. Then I thought I must have been mistaken and went on pulling off my stockings when I heard another noise just like the first. I was frightened then and stood up. I could not shout and did not know what to think, and then I looked across the water at the grotto and saw that a bush in one of the openings was waving about as if in a strong wind. Almost at the same time a cloud of a colour like gold came out of the grotto, and soon after a young, beautiful lady, more beautiful than anyone I had ever seen, came out and stood in the opening above the bush. She looked straight at me and smiled, and beckoned to me to come over to her as if she had been my mother. I was not frightened any longer, but it was as if I did not know where I was. I rubbed my eyes, I shut them and opened them again, but the lady was still there, smiling and trying to make me understand that I was not dreaming. Without knowing what I was doing I took my rosary out of my pocket and knelt down. The lady nodded as if she was pleased and herself took up a rosary which she carried over her right arm. I was going to begin the rosary and wanted to put my hand up to my forehead to make the sign of the cross, but my arm seemed powerless and I could not do it until the lady had crossed herself. The lady let me pray alone, though she let the beads of the rosary glide through her fingers, but she did not say anything. Only, at the end of each decade, she said to me, Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost.
“‘When the rosary was said the lady withdrew into the back of the grotto and the golden cloud disappeared with her. As soon as the lady was gone Jeanne Abadie and my sister came back to the grotto and found me kneeling. They laughed at me for my devoutness and asked me if I was coming home with them or not. I waded through the brook without any trouble now, and the water seemed to me to be lukewarm – like water for washing dishes.
“‘That was nothing to make such a fuss about, I said to Jeanne and Toinette as I dried my feet; the water isn’t cold at all, as you have had me believe.
“Then we tied up three bundles of the branches and driftwood that the others had gathered; we went up the side of Massabieille and so reached the road to the wood. As we were going back to the town I asked Jeanne and Toinette if they had not noticed anything at the grotto.
“‘No’, they said. ‘Why do you ask?’
“‘Oh, never mind. It does not matter.’
“‘All the same 1 could not help telling my sister about the strange thing that had happened to me at the grotto, but I asked her not to tell anyone about it. All that day I thought of the lady, and in the evening, when we were all saying our prayers, I began to cry. Mother asked what was the matter, and Toinette hurried and answered for me, so I had to tell her myself what had happened. The others asked me what the lady had looked like. I said that she looked like a young girl of sixteen or seventeen. She was wearing a white gown with a blue girdle, the ends hanging down on one side. On her head she wore a white veil so that you could hardly see her hair, and at the back the veil fell below her waist. Her feet were bare, but the folds of her gown almost covered them, except quite in front, and there was a golden rose on each. On her right arm she had a rosary of milk-white beads, joined together with golden links that shone like the two roses on her feet.
“‘It is all something you have imagined,’ mother said. ‘You must put those fancies out of your head. And you must not go to Massabieille any more!’
“Then we went to bed, but I could not sleep. All the time I saw the sweet, lovely lady before me, and no matter what my mother had said, I could not believe that I had been mistaken.”
Prior to this unusual visitation there was no exceptional quality, physical, spiritual, or temperamental that could anticipate or foreshadow it. She was merely an everyday little girl of her social grade. She was now at school to the “Sisters of Nevers,” and with the simple gayety of a child she rollicked with the other children when her asthma allowed her. There was no morbidness about her. She was devoid even of emotion, which when whipped up is called enthusiasm. She possessed none of the traditional endowments of an extatique. When this first apparition came into public notice, simultaneously, the hitherto unnoticed child came into the limelight. People began to talk about her and ask who and what she was. Public curiosity was aroused. In deference to it the priest who was instructing her for her first Communion said she was shy and simple-minded; her confessor Abbe Pomian that she fell far short of being remarkable, and later when she entered a convent as postulant, her Superior said of her: ” She is good, but there is no exaltation, not even enthusiasm in her.” Another psychological diagnosis extracted from Annales de la Grotte records: “Bernadette was good, gentle, straight forward, simple; her piety was edifying but not astonishing. Her mind had no suppleness, her imagination no variety. * * * She had no gift of vivid or interesting description; when speaking about her vision, her manner of narration was concise, colorless, and cold; one had to question her again and again in order to get a complete account. She spoke without any sign of inner emotion; after a while she might be carried away by her subject, but there was never any ardour about her manner. * * * She was really insignificant.”
The accentuation of these traits is essential to forestall the obvious explanation that she was hysterical and religiously excitable, and, therefore, accessible to auto-imposition. The plain truth is, her spiritual and religious attitude was balanced, healthy, normal and never exceeded the level of the average.
Three More Apparitions
After that vision of February eleventh, Bernadette’s mother saw that her little girl had changed. She matured with a sad expression, and a hunger for Massabieille where she had seen the beautiful Lady possessed her. Friday and Saturday passed and on Sunday afternoon her mother gave permission for another visit in company with friends to whom the secret was revealed. A bottle of Holy Water was given the little visionnaire to forefend her against imposition by the evil One. Instead of going by the Lafitte meadow they followed the road across the Merlasse brook and climbed down the grotto rock. Bernadette knelt and prayed with eyes riveted on the window-shaped niche where her first vision was framed. The others stood in keen expectancy. Suddenly their playmate exclaimed: There she is, there she is!” The bottle of Holy Water was given her with the exclamation: “quick, throw the water at her!” Bernadette seized the bottle and flung the contents toward the vision and the rose bush and declared after a moment’s pause: The lady is not at all vexed about it; quite the contrary; she is nodding and smiling at us.” Then followed the ecstasy during which she remained immovable, entirely unconscious of her surroundings, with radiant, transfigured face. She had seen the same vision as on Thursday.
Bernadette was attending school and held a rigid reticence. She seemed the least concerned. Lourdes, how ever, was keenly astir and talkative. On Wednesday evening February seventeenth, two devout women, Mademoiselle Antoinette Peyret and Madame Millet, anxious to know more, visited the Soubirous home. Another visit was arranged for the next morning under the guidance of these ladies. A candle was lighted and the three knelt and prayed. Soon the child uttered a cry of joy:
“She is coming! There she is!”
This visit was entirely without ecstasy and only Bernadette saw the vision. In part, due to curiosity and in part to a desire to possess an autographic souvenir these female devotees were provided with pen, ink and paper and asked Bernadette to beg the Lady to write down her message to them. This was refused, and (instead, this communication was given: What I have to tell you I do not need to write. Come here every day for two weeks. I do not promise to make you happy in this world, but in the next.”
With the concurrence of her mother and aunt, Bernarde, she began her fortnightly visits the next morning in company with her mother, aunt and some other women acquaintances who followed at a distance. The accompaniments of former visits were reiterated, prayer, ecstasy, absorption, radiant happiness and the puzzled wonderment of the community, bewildered and mystified because this little, obscure and negligible girl seemed to have an unwonted gift of sight and blest or unblessed with an apparition denied all others.
And so began the fourteen days on which every morning Bernadette went to the grotto from February eighteenth to March fourth.
Le Lavedan and Doctor Douzous
Le Lavedan was the local paper at Lourdes. Coincident with the traditions and enterprise of such institutions it became interested in contemporary news. Its issue of 20 February 1858, contained an article briefly reporting the events which were the general subject of discussion in the town. After the report it continued:
“A thousand explanations have been forthcoming, but these we do not wish to discuss. We will only say that the young girl goes out to the grotto every morning to pray, with a lighted candle in her hand, and accompanied by over five hundred persons. She is seen first to fall into a state of devout reverence, then she smiles gently and is rapt in ecstasy. The tears stream down her cheeks and her eyes are steadfastly fixed on that place in the grotto where she believes she sees the Blessed Virgin.
“We promise to keep our readers informed of this extraordinary movement, which is daily gaining more adherents.”
Le Lavedan did not err in its census of the crowd that accompanied Bernadette in her daily pilgrimage to Massabieille. And the crowd was augmented from day to day. Then came February 21, which this year fell on a Sunday, the first Sunday in Lent. Very early in the morning before sunrise a vast concourse of people, numbering thousands, was already assembled about the grotto and overflowed into the meadows beyond Savy’s Canal. Bernadette came as usual, quietly and modestly, her white capeline on her head and her kerchief knotted on her breast, chaperoned by a relative.
One of the spectators that morning was a doctor in Lourdes, a Doctor Dozous, openly and confessedly a member of that sceptical, rationalistic and free-thinking professional clientele, so much in vogue in the France of that day. In his book, “La Grotte de Lourdes, sa Fontaine, ses Guerisons,” he gives us in the following extract the impressions made upon him by what he saw:
“As soon as Bernadette reached her place opposite the grotto she knelt down, took out her rosary and began to pray, letting the beads glide through her fingers. Her face under went a change, which was noticed by all persons near her, and which indicated that she was en rapport with her vision. While she let the beads glide through her left hand, she held in her right hand a lighted candle. The wind being strong that morning the flame often went out, and each time this happened she held out the candle to the person nearest her to have it lit again.
“As I was anxious to know how this state affected her circulation and breathing, I took hold of her arm and felt her pulse. It was quiet and normal, her breathing, too, was regular; there was no indication of nervous excitement.
“After I had taken my hand from her arm Bernadette arose and went a little nearer to the grotto. Soon after this I saw her face, which up to now had been radiant with the utmost happiness, assume a look of sadness. Tears were running down her cheeks. I wondered very much at this change, and when she had finished her prayers and the mysterious vision had disappeared, I asked her the reason. She answered:
“The Lady turned her eyes from me for a short while and looked out over my head. Then she looked at me again, and when I asked why she looked so sad she said, ‘Pray for sinners.’
“Then Bernadette left, as modestly and quietly as she had come.”
Because of a rapid sequence of events in official Lourdes immediately following Doctor Duzous presence at the grotto, it is possible, that he went there as the emissary of the authorities. Lourdes officialdom was agitated. Order must be preserved, superstition must be repressed, fanatics must be corralled and morbid fancies checked. That same Sunday, the Mayor, the imperial procurator, Dutour, and the chief of police, Jacomet, met in conference in the Town hall to formulate a campaign of defence against this invasion of diseased imagination or conscious fraud. To their enlightened and superior intellects there was no via media. It was one extreme or the other. Bernadette was returning from Mass later the same day when a policeman invited her in the law’s name to go with him. She was under arrest, and first taken before the procurator and after to the chief of police. They were suave, astute and severe. They cajoled and coerced. They encouraged and intimidated. Like some types of justice and jurisprudence they were more solicitous to lay snares for the ingenuous child than to discover the truth. The result was discomfiture for them. As a last resort they threatened prison if her father did not interfere to restore tranquillity to the commune. Those who are interested in the questionnaire of this Sunday’s proceedings will find it in any of the large volumes on Lourdes.
La Fontaine / Je suis Hmmaculee Conception
Notwithstanding the opposition of the officials, the threat of imprisonment and the disapproval of her father, Bernadette found the attraction of Massabieille irresistible. Whether due to the complaisant connivance of the officials or the fear of popular indignation if more severe measures were resorted to, Bernadette continued her visits unrestrained.
We now come to the 25th of February, the day when the wonder-working fountain which has its share in the mystery and glory of Lourdes gushed forth for the first time. This is Estrade’s version of it:
“After a few minutes of quiet prayer,” he says, “Bernadette arose and went towards the grotto. She turned aside the overhanging branches of the rosebush and kissed the ground underneath the ledge of rock, behind the bush. Then she came back and again became rapt in ecstasy.
“She had said perhaps two or three decades of the rosary when she again arose and seemed to be perplexed. First she turned to the river and went two or three steps in that direction. Then she suddenly stopped, looked back as if some one had called her, and stood listening, after which she nodded and again went forward, this time to the grotto, towards the left corner of it. Having gone three-fourths of the way, she stopped again and looked hesitatingly about her. She looked up as if to ask a question of the lady; then she stooped down and resolutely set to work to scratch up the ground. The small hollow she had thus made quickly filled with water, and after having waited a minute or so she drank of the water and washed her face in it. She also took some grass growing in this place and put it in her mouth. All the onlookers watched these movements with the greatest consternation and a sense of something eerie. When Bernadette at length arose and showed a face quite dirty with the muddy water, all exclaimed as if with one voice, in a tone of horror, Bernadette has gone out of her mind.
Bernadette herself did not seem to notice anything. Some one dried her face and it shone as before. But no one admired her now, only pity was left, and disappointment filled all hearts. Somewhat ashamed and crestfallen, people slunk away and Bernadette was left almost alone.
Estrade was among those who left. Bernadette’s ecstasy was not over until about seven o clock. Then the faithful few who had remained behind asked her, “But, Bernadette, what made you do such strange things this morning? Why did you go here and there? Why did you scratch up the soil? Why did you drink of the muddy water?”
Bernadette answered: “While I was praying the Lady said to me, kindly but gravely, ‘Go along to the spring, drink of the water and wash yourself in it.’ As I knew nothing about any spring, I thought the Lady meant the river and went in that direction. But the Lady called me back and pointed to the grotto. I did not see any water there, and as I did not know what else to do, I scratched up the soil and then the water came. I let it run a little clearer first, then I drank of it and washed myself in it.”
“But you ate some of the grass, too, beside the spring; why did you do that?”
“I don’t know. I felt inwardly that the Lady wanted me to do it.”
The fact of a new spring was incontestable. It had no predecessor. As the gushing water and Moses smiting of the rock were simultaneous, so were the new spring and Bernadette’s scratching of the ground near the grotto. By the after noon it was running a tiny ribbon in a course it had channeled to the Gave. The next morning the rivulet had grown big as a finger. In a few days it was sturdy as a child’s arm. In our present day it pours forth daily 32,244 gallons.
The Pyrenees are rich in mineral springs, mostly thermal, and many of them like Luz, Bareges, Cauteret and Saint Sauveur are in the vicinity of Lourdes. The people could only hope it might prove a fountain of healing, though its waters were potable and entirely unlike the sulphuric springs of the mountain watering places. They had not long to wait.
Some workmen had constructed a wooden conduit which carried the water to a little basin they had dug out and already there were some sick and infirm who drank the water or walked in the pool. It has been and is carried the world over, and thousands whom we shall never know have been cured or relieved by it. In that long series of cures it is interesting to make record of the first one. It was in the year 1858. His name was Louis Bourriette, a stone cutter residing at Lourdes. It was an item of common knowledge that twenty years before one of his eyes had been injured by a stone splint and the sight destroyed. In the intervening time the other eye had become dimmed and total prospective darkness menaced him. With trust and hope for a cure he sent his daughter for some of the water of the mysterious spring, and although it was muddy he undauntedly applied it. The sight improved with each application, and on the following day meeting Doctor Douzous, who had him under treatment, he said exultingly: “I am cured.” “It is impossible,” was the answer. The injury to your eye was organic.” As the patient insisted the doctor wrote a line in his note-book, placed one hand over the sound, but weakening eye, and with the other held the writing before the injured one, certain that he would be unable to read it. The excitement was tense for the test was in a thoroughfare, and several passers-by had halted to witness the challenge and its outcome. Readily and correctly the patient read this line: “Bourriette a une amaurose incurable, et il ne guerira jamais” (“Bourriette suffers from incurable amaurosis and he will never be better.”) His cure was permanent and in a record of the fact made on 17 November 1858, at the desire of the Bishop of Tarbes, Doctor Duzous declared:
“I have examined both of Bourriette’s eyes and found them quite equal both in shape and in the organization of the individual parts. Both pupils reacted normally when subjected to rays of light. In the right eye a scar was still visible, other wise there was no trace of the injury that had once occurred to it.”
“Will you come here now that the fifteen days are over,” Bernadette was asked. “All my life I will keep coming here,” she replied. Meanwhile she was a regular attendant at school and catechism instruction and every day she visited Massabieille. The March month waned quickly and the feast of the Annunciation had arrived (March 25th). It was a red-letter feast, beloved of the Pyreneeans, and remembered with prayer and solemn ceremonial in honor of the Blessed Virgin. To quicken their devotion the people of Lourdes were accustomed to make a pilgrimage to Our Lady of Garaison or Bettharram, popular shrine places of the Mother of God. This year the populace turned their faces toward the grotto, and as an index of their changed estimate of it, pious hands had arranged a little chapel in it with a statue of the Holy Virgin and many candles burned before it night and day. These were the pioneers of the hosts of pilgrims who, whether well or ill, in all the intervening years for prayer or cure or irreverent curiosity, made the grotto their goal.
What happened on that day is best told by Bernadette:
“After I had knelt down before the Lady I first asked her pardon for having come so late. She gave me to under stand that it did not matter. Then I told her how glad I was to be allowed to see her again, and after I had in this way unburdened myself to her, I took up my rosary. While I was praying the thought came to me that I would ask her now what her name was, and after a little time I could think of nothing else. I was afraid that she might be vexed if I again asked a question which she had always refused to answer, and yet there was something that seemed to force me to speak. At last I could not keep the words back any longer, and I asked the Lady to be so kind as to tell me who she was.
“As she had done before, the Lady bent her head and smiled, but did not answer. I don’t know how it was, but I had more courage and I asked her again if she would not trust me with her name.
“Again she smiled and bent her head, but still she said nothing.
“Then I folded my hands, and while I admitted that I was unworthy of so great a favor, I repeated my request the third time.
“The Lady was standing above the rose-bush and showed herself as on the wonder-working medal, (i.e. with outstretched arms and hands open and turned outwards like Thorwaldsen’s statue of Christ and the miracle-medal commemorative of the vision of the Blessed Virgin to Catherine Laboure in a chapel in the Rue du Bac in Paris in November, 1830.) When I made my request the third time she looked grave and seemed to humble herself deeply before God. Then she lifted up her hands, laid them against each other on her breast, and looked up to heaven. After that she slowly took them apart again, and as she bent forward towards me she said in a voice that trembled, “I am the Immaculate Conception,” or, in Bernadette’s dialect, more crude Spanish than French: “Que soy er Immaculada Counceptiou.” Here flits a truant sidelight on her trustworthiness as a witness. When she first told her experience to her chronicler, Estrade, the tax collector, in his house, she turned to Mademoiselle Estrade and asked with girlish hesitancy, because of her ignorance: “But Mademoiselle, what do those words mean The Immaculate Conception?” Unless credited with a precocious cunning, of which there is no trace, then or after, she is to be acquitted of an attempt to invent or deceive. Her ignorance was intelligible and pardonable for two reasons, she was still wrestling with her catechism, at best a puzzling crux for children, and further, because the dogma of the Immaculate Conception was given to the faithful only three years before the preceding 8 December.
On Saturday morning, 27 February 1858, the parish priest of Lourdes, l’Abbe Peyramale, was walking in his garden, reading his breviary, when a young girl timidly opened the garden gate and approached him. The visitor was Bernadette. She brought him a message direct from the Lady of the grotto. The message was:
“The Lady in the grotto has told me she wants the priests to build a chapel at Massabieille.” Monsieur l’Abbe with severity cross-examined the child as to the identity, name, etc., of this mysterious lady and Bernadette, confessing she did not know her name, was dismissed with this verdict: “No, my little girl, it’s all imagination. Tell the lady who sent you it is not the custom of the parish priest of Lourdes to have any dealings with people he does not know.”
The visit was repeated on the morning of 2 March with a new message from the Lady. This time she not only wanted the chapel, but also, “I want them to come here in procession.” The priest was still incredulous and wanted her name and proof the mandate was not factitious. At last the Lady had a name, and on the way to the priest’s house, to whom she could give it, she kept on repeating the strange words to her self, lest she might forget them: Immaculada Counceptiou, Immaculada Counceptiou!
The Lighted Candle. Good-bye. Victory.
“Well waited is well done,” saith a wise man, who heedeth not the leaden years because the morrow gleamed with a hope. Bernadette’s trust in the Lady of the Grotto never faltered. She could afford to wait because now she had a credential that promised a triumph. Was not her vision the resplendent embodiment of the Immaculate Conception? Had not the Immaculate Conception been stamped with the seal of the Church’s weightiest pronouncement? She was honored and glorified with an Apostolate the Apostolate of the Mother of God to proclaim and bear witness to one of Her most exalted prerogatives.
Her visits to the grotto continued perseveringly. The water running through the wooden conduit increased in volume daily. On Wednesday of Easter week, April 7, the Blessed Virgin appeared again to Bernadette. Estrade was not present, but Doctor Duzous gives the following account:
“Bernadette, as usual, held her rosary in her left hand and a lighted candle in her right. * * * Suddenly it happened that as she wished to join her hands together she held the candle under her left hand, which was so spread out that the flame found a way out between the fingers. Contrary to all reason and experience the flame did not seem to affect the hand in any way whatever.
“Astonished at this, I prevented others from interfering, took out my watch and observed the phenomenon for a whole quarter of an hour. At last Bernadette again separated her hands.
“When the ecstasy was over she arose and prepared to leave. I stopped her and asked her to show me her left hand. I did not find the least trace of burning anywhere.
“I then had the candle re-lit and held it under Bernadette’s left hand.
“‘You are burning me!’ she exclaimed, and quickly withdrew her hand.
“Many others beside myself observed this incident. I mention it just as it occurred without offering any explanation.”
The emphatic and inexplicable incident in this report is not Bernadette’s insensibility to the flame of the candle, pending the ecstasy. This same unconsciousness has been observed in neurotic patients. It is that her hand showed no sign of chafing or burning by contact with the flame. Even in the most complete catalepsy there is no intelligible agent to prevent the tissues from being affected in a natural way by fire.
One week later, the Prefect, Monsieur Massy, called on the Bishop of Tarbes, Monseigneur Laurence, to apprise him of the ministerial threat to move against the disturbing superstition unless his Lordship would interfere. The Bishop penetrated at once the subterfuge to shift responsibility and politely refused to act. This refusal gave the Prefect an unwelcome monopoly in subsequent proceedings. With the usual seriousness of the French official, and the accustomed promptness which some attribute to a fanatic ill-humor where things religious are concerned, Monsieur (Massy lost no time in swinging his axe at the root of this alleged frenzied fanaticism. The road to Massabieille was closed, all access to it forbidden, and the emblems of devotion hitherto grouped at the grotto were peremptorily removed. The Prefect was a man of decision and of action. His ambition was to rid the community of all this fatuous nonsense. He went further and had the water of the spring analyzed by government order to determine whether it possessed any medicinal qualities. The analysis showed that the spring contained several minerals, especially lime, magnesia, oxides of iron and carbonate of sulphur. The Toulouse chemist’s summary, dated 7 August 1858, states that “the water from the grotto of Lourdes may be considered as drinkable as any water found in mountainous districts with a chalky soil. The sample taken does not contain any substance which would contribute to its therapeutic qualities. It can be drunk without any ill effects.”
This would bar out the trick of explaining from natural causes the cures effected by the water of Lourdes. But as it was declared potable it would seem only humane to permit its free use. Even this was denied, and several women who defied the prohibition were haled to the higher court at Pau. Napoleon III was spending the early autumn of that year at Biarritz, the fashionable watering place near by. Thither the Christians of Lourdes sent a delegation of her best citizens to petition the Emperor to clear Massabieille from all the barbed restraints which kept them from the magnet of their love and faith. By imperial mandate of 5 October 1858, the petition was granted, free access to the grotto opened up and a few weeks later the offending and officious ministers of the law were removed to other spheres.
On the feast of Our Lady of Carmel, July 16, preceding the emancipation of the grotto, the direct way to it being closed by law, Bernadette went out for her visit by a meadow across the Gave to the north. There at a distance she knelt and prayed and saw the vision for the last time, for the Lady of the grotto, now the Immaculate Conception, appeared and bade her au revoir, not farewell. She would see her again in Heaven.
The Bishop of Tarbes lost no time in appointing a commission to interrogate Bernadette and inquire into the genuineness of the cures. The investigation consumed three years and a half and its fruit was an Episcopal decree, dated 18 February 1862, in which the faithful were assured the revelation of the Blessed Virgin at the grotto was real and devotion to her in his diocese under the title of Our Lady of Lourdes permitted and recommended. He bought already Massabieille, the island le Chalet and all the land beyond Savy’s canal toward the town. He at the same time suggested that the church be built by the Catholics of France as a witness and a tribute of their love for the Mother of God.
In 1864 the familiar statue by Fabisch was installed in the little window-shaped cavern of the grotto. In July, 1864, the first pilgrimage came to Lourdes. The Basilica was completed in 1876, and consecrated in presence of a Cardinal, thirty-five bishops, three thousand priests and one hundred thousand of the laity. Later in 1901 was consecrated the circular Church of the Rosary, in front of and below the Basilica, to give the pilgrims increased facilities for attending Mass and receiving Communion.
Pius IX accepted a gift of a replica of the Grotto of Lourdes from Monsieur Hispa of Toulouse, which was erected in the Vatican Gardens.
Leo XIII, petitioned by the Sacred Congregation of Rites, approved the Mass and Office of the apparition of the Immaculate Conception at the Grotto of Lourdes under the title, “on the Feast of the Apparition.”
Pius X wrote to the Bishop of Tarbes; “Be persuaded that like our predecessors we put our trust in her maternal protection; it is through her help we confidently hope to see not only your country, but the Universal Church freed from the evils which overwhelm them.”
Bernadette entered the novitiate of the Sisters of Nevers, at the convent of Saint Gildard at Nevers, in 1866. She never returned to Lourdes. Her desire was to efface herself – eschew all distinction because of the past and live humbly and unknown. Unless constrained by obedience she avoided all reference to Lourdes. Her name in religion was Sister Mary Bernard. In time her chronic asthma developed into tuberculosis, and on the Wednesday after Easter, 16 April 1879, at three o clock in the afternoon, she went to Heaven for the eternal vision of our Lady of Lourdes with the crucifix in her hands and on her lips the familiar words:
“Holy Mary Mother of God.”
The Bishop of Nevers, in a pastoral letter, has announced the opening of the Apostolic Process for the Beatification and Canonization of the Venerable Bernadette Soubirous, the favored child of Our Lady of Lourdes. He says: “The whole world should rise in supplication toward Heaven, for Bernadette is inseparable from the name of the Immaculate Virgin. Bernadette has repeated to the great world the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception, which she received from the lips of the Virgin Most Pure, on 25 March 1858.”
- text taken from the book , by Monsignor John Walsh, 1918; it has the Nihil obstat of Father Patrick B Dempsey, Censor. and Imprimatur: Bishop Thomas F. Cusack, D.D., Diocese of Albany, New York; it is dedicated “to Our Lady of Lourdes, Mother of God and Mother of the Human Family, Whose Intercession We Invoke for All Thy Children”