Bernadette was born to a miller and his wife in Lourdes, France.
A poor businessman. Bernadette’s father lost the mill and earned money from time to time as a handyman, who turned to alcohol to deal with his depression. Her mother was very devout and bore her husband many children, only five of whom survived infancy. The mother would earn money doing menial tasks and taking in laundry, even though she herself had been born into a better class. Bernadette, the oldest of the surviving five children would help her mother, even bringing her tiny siblings to the fields where her mother worked so that they could be nursed.
Bernadette was never strong, and from the age of 6 she showed symptoms of the respiratory ailment that later became a chronic affliction. It is not clear at this early stage whether she had asthma or tuberculosis, but we know that her mother was anxious about her health and made an effort to provide special food for her.
When Bernadette was 13, she was sent to the neighboring mountain hamlet of Bartres, to the home of Marie Arevant, her foster mother. It was here that Bernadette had been taken for a few months when she was still an infant, to be nursed by Madame Arevant, who had just lost a baby. The woman now had a large family and little Bernadette made herself useful in the house and in the fields.
Although she was now 14, she had not made her First Communion. Her foster mother had tried half-heartedly to prepare her, but after one or two sessions had impatiently given it up, saying that Bernadette was too dull to learn. Only when Bernadette went back to Lourdes, it made her happy to be admitted to the day school conducted by the Sisters of Charity and Christian Instruction.
Thus, Bernadette at last began her secular education, and, under Abbe Pomian, continued to prepare for First Communion. She was also learning a little French, for up to this time she spoke only the local dialect. The nuns discovered that beneath a quiet, modest exterior, Bernadette had a winning personality and a lively sense of humor. This might have been a happy and constructive time for the little girl had it not been for the ever-increasing shadows of poverty at home, a single room of a dilapidated structure in the rue des Petits Fosses; this damp, unwholesome place had once served as a jail and was known as Le Cachot, the Dungeon.
On Feb. 11, 1858, Bernadette returned from school her mother gave her permission to go down by the river to pick up driftwood and fallen branches. Her sister Toinette Marie, 9, and Marie Abadie, 12, a neighbor’s child, went with her.
When the three girls reached the grotto known as the Massabeille, the two younger ones took off their wooden shoes to wade across an icy millstream which here joined the river. Bernadette, more sensitive, stayed behind. Standing alone beside the river, she had started to remove her stockings when she heard a noise like a sudden rush of wind. Looking up toward the grotto she saw some movement among the branches, then there floated out of the opening a golden cloud, and in the midst of it was the figure of a beautiful young girl who placed herself in a small niche in the rock, at one side of the opening and slightly above it.
Bernadette, staring in fascination, saw that the luminous apparition was dressed in a soft white robe, with a broad girdle of blue, and a long white veil that partially covered her hair. Her eyes were blue and gentle. Golden roses gleamed on her bare feet. When the vision smiled and beckoned to Bernadette, the girl’s fear vanished and she came a few steps nearer, then sank reverently to her knees. She drew her rosary from her pocket, for, in moments of stress, she habitually said her beads. The mysterious being also had a rosary, of large white beads. Bernadette later said, “The Lady let me pray alone; she passed the beads of the rosary between her fingers but said nothing; only at the end of each decade did she say the Gloria with me.”
When the recitation was finished, the Lady vanished into the cave and the golden mist disappeared with her. This experience affected Bernadette so powerfully that, when the other girls turned back to look for her, she was still kneeling, a rapt, faraway look on her face. They chided her, thinking she had passed the time praying to escape the task of gathering fuel.
On the way home Bernadette related the incident to her companions, swearing them to secrecy, but her sister told their mother. Bernadette wished to go back to the Massabeille the next day, but her mother, after talking the matter over with a sister, refused her permission. The following Sunday Bernadette asked if she might go to the grotto and her father told her she might go if she took a flask of holy water with her, to exorcise the apparition should it prove to be a demon. Bernadette, advancing ahead of several little friends who accompanied her, knelt before the grotto and soon the vision appeared as before.
On their return the excited girls, although they had seen nothing, naturally began to tell their versions of the affair, and soon the town buzzed with varying reports and rumors. On the next market day, the peasants heard of these strange happenings. The story reached the Mother Superior of the convent, who took a firm stand: she announced to the class preparing for Communion, comprising Bernadette’s friends and companions for the most part, that they must stop talking and thinking of this matter. Bernadette’s teacher, Sister Marie Therese Vauzous, was even hostile.
Bernadette was accompanied a third time to the grotto by two women of Lourdes who thought the “damiezelo,” as Bernadette called her, was the returning spirit of a young woman, one of their dear friends, who had died a few months before. On this occasion the same little figure appeared to Bernadette, smiled warmly, and spoke, asking Bernadette to come every day for 15 days. Bernadette promised to come, provided she was given permission to do so. Since neither her godmother, who was her mother’s sister, nor the priest actually forbade it, Bernadette’s parents offered no objection.
On the following day, her mother and aunt went with her, and on subsequent visits great crowds of people gathered on the Massabeille, or down by the river, hoping to see or hear something miraculous. During these two weeks the excitement increased to such a pitch that the civil authorities felt obliged to take action.
The police were not content to threaten the Soubirous family; they took Bernadette for questioning and tried to make her admit that it was all an elaborate hoax. Bernadette emerged from this and many such ordeals somewhat shaken but obdurate. The authorities continued to try to discredit her. They even gave currency to the report that the whole thing had been thought up by Bernadette’s poverty-stricken parents, so that they might derive some profit from it.
Having begun this “journey” puzzled, worried, and uncertain at the outset, her parents had now come to believe in the supernatural character of their daughter’s experiences and stood loyally by her. They did not dream of exploiting the affair in their own interest. As a matter of fact, pious, well-meaning people were bringing them gifts of money and food, sometimes asking for a token from Bernadette. These offerings were declined; even Bernadette’s small brothers were cautioned to accept nothing. Bernadette found the sudden notoriety unpleasant, and this sensitivity to being stared at and talked about and pointed out was to last throughout her life. People began to gather at the grotto in the middle of the night, awaiting her appearance. It was rumored that she had a miraculous, healing touch. Several cures were attributed to her.
On Sunday, Feb. 21, a number of people went with her to the grotto, including citizens who had been highly skeptical. On this occasion, Bernadette reported later, the apparition said to her: “You will pray to God for sinners.” On Feb. 26, while she was in the trance-like state which lasted as long as she saw the vision, Bernadette crawled inside the grotto, and, at the Lady’s bidding, uncovered with her bare hands a little trickle of water from which she drank and with which she bathed her face, still at the Lady’s direction.
This tiny spring continued to well up and by the next day was flowing steadily down into the river: to this day it has never ceased to gush forth from the grotto. The people regarded its discovery by Bernadette as a miracle.
On March 2, Bernadette saw the apparition for the 13th time. It was on this day that the Lady bade Bernadette to tell the priests that “a chapel should be built, and a procession formed.” Bernadette relayed the message to the open hostility of the local clergy and authorities, who believed people who had “visions” were generally unbalanced. They demanded the name of the person who was appearing to the girl and a “real miracle’ if she was divine.
Finally, on March 25, when the vision appeared to her, Bernadette said: “Would you kindly tell me who you are?” When the girl had repeated the question twice more, the Lady replied: “I am the Immaculate Conception. I want a chapel here.”
This answer, when reported by Bernadette, caused the local excitement to rise to a still higher pitch and the feeling grew that Bernadette’s visitor was the Blessed Virgin. Only four years before, the dogma of the Immaculate Conception had been promulgated. The 17th apparition took place on April 7, and the final one, more than three months later, on July 16.
Bernadette was to live another 21 years and never saw the vision again. But the tale of her encounter had captured the notice of the world. The mayor had tried to block access to the site but under orders from the bishop, the prefect, even Emperor Napoleon III and his pious wife Eugenie he was obliged to open it up. A shrine was built and the new spring, and the cures that were being reported, all had taken a profound hold on the popular imagination.
Bernadette, uncomfortable with all the attention withdrew to a convent and eventually took the veil. Sister Marie Therese Vauzous, now novice-mistress at Nevers, was very severe with her former pupil. Although she made life difficult for Bernadette, the little novice met all tests with perfect humility. She cheerfully performed the menial tasks assigned to her, at first in the convent kitchen, although this work must have taxed her strength. Later, when it was noted that her sympathetic manner made her a favorite with sick people, she was appointed assistant infirmarian. Her step and touch were light, and her very presence brought comfort. But during these years, Bernadette had a chronic disease that was slowly draining her life away. She was finally given work in the sacristy, where cleverness with the needle made her work admired and cherished. She displayed a real gift for design and color in embroidering the sacred vestments. To all tasks she brought a pure grace of spirit and an utter willingness to serve.
Her strength ebbing away, even when confined to wheelchair or bed, she went on with the fine needlework. And now she had more time for prayer and meditation.
There is little outward drama in the life of a nun, but in Bernadette’s case there was steady activity, steady growth, in things of the spirit. She had been told by her vision that she would not attain happiness in this world. Her childhood had been sad, and maturity had brought no easing of the burden she must carry. During the last two years of life a tumor developed on one knee, which was followed by caries of the bone. She suffered excruciating pain. One day, when a Superior came to visit her and said, “What are you doing in bed, you lazy little thing?” Bernadette simply replied, “I am doing my stint. I must be a victim.” She felt that such was the Divine plan for her.
On her deathbed, in a spasm of pain, Bernadette pressed the crucifix closer to her, and cried, “All this is good for Heaven!” That afternoon, as the nuns of the convent knelt round her bed to repeat the prayers for the dying, they heard her say in a low voice, “Blessed Mary, Mother of God, pray for me! A poor sinner, a poor sinner …” She could not finish. The date was April 16, 1879.
Adapted by A.J. Valentini from: St. Bernadette Soubirous. (n.d.). EWTN. Retrieved April 6, 2021, from https://www.ewtn.com/catholicism/saints/bernadette-soubirous-494