Bernadette Soubirous was born in Lourdes on 7th January 1844. She was the eldest of nine children born to Francois Soubirous and Louise Casterot. Francois was a miller, but at the time of the Apparitions, was unemployed. The family (six persons) lived in the Cachot (a disused prison cell) in considerable poverty.
Bernadette spent some of her childhood in fosterage in Bartrés (3 km from Lourdes). She stayed with her aunt and helped by looking after the sheep. In view of her poor health, this was much better than the crowded cell.
At the time of the Apparitions, early in 1858, Bernadette was 14 years old and had just returned to Lourdes to prepare for her First Communion. She was not a bright pupil and knew only a few prayers.
(1) On Thursday, llth February, 1858, Bernadette went with her sister, Toinette-Marie (11 years) and a friend, Jeanne Abadie (13 years) to collect firewood. Afraid to follow the other two across the small Savy Canal, Bernadette paused, and began to take off her stockings. She heard a gust of wind, but nothing moved. Then she saw a Lady at the Grotto nearby. “I saw a Lady dressed in white. She had a white dress girdled with a blue sash, and a yellow rose on each foot, the colour of the chain of her rosary. After that I rubbed my eyes. I thought I must be making a mistake. I put my hand in my pocket and took out my rosary. I tried to make the Sign of the Cross, but I could not lift my hand to my forehead. The Vision made the Sign of the Cross. Then my hand trembled. I tried, and was able to sign myself. I said the rosary. The Vision passed her beads through her fingers, but she did not move her lips. When I had finished my rosary, the Vision suddenly disappeared.”
(2) On Sunday, 14th February, Bernadette’s mother was persuaded by the children to allow them to revisit the Grotto. This time Bernadette sprinkled Holy Water at the Lady and she smiled in return.
(3) Thursday, 18th February. This time the Lady spoke and said, “Will you be good enough to come here every day for fifteen days?” She also confided to Bernadette: “I do not promise you the happiness of this world but of the next.”
(4) Friday, 19th February and (5) Saturday, 20th February. Bernadette’s mother reluctantly permitted further visits and accompanied her daughter to the Grotto.
(6) Sunday, 21st February. On this occasion Bernadette was seen to be in tears. She had been given a message: “Pray for Sinners.”
(7) Tuesday, 23rd February. Again the Lady appeared and spoke, and Bernadette’s ecstasy lasted an hour.
(8) Wednesday, 24th February. On this day Bernadette kissed the ground and turned to the crowd sobbing: “Penance, Penance, Penance.”
(9) Thursday, 25th February. Today Bernadette behaved very strangely. She scraped the muddy ground with her hands, and tried to drink and wash. People thought that she had gone insane. However, the Lady had said, “Go and drink at the spring and wash in it.” By next day there was a steady flow of water.
(10) Saturday, 27th February. This time Bernadette received a command: “Go tell the priests to build a chapel here.” At the Presbytery, later on, she gave the message to the Parish Priest, Abbé Peyramale. He replied that he must know the name of the Lady.
(11) Sunday, 28th February, and (12) Monday, 1st March the Lady appeared but gave no message; then, (13) Tuesday, March 2nd she gave another message for the priests: “Go and tell the priests to build a chapel here, and to come here in procession.” Poor Bernadette had to visit the Presbytery again, and once more Abbé Peyramale asked for the Lady’s identity, and for more exact information.
(14) Wednesday, 3rd March. There was no apparition in the morning, but later in the afternoon the Lady came.
(15) Thursday, 4th March. This time there was no further message, although it was the final day of the promised fifteen days.
Three weeks passed by until the Feast of the Annunciation when it was felt she would come.
(16) Thursday, 25th March. This time Bernadette felt a strong urge to ask the Lady her name, which she did four times. The Lady joined her hands over her breast, and said: “I am the Immaculate Conception.”
(17) Wednesday, 7th April. This was the Wednesday of Easter Week. Although there was no message, it was remarkable for the fact that while she was in ecstasy, a bystander held a candle flame to her fingers for fifteen minutes, without any trace of burn.
(18) Friday, 16th July, Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. Our Lady appeared for the last time even though the Grotto had been barricaded by the authorities.
After the Apparitions
Two years after the Apparitions Bernadette was sent to stay at the hospice of the Sisters of Nevers in Lourdes. There she remained until she entered the novitiate of the Order, in the town of Nevers in 1866. She left Lourdes and the Grotto, never to return. By that date, many important things had happened. In 1862 the Episcopal Commission had declared that the events at Lourdes had all the marks of truth and were worthy of belief. In 1864 the statue of Mary was placed in the Grotto and blessed. And in 1866, the Crypt, the first “Chapel”, was blessed, and Mass was celebrated there.
At Nevers, Bernadette began the life of an enclosed nun though her health was very fragile. She became a saint, not because she saw the Blessed Virgin at the Grotto, but because she showed heroic holiness during her thirteen years in the Convent in Nevers. Her path to holiness was unwittingly helped by the unusually severe treatment given her by the Mistress of Novices, Mother Marie Therese.
It was in the last three years of her life that her holiness became obvious to all. She had acted as infirmarian and assistant sacristan up to October 1875, but at that point, her poor health finally failed, and she was confined to bed for the remaining three years. A tubercular condition in the right knee combined with asthma made those years a continual agony. She died on April 16th, 1879. It is an interesting point that although many other people were cured or had their conditions eased at Lourdes, Bernadette herself always had poor health and suffered during her final years.
Bernadette Soubirous was declared Blessed in 1925 and a Saint in 1933.