Saint Bernadette (born Marie-Bernarde Soubirous; January 7 1844 – April 16 1879), was a miller's daughter from the town of Lourdes in southern France. From February 11 to July 16, 1858, she reported eighteen apparitions of "a Lady". Despite initial skepticism from the Catholic Church, these claims were eventually declared to be worthy of belief after a canonical investigation, and the apparition is known as Our Lady of Lourdes. After her death, Bernadette's body remained incorrupt, and the shrine at Lourdes went on to become a major site for pilgrimage, attracting millions of Catholics each year. On December 8, 1933 she was canonized as a saint by the Catholic Church; her Feast Day is celebrated on April 16.
Bernadette (the sobriquet by which she was universally known) was the daughter of François Soubirous (1807–1871), a miller, and his wife Louise (née Castérot) (1825–1866), a laundress, and was the eldest of five children who survived infancy. Louise actually gave birth to nine children (Bernadette, Jean died when born, Jean-Marie 1848–1851, Toinette 1846, Jean-Marie b. 1851, Justin 1855–1865, Bernard-Pierre b. 1859, Jean 1864–1864 and a baby girl named Louise 1866–1866). Bernadette was baptized at the local parish church, St. Pierre's, on January 9, which was her parents' wedding anniversary. Bernadette's godmother was Bernarde Casterot, her mother's sister. Hard times had fallen on France and the family lived in extreme poverty. Neighbours reported that the family lived in unusual harmony, apparently relying on their love and support for one another and their religious devotion.
Bernadette's story caused a sensation with the townspeople, who were divided in their opinions on whether or not Bernadette was telling the truth. She soon had a large number of people following her on her daily journey, some out of curiosity and others who firmly believed that they were witnessing a miracle.
The other contents of Bernadette's visions were simple, and focused on the need for prayer and penance. However, at the thirteenth of the alleged apparition on March 2, Bernadette told her family that the lady had said "Please go to the priests and tell them that a chapel is to be built here. Let processions come hither." Accompanied by two of her aunts, Bernadette duly went to parish priest Father Dominique Peyramale with the request. A brilliant but often roughspoken man with little belief in claims of visions and miracles, Peyramale told Bernadette that the lady must identify herself. Bernadette said that on her next visitation she repeated the priest's words to the lady, but that the lady bowed a little, smiled and said nothing. Then Father Peyramale told Bernadette to prove that the lady was real (that is, objectively) by asking her to perform a miracle. He requested that she make the rose bush beneath the niche where she appeared to Bernadette bud and flower in the middle of February.
As Bernadette later reported to her family and to church and civil investigators, at the ninth visitation the lady told Bernadette to drink from the spring that flowed under the rock, and eat the plants that grew freely there. Although there was no known spring, and the ground was muddy, Bernadette saw the lady pointing with her finger to the spot, and said later she assumed the lady meant that the spring was underground. She did as she was told by first digging a muddy patch with her bare hands and then attempting to drink the brackish drops. She tried three times, failing each time. On the fourth try, the droplets were clearer and she drank them. She then ate some of the plants. When finally she turned to the crowd, her face was smeared with mud and no spring had been revealed. Understandably, this caused much skepticism among onlookers who shouted, "She's a fraud!" or "She's insane!" while embarrassed relatives wiped the adolescent's face clean with a handkerchief. In the next few days, however, a spring began to flow from the muddy patch first dug by Bernadette. Some devout people followed her example by drinking and washing in the water, which was soon reported to have healing properties.
In the 150 years since Bernadette dug up the spring, 67 cures have been "verified" by the Lourdes Medical Bureau as "inexplicable", but only after what the Church claims are "extremely rigorous scientific and medical examinations" failed to find any other explanation. The Lourdes Commission which examined Bernadette after the visions also ran an intensive analysis on the water, and found that while it has a high mineral content, it contains nothing out of the ordinary that would account for the cures attributed to it. Bernadette herself said that it was faith and prayer that cured the sick.
Her 16th vision, which she stated went on for over an hour, was on March 25. During this vision, the second of two "miracles of the candle" is reported to have occurred. Bernadette was holding a lighted candle; during the vision it burned down, and the flame was said to be in direct contact with her skin for over fifteen minutes, but she apparently showed no sign of experiencing any pain or injury. This was said to be witnessed by many people present, including the town physician, Dr. Pierre Romaine Dozous, who timed and later documented it. According to his report, there was no sign that her skin was in any way affected, so he monitored Bernadette closely but did not intervene. After her "vision" ended, the doctor said that he examined her hand but found no evidence of any burning, and that she was completely unaware of what had been happening. The doctor then said that he briefly applied a lighted candle to her hand, and she reacted immediately. It is unclear if observers other than Dozous were sufficiently close to witness if the candle was continuously in contact with Bernadette’s skin.
According to Bernadette's account, during that same visitation she again asked the lady her name but the lady just smiled back. She repeated the question three more times and finally heard the lady say, in Occitan, "I am the Immaculate Conception" (Qué soï era immaculado councepcioũ, a phonetic transcription of Que soi era immaculada concepcion by someone not literate in Occitan). Four years earlier, Pope Pius IX had promulgated the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception; that, alone of all human beings who have ever lived (save for Jesus, Adam, and Eve), the Virgin Mary was conceived without the stain of original sin. However, this was not well known to Catholics at large at that time, being generally confined to discussion amongst the clergy. Those who did know about it, through devotions such as the Miraculous Medal, often assumed it referred to the Virgin Birth. It certainly was not an expression known to a simple under-educated peasant girl who could barely read. Her parents, teachers and priests all later testified that she had never previously heard the words 'immaculate conception' from them.
Bernadette was a sickly child; she had cholera in infancy and suffered most of her life from asthma, and some of the people who interviewed her following her revelation of the visions thought her simple-minded. However, despite being rigorously interviewed by officials of both the Catholic Church and the French government, she stuck consistently to her story. Her behavior during this period is said to set the example by which all who claim visions and mystical experiences are now judged by Church authorities.
Her request to the local priest to build a chapel at the site of her visions eventually gave rise to a number of chapels and churches at Lourdes. The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes is now one of the major Catholic pilgrimage sites in the world. One of the churches built at the site, the Basilica of St. Pius X can itself accommodate 25,000 people and was dedicated by the future Pope John XXIII when he was the Papal Nuncio to France.
Close to 5,000,000 pilgrims visit Lourdes (population of about 15,000) every year, with individuals and groups coming from all over the world. Within France, only Paris has more hotels than Lourdes. With 2008 being the 150th anniversary of the 1858 apprations to Bernadette, it is expected that 8,000,000 pilgrims will vistit Lourdes during the year. Lourdes is now a major center where Catholic pilgrims from around the globe reinforce their beliefs as they visit the sanctuary, hence strengthening the Catholic Church as a whole.
2009 has been declared "The Year of Bernadette".
Bishop Gauthey of Nevers and the Church exhumed the body of Bernadette Soubirous on September 22, 1909, in the presence of representatives appointed by the postulators of the cause, two doctors, and a sister of the community. They found that although the crucifix in her hand and the rosary had both oxidized, her body appeared "incorrupt"—preserved from decomposition. This was cited as one of the miracles to support her canonization. They washed and reclothed her body before burial in a new double casket.
The Church exhumed the corpse a second time on April 3, 1919. The body still appeared preserved, however, her face was slightly discolored possibly due to the washing process (by the sisters) of the first exhumation.
In 1925, the church exhumed the body for a third time. They took relics, which were sent to Rome. A precise imprint of the face was molded so that the firm of Pierre Imans in Paris could make a light wax mask based on the imprints and on some genuine photos. This was common practice for relics in France, as it was feared that although the body was uncorrupted, the blackish tinge to the face and the sunken eyes and nose would make an unpleasant impression on the public. Imprints of the hands were also taken for the presentation of the body. The remains were then placed in a gold and crystal reliquary in the Chapel of Saint Bernadette at the mother house in Nevers. The site is visited by many pilgrims and the body of Saint Bernadette to this day remains intact despite being nearly one hundred and thirty years old.