St. Bernadette – Our Patron Saint
She was born on January 7, 1844 at Bartres in the foothills of the Pyrennes Mountains in southern France. She was the oldest of six children, and although baptised as Marie Bernarde was known by nickname “Bernadette”. Her father, Francis Soubirous, was a miller, and in 1844 he rented a mill of his own. Neither Francis nor his wife Louise were good managers and the family was forced into dire poverty. At the date of the first apparition of Our Lady to Bernadette (11 February 1858), her family were living in a dark, airless basement of a dilapidated building in the rue des Petits Fosses in Los.
Bernadette had precarious health, afflicted with asthma and other ailments. When Our Lady first appeared to her, Bernadette was fourteen years of age but had not made her first holy communion and was regarded as a very dull pupil. She was known, however, to be good, obedient and kind to her younger brothers and sisters, despite her poor health.
Starting on 11 February, 1858 Bernadette had eighteen visions at the grotto of Massabielle, beside the River Gave, just outside the town of Lourdes. By March 4 crowds accompanying her had grown to 200,000 people and the local civil and church authorities became concerned and tried to bully and discourage her. Bernadette persisted in coming to the grotto. The Lady of her visions instructed Bernadette to scratch at a spot near the grotto where a little pool was formed which overflowed the following day and became a stream which has flowed ever since. She was told by the Lady to ask the priests to build a chapel on this spot. On March 25 the Lady told Bernadette, in her local dialect “I am the Immaculate Conception.”
These are Bernadette’s own words about the visions taken from a letter which she wrote later in her life:
“One day, when I had gone with the two girls to collect wood by the bank of the river Gave, I heard a sound. I turned toward the meadow and saw that the trees were not moving at all. I looked up and saw a grotto. And I saw a Lady wearing a white dress with a blue sash. On each foot she had a yellow rose; her rosary was the same colour.
When I saw her, I rubbed my eyes. I thought I must be mistaken. I put my hands in my pocket, where I kept my rosary. I wanted to make the sign of the cross, but I could not lift my hand to my forehead; it fell back. Then the Lady crossed herself. I again tried, and although my hand was trembling, I was eventually able to make the sign of the cross. I began to say my rosary. The Lady slipped the beads of her rosary through her fingers, but she did not move her lips. When I finished the rosary, she immediately disappeared.
I asked the two girls if they had seen anything. They said, “No”, and asked what I had to tell them. I told them that I had seen a Lady wearing a white dress but that I did not know who she was. But I warned them to keep silent about it. Then they urged me not to go back there, but I refused. I went back on Sunday, feeling drawn by an inner force.
The Lady spoke to me a third time and asked me if I was willing to come to her over a period of a fortnight. I replied that I was. She added that I must tell the priests to have a chapel built there. Then she told me to drink at the spring. Not seeing any spring I was going to drink from the Gave. She told me that she did not mean that, and pointed with her finger to the spring. When I went there I saw only a little dirty water. I put my hand in it, but I could not get hold of any. I scratched, and at last a little water came for drinking. Three times I threw it away; the fourth time I was able to drink it. Then the vision disappeared, and I went away.
I went back there for fifteen days, and each day the Lady appeared to me, with the exception of a Monday and a Friday. She reminded me again to tell the priests to build the chapel, asked me to wash in the spring, and to pray for the conversion of sinners. I asked her several times who she was, but she gently smiled at me. Finally she held her arms outstretched and raised her eyes to heaven and told me that she was the Immaculate Conception.
During that fortnight she also revealed three secrets to me, and forbade me to disclose them to anyone. I have kept them faithfully to this day.”
Bernadette was subjected to a number of difficult interrogations by local State and Church officials, as a result of these visions but she emerged with her story unshaken. The apparitions and the popular excitement which accompanied them eventually had some effect in relieving her family’s poverty, as her father eventually found reasonable employment. Apart from the spiritual consolation of the apparitions which had lasted less than five months, Bernadette suffered great embarrassment from the ceaseless and indiscreet questioning of people, which left her no peace. From 1861 to 1866, Bernadette lived, for protection, with the religious sisters at the local hospital. She was advised to join the Sisters of Notre-Dame of Nevers where she spent the rest of her life. Separation from her family and from her grotto caused her much emotional pain but with her fellow-novices at Nevers she was happy, while still remaining a humble and obedient young woman. Her ill health continued and, within four months of her arrival at Nevers, she received the last sacraments and was permitted to take her first vows. Bernadette recovered sufficiently to become infirmarian and later sacristan at her convent. Her asthma never lost its grip, however, and, during the months before she died, she suffered great physical pain.
Bernadette died on April 16, 1879 aged thirty-five years. After leaving Lourdes, she was cut off completely from its development as a centre for pilgrimage and she was not present for the consecration of the new great church or basilica near her grotto in 1876.
St. Bernadette was canonized (made an official Saint by the Church in 1933), not because she saw visions and experienced trances, but because of her total commitment to Christ in simplicity, strength and trust. Her feast day is April 16 and that of Our Lady of Lourdes is February 11.
The nave of our parish church has a beautiful wooden statue of Bernadette in peasant clothes, and there is a magnificent stained glass window above the gallery, of Our Lady appearing to St. Bernadette.