Saint Marie-Bernarde Soubirous (Gascon name: Bernadeta Sobirós; 7 January 1844 – 16 April 1879) was a miller's daughter born in Lourdes, France and is venerated as a Christian mystic and Saint in the Catholic Church.
Soubirous is best known for her Marian apparitions of "a small young lady" who asked for a chapel to be built at a cave-grotto in Massabielle where the apparitions occurred between 11 February and 16 July 1858. She would later receive recognition when the lady who appeared to her identified herself as the Immaculate Conception.
Despite initial skepticism from the Catholic Church, Soubirous's claims were eventually declared "worthy of belief" after a canonical investigation, and the Marian apparition is now known asOur Lady of Lourdes. Since her death, Soubirous's body has apparently remained internally incorrupt, but it is not without blemish; during her third exhumation in 1925, the firm of Pierre Imans made light wax coverings for her face and her hands due to the discoloration that her skin has undergone. These masks were placed on her face and hands before she was moved to her crystal reliquary in June 1925.
The Marian shrine at Nevers (Bourgogne, France) went on to become a major pilgrimage site, attracting over five million Christian pilgrims of all denominations each year.
On 8 December 1933, she was canonized by Pope Pius XI as a saint in the Catholic Church; her Feast Day is observed on April 16. She is considered a Christian mystic.
Early stages in her life
By the time of the events at the grotto, her family's financial and social status had declined to the point where they lived in a one-room basement, called le cachot, "the dungeon," where they were housed for free by her mother's cousin, Andre Sajoux. On 11 February 1858, Bernadette, then aged 14, was out gathering firewood and bones with her sister Marie and a friend near the grotto of Massabielle (Tuta de Massavielha) when she had her first vision. As she recounted later, while the other girls crossed the little stream in front of the grotto and walked on, Bernadette stayed behind, looking for a place to cross where she wouldn't get her stockings wet. She finally sat down in the grotto to take her shoes off in order to cross the water and was lowering her first stocking when she heard the sound of rushing wind, but nothing moved. A wild rose in a natural niche in the grotto, however, did move. From the niche, or rather the dark alcove behind it, "came a dazzling light, and a white figure." This was the first of 18 visions of what she referred to as aquero (pronounced [aˈk(e)ɾɔ]), Gascon Occitan for "that". In later testimony, she called it "a small young lady" (uo petito damizelo). Her sister and her friend stated that they had seen nothing.
On 14 February, after Sunday mass, Bernadette, with her sister Marie and some other girls, returned to the grotto. Bernadette knelt down immediately, saying she saw aquero again and falling into a trance. When one of the girls threwholy water at the niche and another threw a rock from above that shattered on the ground, the apparition disappeared. Bernadette fell into a state of shock and the girl who had thrown the rock thought she had killed her. On her next visit, 18 February, she said that "the vision" asked her to return to the grotto every day for a fortnight.
This period of almost daily visions came to be known as la Quinzaine sacrée, "holy fortnight." Initially, her parents, especially her mother, were embarrassed and tried to forbid her to go. The local police commissioner called her into his office and threatened to arrest her, as did the district attorney, but since there was no evidence of fraud there was little they could do. The girl herself remained stubbornly calm and consistent during her interrogations, never changing her story or her attitude, and never claiming knowledge beyond what she said the vision told her. The supposed apparition did not identify herself until the seventeenth vision, although the townspeople who believed she was telling the truth assumed she saw the Virgin Mary. Bernadette never claimed it to be Mary, consistently using the word aquero. She described the lady as wearing a white veil, a blue girdle and with a yellow rose on each foot — compatible with "a description of any statue of the Virgin in a village church".
Bernadette's story caused a sensation with the townspeople who were divided in their opinions on whether or not Bernadette was telling the truth. Some believed her to have a mental illness and demanded she be put in an asylum. 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 reported visions were simple and focused on the need for prayer and penance. On 24 February, she reported that aquero had said Penitenço ... Penitenço ... Penitenço ("penance"). That day Bernadette kissed the muddy ground of the grotto. The next day she went further, and during her trance, chewed and ate grass she plucked from the ground. She then rubbed mud over her face and swallowed some mud, to the disgust of the many onlookers and the embarrassment of those who believed in her visions. She explained that the vision had told her "to drink of the water of the spring, to wash in it and to eat the herb that grew there," as an act of penance. To everyone's surprise, the next day the grotto was no longer muddy but clear water flowed.
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" that failed to find any other explanation. The Lourdes Commission that examined Bernadette after the visions also ran an intensive analysis on the water and found that, while it had a high mineral content, it contained 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.
On 2 March, at the thirteenth of the alleged apparitions, 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 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 by asking her to perform a miracle. He requested that she make the rose bush beneath the niche flower on the last week of February.
Her 16th claimed vision, which she stated went on for over an hour, was on 25 March. During this vision the "miracles of the candle" is reported to have occurred. Bernadette was holding a lit 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 happened. The doctor then said that he briefly applied a lit 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 woman for her name but the lady just smiled back. She repeated the question three more times and finally heard the lady say, in Gascon Occitan, "I am the Immaculate Conception" (Qué soï era immaculado councepcioũ, a phonetic transcription of Que soi era immaculada concepcion). Four years earlier, Pope Pius IX had defined the dogma 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. Her parents, teachers and priests all later testified that she had never previously heard the expression 'immaculate conception' from them.
Some of the people who interviewed her after 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 have claimed visions and mystical experiences are now judged by Church authorities.