Saint Bernadette of Lourdes
When Bernadette was 10, her father lost his job and became a day laborer. But many days he found no work. So the family of six had to move into an old, empty jail. Its dampness made Bernadette’s asthma worse.
During this time, Bernadette and her sister, Toinette, gathered bones, wood, or scrap iron to sell to a rag-picker for a few pennies. Because of this, Bernadette got little education.
Then, on February 11, 1858, when Bernadette was 14, something extraordinary happened. She and Toinette and another girl had gone out into the countryside to gather wood in the drizzling rain.
To gather free wood, they had to cross the River Gave. But Bernadette, with her asthma, could not cross the icy waters. So she sat by a rocky cliff with a small grotto carved out at the bottom. It was there that a Lady appeared to her that day.
The next week, the Lady appeared again. Then, for 15 days, from February 18 to March 4, Bernadette returned to the grotto and the Lady returned too. As the days passed, the city leaders interviewed Bernadette and threatened to put her in jail if she persisted in going to the grotto.
Today is March 25, 1858. I am with Bernadette. My name is Tracy. Like everyone else in town, I want to find out who this Lady is.
(It is 5:00 A.M. and the two of us are headed out of town toward the River Gave.)
Tracy: Why are we going to the grotto today? You haven’t seen the Lady or been there since March 4. Why today?
Bernadette: I woke up and felt a need to see her.
Tracy: But the police commissioner might arrest you! He’s hauled you into his office for days! He could put you in jail for doing this!
Bernadette: I cannot worry about that.
Tracy: What does he want from you?
Bernadette: He wants me to tell him who the Lady is. But I don’t know her name. She hasn’t told me.
Tracy: Will you ask her today?
Bernadette: Yes. Father Peyramale told me that I must find out her name before he will build the chapel at the grotto.
Tracy: What chapel?
Bernadette: The one the Lady asked for on March 2!
(We start down the rough path toward the grotto. Since the first visit of the Lady, people have gathered there. Even this early in the morning we see a crowd with candles. They bring bottles with them for the water that comes from the spring the Lady told Bernadette about.)
Tracy: Look at all those people! I hear there have been miracles with the water!
Bernadette: I know nothing of that. I know only that the Lady told me to drink at the spring and wash myself. I did not see any water, so I went further into the grotto. But I found only a little water, like mud. Then I dug in the ground. I did not like to drink the muddy water, but I did.
Tracy: Why? I would have thrown up!
Bernadette: The Lady told me to! She is so beautiful. I wish I had words to say how wonderful she is!
Tracy: What does she look like?
Bernadette: Oh, I have answered that question so many times! What I saw was something white, with a gentle smile. She came to me after I heard a noise like a gust of wind.
Tracy: That’s like at Pentecost! The Holy Spirit came with a gust of wind. Is it the same do you think?
Bernadette: I do not know. I know only that the Lady is there and she smiles at me and we say the rosary together.
Tracy: Most people think she is the Blessed Virgin Mary. Is that what you think?
Bernadette: I do not know. I know only that she smiles at me. And I know that when I asked her name on February 18, the Lady said, “It is not necessary.” So I did not ask again.
(We are near the grotto now, a small group of people approaches us.)
A Woman: Bernadette! Bless my baby!
Bernadette: Father Peyramale blesses babies. Not me!
A Man: Bernadette! Touch my hand. It’s paralyzed, and I can’t use it to cut stone anymore.
Bernadette: Pray to God for help! I know nothing of healing hands.
Another Woman: Bernadette! The water healed my son! Take this money!
(The woman presses three coins into Bernadette’s hand. But Bernadette drops them to the ground.)
Bernadette: No! They burn me!
(The people move away. Now I can see the spring from which clear water flows. It is at the back of the grotto. People say that this miraculous water brings healing. Now Bernadette kneels and faces the rocky shelf on which she says the Lady appears. I kneel next to her. Bernadette is still. Then her face becomes quite beautiful—peaceful, calm. The rosary beads slip through her fingers, one by one. She moves her lips, but I hear nothing. Finally, Bernadette stands and we begin to walk back the way we have come.)
Tracy: Well, what did she say?
Bernadette: I must not forget! I do not know the words! I must not forget!
Tracy: What did she say?
Bernadette: I must hurry and tell Father Peyramale before I forget! I must not forget as I did when the Lady asked for processions to come to her.
Tracy: What did she say?
(Bernadette does not answer. When we come to the rectory, I wait outside while Bernadette goes in. She stays inside for only a short while. Then she comes out, looking puzzled.)
Tracy: Did you tell him?
Bernadette: I told him, but he seemed angry. He said it could not be. I do not understand.
(Bernadette and I leave the crowd behind and walk toward the old jail.)
Tracy: What did the Lady say her name was?
Bernadette: She said words I do not understand.
Bernadette: She said “I am the Immaculate Conception.”
Tracy: Then it is the Blessed Virgin!
Bernadette: How do you know that the Lady is Mary? What do the words mean to you?
In 1854, Pope Pius IX defined the dogma of Mary’s Immaculate Conception. This dogma means that the Church believes that Mary was conceived without sin. She was, by nature, good.
But because Bernadette had little schooling, she did not know about the dogma. Only after interviewing her and other people for long hours over many years, did the Church finally say that Mary—the Immaculate Conception—had, indeed, appeared to Bernadette, the poor child of Lourdes.
In 1866, at the age of 22, Bernadette became a sister of Notre Dame. (These French words mean “Our Lady.) In 1879, at the age of 35, she died from a long illness. The Church canonized her in 1933, and the date of her death—April 16—became her feast day.