Saint Bernadette: The Girl from Lourdes

Saint Bernadette (1844-1879) is a French saint from Lourdes. She is best known for a series of Marian apparitions where Mary asked for a chapel to be built.

Feast Day: 16 April


Saint Bernadette Soubirous (7 January 1844 – 16 April 1879) is a French saint from Lourdes, in the south of France. Bernadette was the eldest child of François and Louise Soubirous. She is best known for a series of Marian apparitions (see below), where Mary asked for a chapel to be built near the cave grotto. Pope Pius XI declared Bernadette a saint on 8 December 1933.

Saint Bernadette’s early years

She was baptised Marie Bernarde in St. Pierre’s parish church in Lourdes on 9 January 1844. The original church was demolished in 1905 but the baptismal font in which she was baptised was taken to the present church, which was built in 1875. Apart from a period spent in the countryside at Bartres, where she was sent to be wet-nursed, she lived here until she was ten and life was happy and reasonably comfortable.

A change in family fortune

When Bernadette was ten her father was blinded in one eye in an accident and the family fortunes went downhill rapidly. They had to leave the Boly Mill and went from place to place because they couldn’t pay their bills. Eventually, in 1856, a relative offered them lodging in the Cachot, which was actually an abandoned jail.

In 1857, Saint Bernadette returned to Bartres, where she had been wet-nursed as a baby, to work on the farm and look after the sheep. But in January 1858 she wanted to make her First Holy Communion and came back to Lourdes so that she could prepare to receive the Sacrament. Bernadette came back to live with her family in conditions of extreme poverty in the Cachot. It was from here that she set out with her sister Toinette and friend, Jeanne Abadie, to the foot of the rock known as Massabielle on 11 February 1858 to look for firewood.

The 18 Apparitions

It was at the Grotto in the rock of Massabielle that Bernadette saw the eighteen apparitions of the lady that she initially called ‘aquero’ (that one).

The First Apparition: 11 February 1858

Saint Bernadette was out with her sister, Toinette and a school friend, Jeanne Abadie. They were collecting firewood when Bernadette sat down to take off her shoes and stockings prior to crossing the river near the grotto at the foot of the rock known as Massabielle. She heard what sounded like a gust of wind but, looking towards the meadow, could see that the trees were quite still. The sound came again and, on looking up towards a niche just above the grotto, she saw a lady in a white dress with a blue girdle and a yellow rose on each foot. She carried a rosary, the chain of which was the same colour as the roses and the beads were white.

The ‘lady’ signalled for Bernadette to approach but she was fearful. Bernadette took her own rosary out of her pocket but was unable to make the sign of the cross. When the ‘lady’ made the sign of the cross Bernadette’s fear began to disappear and she was able to pray. While Bernadette prayed the ‘lady’ slipped the beads of her rosary through her fingers but her lips did not move.

The Second Apparition: 14 February 1858

Bernadette felt interiorly impelled to go to the grotto again. She took the precaution of taking some holy water from the parish church and was accompanied, as before, by Toinette and Jeanne. At the grotto they all knelt down and began to say the rosary. The ‘lady’ appeared at the beginning of the second decade. Bernadette sprinkled some of the Holy Water over the apparition and told her that if she came from God she was to stay but if not then she must go. The vision started to smile and bow and the more Bernadette sprinkled the holy water, the more the ‘lady’ smiled and bowed. When the rosary was finished the vision had disappeared.

The Third Apparition: 18 February 1858

This time Bernadette was accompanied by two women who had also advised her to take some paper and ink to ask the ‘lady’ to write down any message that she wanted to give. Bernadette did this but the vision smiled and said that it was not necessary to write down what she had to say. She asked Bernadette if she would be gracious enough to come to the Grotto for a fortnight. Bernadette told her that she would. She also told Bernadette that she did not promise to make her happy in this world but in the next.

The Fourth Apparition: 19 February 1858

This time Bernadette came with a lighted candle from which came the custom of carrying lighted candles to the grotto. Eight people were present on this occasion including Bernadette’s mother and two of her aunts. The ‘lady’ asked Bernadette to leave her candle there (at the grotto) to which Bernadette replied that it wasn’t her candle but that she would ask permission to do so.

The Fifth Apparition: 20 February 1858

Thirty people were with Bernadette on this day. She later reported that the ‘lady’ had taught her a prayer (which she said every day of her life but didn’t ever write down or repeat to anyone). The news of the apparitions was now spreading to other towns and many people were assuming that the apparition was that of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

The Sixth Apparition: 21 February 1858

Over 100 people came to the sixth apparition and Bernadette was later questioned by the police commissioner, Dominique Jacomet.

The Seventh Apparition: 23 February 1858

There were about 150 people with Bernadette this time. Bernadette later said that the ‘lady’ had told her a secret which was for her alone. She didn’t ever reveal this secret to anyone.

The Eighth Apparition: 24 February 1858

About 250 people were present when Bernadette received the message “Penance! Penance! Penance! Pray to God for sinners. Kiss the ground as an act of penance for sinners!”

The Ninth Apparition: 25 February 1858

The ‘lady’ told Bernadette to go and drink at the fountain and wash herself. Since she could see no fountain, Bernadette went to the Gave (the river) but the ‘lady’ said it was not there and pointed under the rock. Bernadette found a small amount of muddy water. However she obeyed the vision and scratched at the ground. At the fourth attempt she had something she was able to drink. The ‘lady’ also made her eat some of the grass growing in the same place. A day later the spring began to flow.

The Tenth Apparition: 27 February 1858

The news was spreading. About 800 people came to the tenth apparition.

The Eleventh Apparition: 28 February 1858

The crowd had increased to about 1,000 people. Bernadette was questioned again after this apparition, this time by Judge Ribes.

The Twelfth Apparition: 1 March 1858

Almost 1,500 people came to the twelfth apparition. Catherine Latapie reported that after bathing her paralyzed arm in the spring it was instantly cured. This is the first known healing miracle of Lourdes.

The Thirteenth Apparition: 2 March 1858

The ‘lady’ commanded Saint Bernadette to ask the Priests to build a chapel and to have people come in procession. Accompanied by her two aunts, Bernadette went to the parish priest, Father Peyramale, to pass on the message. Father Peyramale didn’t really believe in the apparitions and said that the request for a chapel and processions could not be complied with unless he knew the lady’s name. He called Bernadette a liar and forbade her to go to the Grotto. Bernadette was determined and approached him again with one of his own friends. The parish clergy thoroughly questioned her but couldn’t decide how to handle the matter. After consulting the Bishop of Tarbes, Father Peyramale was instructed to stay away from the grotto.

The Fourteenth Apparition: 3 March 1858

The vision repeated her request for a chapel to be built. Bernadette asked for the vision’s name but said later that, in response to the question, the ‘lady’ had merely bowed a little and smiled.

The Fifteenth Apparition: 4 March 1858

Over 9,000 people watched Saint Bernadette ask the vision who she was but the ‘lady’ only smiled again at the question.

The Sixteenth Apparition: 25 March 1858

This time, when asked who she was, the ‘lady’ stopped smiling. With her arms down she raised her eyes to heaven and then, folding her hands over her breast she said, “I am the Immaculate Conception”.

The Seventeenth Apparition: 7 April 1858

On this occasion, whilst deep in prayer, the flame of Bernadette’s candle was touching her hand for about fifteen minutes. However, she felt no pain and there were no burn marks on her skin. After coming out of the ecstasy of deep prayer the town physician, Romaine Dozous, who had been watching the phenomenon, experimented with bringing the candle flame close to Bernadette’s hand but she drew it back quickly in pain.

The Eighteenth Apparition: 16 July 1858

By now the grotto had been barricaded in by the local government and Saint Bernadette knelt outside the fence by the riverbank. She later said, “I thought I was at the Grotto, at the same distance as I was the other times. All I saw was Our Lady… She was more beautiful than ever.”

Bernadette discovers her vocation

After the apparitions, Saint Bernadette withdrew to the hospital run by the sisters of Charity of Nevers. It was here that she discovered her vocation and entered the order in 1866.

She went to live in the convent at Nevers where she died, aged 35, on 16 April 1879. On 2 June 1925, Pope Pius XI declared her ‘Blessed’ and, on 8 December 1933, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, he solemnly read out the declaration of her canonisation.

Why I find Saint Bernadette inspiring

A reflection from someone in our young Catholic community

There are lots of reasons why I love this little girl from Lourdes! One is how her story so clearly to me shows how God works on a level that is beyond what we can see. St Bernadette is famous for the miracle of Lourdes; the Apparition of Our Lady stating that she was the Immaculate Conception.

This is remarkable because only four years before did Pope Pius IX declare the dogma that Our Lady was Immaculately Conceived. There is no way that this poor, uneducated girl from rural France would have known that this teaching was reverberating throughout the Church. Instead, by being faithful to the words spoken to her, Bernadette shows how the Holy Spirit is always moving to direct and inspire the Church towards Truth.

It both reassures and encourages me that God is working more behind the scenes than we really see, from the top of the Church and its theological teaching, right the way down to the little and inconsequential people we sometimes see ourselves to be. God can and does work in us all.

I also love how Bernadette is an example of sheer persistence. Despite what people thought of her, and what she was saying and doing, Saint Bernadette still did just what Our Lady asked of her. It takes great courage to go against the crowd, and I find that her example inspires me to want to do the same.