Lourdes was originally a small market town lying in the foothills of the Pyrenees. At that time, the most prominent feature was the fortified castle that rises up from the center of the town on a rocky escarpment. Following the claims that there were apparitions of Our Lady of Lourdes to Bernadette Soubirous in 1858, Lourdes has developed into a major place of Christian pilgrimage. The 150th Jubilee of the apparitions is in 2008, and larger crowds than usual are expected to visit.
Today Lourdes has a population of around 15,001 inhabitants but is able to take in some 5,000,000 pilgrims and tourists every season. With about 270 hotels, Lourdes has the second greatest number of hotels in France after Paris.
It is the joint seat of the diocese of Tarbes-et-Lourdes.
Lourdes lies at an altitude of 420 m (1,375 ft) and in a central position through which runs the fast-flowing river the Gave de Pau from the south coming from its source at Gavarnie, into which flow several smaller rivers from Barèges and Cauterets. The Gave then branches off to the west towards the Béarn, running past the banks of the Grotto and on downstream to Pau and then Biarritz.
On land bordered by a loop of the Gave de Pau is an outcrop of rock called Massabielle, (from masse vieille: "old mass"). On the northern aspect of this rock, near the riverbank, is a naturally occurring, irregularly shaped shallow cave or grotto, in which the apparitions of 1858 took place.
During the 8th century, Lourdes and its fortress became the focus of skirmishes between Mirat, the local leader, and Charlemagne, King of the Franks. Charlemagne had been laying siege to Mirat in the fortress for some time, but the Moor had so far refused to surrender. According to legend, an eagle unexpectedly appeared and dropped an enormous trout at the feet of Mirat. It was seen as such a bad omen that Mirat was persuaded to surrender to the Queen of the sky by the local bishop. He visited the Black Virgin of Puy to offer gifts, so he could make sure this was the best course of action and, astounded by its exceptional beauty, he decided to surrender the fort and convert to Christianity. On the day of his baptism, Mirat took on the name of Lorus, which was given to the town, now known as Lourdes.
After being the residency of the Bigorre counts, Lourdes was given to England by the Brétigny Treaty which bought a temporary peace to France during the course of the Hundred Years War with the result that the French lost the town to the English, from 1360. In 1405, Charles VI laid siege to the castle during the course of the Hundred Years War and eventually captured the town from the English following the 18-month siege. Later, during the late 16th century, France was ravaged with the Wars of Religion between the Roman Catholics and the Huguenots. In 1569, Count Gabriel de Montgomery attacked the nearby town of Tarbes when Queen Jeanne d’Albret of Navarre established Protestantism there. The town was overrun, in 1592, by forces of the Catholic League and the Catholic faith was re-established in the area. In 1607, Lourdes finally became part of the Kingdom of France.
The castle became a jail under Louis XV but, in 1789, the General Estates Assembly ordered the liberation of prisoners. Following the rise of Napoleon in 1803, he again made the Castle an Estate jail. Towards the end of the Peninsular War between France, Spain, Portugal, and Britain in 1814, British and Allied forces, under the Duke of Wellington, entered France and took control of the region and followed Marshall Soult’s army, defeating the French near the adjoining town of Tarbes before the final battle took place outside Toulouse on 10 April 1814 which brought the war to an end.
Up until 1858, Lourdes was a quiet, modest, county-town with a population of only some 4,000 inhabitants. The castle was occupied by an infantry garrison. The town was a place people passed through on their way to the waters at Barèges, Cauterets, Luz-Saint-Sauveur and Bagnères-de-Bigorre, and for the first mountaineers on their way to Gavarnie, when the events which were to change its history took place. On 11 February 1858, a 14-year-old local girl, Bernadette Soubirous, claimed a beautiful lady appeared to her in the remote Grotto of Massabielle. The lady later identified herself as "the Immaculate Conception" and the faithful believe her to be the Blessed Virgin Mary. The lady appeared 18 times, and by 1859 thousands of pilgrims were visiting Lourdes. A statue of Our Lady of Lourdes was erected at the site in 1864. See Our Lady of Lourdes for more details on the apparitions.
Since the apparitions, Lourdes has become one of the world's leading Catholic Marian shrines and the number of visitors grows each year. It has such an important place within the Roman Catholic church, that Pope John Paul II visited the shrine twice on 15 August 1983 and 14-15 August 2004. In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI authorized special indulgences to mark the 150th anniversary of Our Lady of Lourdes.
An estimated 200 million people have visited the shrine since 1860 , and the Roman Catholic Church has officially recognized 67 miracle healings. Especially impressive are candlelight and sacrament processions. Tours from all over the world are organized to visit the Sanctuary. Connected with this pilgrimage is often the consumption of or bathing in the Lourdes water which wells out of the Grotto.
At the time of the apparitions the grotto was on common land which was used by the villagers variously for pasturing animals, collecting firewood and as a garbage dump, and it possessed a reputation for being an unpleasant place.
The HNDL is active in Lourdes during the main pilgrimage season (which normally lasts from Easter until November), and it also provides people to welcome pilgrims at the Piscines (Baths) during the winter. Pilgrimage groups are associated with many different organisations and charities. Many are from a specific region (for example British pilgrims generally travel with their own diocese or archdiocese), while others are based around a specific type of pilgrim. An example of this is the UK's Handicapped Children's Pilgrimage Trust (HCPT). HCPT takes disabled children and their carers on pilgrimage to Lourdes. HCPT groups are numbered, e.g. group 83 which leaves from Coventry. Another example is the Catholic Association Pilgrimage, which includes various dioceses, the Carmelites and groups under one umbrella.
The Ukrainian Catholic church is located on 8 Rue de l'Ukraine, 65100 Lourdes, France
Since the earliest of the apparitions, Lourdes has been the subject of intense debate regarding their nature. The earliest investigators, including the priest Abbé Dominique Peyramale, and the Police Commissioner M. Dominique Jacomet, were both initially convinced they were dealing with a hoax (each later changed his mind), and several researchers have since called several aspects of the Lourdes phenomenon into question.
Modern Lourdes has no shortage of glitz on display. Some visitors may dislike the commercialism practised in parts of Lourdes, with neon-emblazoned gift shops overflowing with what Malcolm Muggeridge, although a supporter of the shrine, called "tawdry relics, the bric-a-brac of piety". Critics argue that the Lourdes phenomenon is nothing more than a significant money spinner for the town and the region, which therefore has a strong vested interest in keeping the pilgrims coming; however, the trinket shops are privately owned, and hawkers and souvenir stalls are strictly forbidden inside the sanctuary itself.
Although the town is most famous for its shrines it is also notable for its Rugby union team, FC Lourdes which during the mid-twentieth century was one of the most successful teams in France, winning the national championship 8 times from 1948 to 1968. Their most famous player is Jean Prat who represented his country 51 times.