February 11th is an important day in the Catholic Church. To understand why, we need to go back to the year 1858 and what was then the small garrison town of Lourdes, France. Home to about four thousand people at that time, Lourdes is located in the foothills of the Pyrenees on the River Gave de Pau, just 100 km from the border of Spain.1 It was here, on Feb. 11th, that the Blessed Virgin Mary first appeared to a 14-year old peasant girl named Bernadette Soubirous.
Bernadette’s Family Background and Early Life
Bernadette was born into a family that had fallen on hard times. Her father, François, was a miller, and for a time he had been able to provide a comfortable life for his family. However, a variety of circumstances had brought about a change of fortune. There was a two-year drought and crops were poor. Famine struck, and in 1854, the family was turned out of their home at the Boly Mill. To add to their troubles, François was accused of stealing two sacks of flour from the mill. He was imprisoned for eight days, and although the charges were ultimately dismissed, his reputation was ruined. Destitute and with no prospect of work, the Soubirous family was reduced to living in a cold, dark, one-room house called Le Cachot (the “lock-up”). Once used as a jail, the 12-foot square building had been abandoned in 1824 for sanitary reasons.
The owner of Le Cachot, André Sajous wrote, “The room was dark … In the backyard was the privy which overflowed and made the place stink. We kept the dung–heap there … The Soubirous were destitute: two poor beds, one on the right as you entered, and the other on the same side nearer to the fireplace … They had only a little trunk to put all their linen in … My wife lent them some chemises: they were full of vermin … She often gave them a bit of bread made of millet. Yet the little ones never asked for anything. They would rather have starved.”2
In the midst of their poverty, however, the Soubirous family held fast to their faith. They prayed together each evening and attended Mass frequently, often helping at the Sunday parish services.
Bernadette, the oldest of the Soubirous children,had always been sickly.3 Stricken by cholera at the age of 11, she later developed severe asthma. Because of her ill health, Bernadette couldn’t go to school, and thus could barely read or write. She spent her days working at home. For a short time, her family sent her to Bartrès (4 kilometres away) where she worked on a farm, minding the sheep. It was one less mouth to feed, but Bernadette missed them terribly and begged to be allowed to come home. Through it all, she continued to have deep faith in God.
On Feb. 11th, 1858, Bernadette, her sister Marie-Toinette, and their friend, Jeanne went to collect firewood. They headed outside the town to a hill called Massabielle, on the banks of the River Gave de Pau.4 The grotto – a small cave at the foot of the hill – had a reputation for being an unpleasant place. It was here that the villagers collected their firewood, pastured their animals, and dumped their garbage. “[It was] a dirty, hidden, damp and cold place that was called the ‘pigs’ shelter’ because that was where the pigs feeding in the area usually took shelter.”5
When they arrived, the other two girls quickly kicked off their shoes and waded across the icy, cold stream. However, Bernadette hesitated because of her chronic asthma. Then, as she stooped over to remove her stockings, she heard what sounded like a strong wind.
Looking towards the grotto, Bernadette saw a young and incredibly beautiful Lady standing in a golden cloud at the entrance to the cave, just over the place where a wild rosebush was growing. The Lady was dressed all in white and had a blue sash around her waist. She had a white veil and two yellow roses on her bare feet. The Lady put out her hands and Bernadette saw that she had a large white rosary on a golden chain on her right arm. She inclined her head towards Bernadette as though inviting her to approach. Although Bernadette was frightened, she didn’t run away. Instead, she took out her rosary – which she always carried with her wherever she went – and began to recite the prayers. When she finished – about 15 minutes later – the Lady suddenly disappeared.
This was the first of a total of 18 times that Our Blessed Lady would appear to Bernadette, the last apparition taking place on July 16, 1858. News of the miraculous appearances quickly spread, and people began to flock to the grotto. Although Bernadette’s face was transformed whenever the Lady would appear, no one else ever saw the Lady or heard her speak.
Message of Our Lady of Lourdes
When Bernadette asked the beautiful Lady who she was, she answered that she was the “Immaculate Conception.” Bernadette did not understand the significance of the title, but others did. The Church had declared the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary just a few years earlier, in 1854.6 Mary asked Bernadette to pray for sinners and to tell the people to repent.
Mary also told Bernadette to bring a candle whenever she came to pray at the Grotto. On one occasion, Bernadette unconsciously placed one of her hands over the flame of the candle. The people around her cried out in shock, but Bernadette didn’t even notice. She continued to pray for at least 15 minutes while the flame burned through her hand. Yet when she finished, she was completely unharmed.7 Today, candles always burn at the entrance to the Grotto.
During her ninth visit, Mary instructed Bernadette to dig in the ground. “Go drink at the spring and wash yourself there,” she said. Bernadette was confused; there was no natural spring anywhere nearby. But wanting to be obedient to Mary’s command, she bent down and began to scratch in the gravel. Before long, Bernadette noticed that the ground beneath her was moist and a little pool was beginning to form. She cupped her hands together, drank, and washed her face. Although the water was muddy at first, it soon became clear, and by the next day the pool was overflowing. Today, 27,000 gallons of water gush from the miraculous spring each day. A chapel was built there in response to Mary’s request, and people have made their way to the Church in a torchlight procession every evening since 1872.
Lourdes and Our Blessed Mother
Lourdes is a place of hope and healing. Mary’s appearances there were a sign of the care and concern that she has for all those who are sick and suffering. From the earliest days, the sick have drank and bathed in its waters. Millions come each year seeking healing for both soul and body. The Church has investigated over 7000 cases of reported miracles over the years, 69 of which have been attributed to the miraculous healing properties of the waters.8 People have had their sight restored, bone diseases have been cured, and many who were previously unable to walk have left completely healed.9 Yet Bernadette did not attribute any miraculous properties to the water itself, saying, “This water is considered as a drug … but you have to keep the faith and pray: this water couldn’t do anything without faith!”10
Today, we turn to our Blessed Mother to ask her to be near us, to pray for us. Through her intercession, we pray that our hearts and minds, our bodies and souls might be healed. As we turn to her, may we always have faith and confidence in her loving care, and may we always be ready to hide ourselves within the folds of her protective mantle.
– Sharon van der Sloot
PRAYER TO OUR LADY OF LOURDES
Oh ever immaculate Virgin, Mother of Mercy, Health of the Sick, Refuge of Sinners, Comfortess of the Afflicted, you know my wants, my troubles, my sufferings. Look upon me with mercy. When you appeared in the grotto of Lourdes, you made it a privileged sanctuary where you dispense your favors, and where many sufferers have obtained the cure of their infirmities, both spiritual and corporal. I come, therefore, with unbounded confidence to implore your maternal intercession. My loving Mother, obtain my request. I will try to imitate your virtues so that I may one day share your company and bless you in eternity. Amen.11
1 Today, Lourdes has a population of about 15,000 people.
2 “Bernadette at Lourdes,” Catholic Pilgrims of Mary and Jesus; available from http://www.catholicpilgrims.com/lourdes/bc_bernadette_lourdes.htm; Internet; accessed 12 February 2014.
3 Bernadette had 6 brothers and 2 sisters, but only 3 of her siblings lived past the age of 10.
4 Massabieille means “old mass” or “old rock.” It refers to an outcropping of rock on land that borders a loop in the River Gave de Pau.
5 Cf. “The Message of Lourdes,” The Diocese of Lancaster – England; available from http://www.lancasterdiocese.org.uk/Groups/221962/The_Diocese_of/People_and_Places/Pilgrimages/Lourdes/The_Message_of/The_Message_of.aspx; Internet; accessed 12 February 2014.
6 The dogma of the Immaculate Conception of Mary states that she was preserved from the stain of original sin from the moment of her conception in the womb of her mother, St. Anne.
7 “The Apparitions of Our Lady of Lourdes, France,” Medjugorje USA; available from http://www.medjugorjeusa.org/lourdes.htm; Internet; accessed 12 February 2014.
8 “Lourdes shrine officially records 69th miracle,” Catholic News Agency (CNA) [news service on-line]; available from http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/lourdes-officially-records-69th-miracle/; Internet; accessed 11 February 2014.
9 List of Approved Lourdes Miracles, The Miracle Hunter; available from http://www.miraclehunter.com/marian_apparitions/approved_apparitions/lourdes/miracles1.html; Internet; accessed 11 February 2014.
10 “The Water,” Sanctuaires Notre-Dame de Lourdes; available from http://en.lourdes-france.org/deepen/the-signs-of-lourdes/the-water; Internet; accessed 12 February 2014.
11 “Prayer to our Lady of Lourdes,” Catholic Online; available from http://www.catholic.org/prayers/prayer.php?p=320; Internet; accessed 12 February 2014.