What happened in Lourdes?

On 11th February 1858, a peasant girl called Bernadette Soubirous was collecting firewood when she noticed the presence of a Lady in the Grotto. The Lady would appear to her a total of 18 times. But what exactly happened in Lourdes during these 18 apparitions? Discover the story in this blog.

What happened in Lourdes?

Our Lady appears

Thursday, February 11th 1858 was the day Our Lady revealed herself to Bernadette in the grotto at Massabielle (Old Rock) by the river Gave just outside Lourdes. The grotto itself was not a particularly savoury place, full of river-swept debris and where pigs had been kept. Bernadette had gone there that morning with her sister and a friend to gather firewood and bones. They had gone on ahead, and whilst she was dithering about how to cross the river she recounts, “I began to take off my shoes and stockings. I had just removed the first stocking when I heard a noise something like a gust of wind”. As she looked up at the grotto she saw a wild rosebush moving in a breeze, whilst all else round it was still. Then appeared ‘a gentle light’ within the grotto, in which stood a beautiful young girl in a welcoming gesture.

Although fearful, Bernadette felt no compunction to run away. She tried to make the sign of the Cross, and found she could not raise her hand to her forehead. “The vision made the sign of the Cross. Then I tried a second time and I could. As soon as I made the sign of the Cross the fearful shock I felt disappeared. I knelt down and said my rosary in the presence of the beautiful lady”. Although Our Lady fingered the beads of her own rosary, she did not move her lips. She then signalled Bernadette to approach, “I did not dare”, after which Our Lady disappeared, “just like that”.

Our Lady chose to appear to Bernadette, in that same grotto, eighteen times between that first vision on February 11th and July 16th, 1858. She appeared in three distinct phases. Firstly, what are described as her three ‘inaugurational’ visions on 11th, 14th and 18th February, followed immediately by a series of apparitions during what has been called the Holy Fortnight, where during this period except for two, separate missed days, she appeared twelve times. Lastly, the ‘confirmatory’ phase, of three separate occasions, well spread from March 25th, the Feast of the Annunciation, to April 7th, and finally, Friday 16th July 1858, on the Feast of Our Lady of Carmel.

Early speculation

In a region where fairies, spirits and witches resonated alongside the devoutly religious, such happenings as initially and reluctantly reported by Bernadette, inevitably started raising curiosity, speculation, ridicule and hope amongst the varied strands of that mountain community. On the family side, Bernadette’s parents were dismayed at her revelations: on that first day her mother took the stick to Bernadette, insisting, “You didn’t see anything but a white rock. I forbid you to go back there”.

But, despite these strictures, and only after reluctant consent from her parents, Bernadette returned to the grotto three days later on Sunday 14th February, responding to the strong feeling of compulsion that would become so familiar to her over the period. She went with some young friends and took some holy water. The group started the rosary. Once again the Vision appeared, but only visible – as on all occasions – to Bernadette alone. During this apparition Bernadette sprinkled the holy water towards the apparition, challenging her, “‘If you come from God, step forward’ but, the more I sprinkled the more she smiled, and I kept sprinkling until the bottle was empty”. She also went into a state of ecstasy.

In these early stages the local clergy were indifferent to such reports, Father Peyramale, the parish priest, did no more than comment, “We must wait and see”. Her Superior at school, Mother Ursule Fardes, was more cutting after the reports of the second apparition, “Have you finished with your carnival extravaganzas?”

Our Lady speaks

Support and help unexpectedly came to Bernadette for her third visit to the grotto on Thursday 18th February. Madame Millet, a prosperous person to be reckoned with in the town, determinedly took Bernadette under her wing in an effort to establish who the beautiful lady was. This went to the lengths of pen and paper being provided, which Bernadette proffered to Our Lady during the apparition. In speaking for the first time, Our Lady simply said, “It is not necessary that I write anything down”. Then followed the words which would ring with Bernadette for the rest of her life, “I do not promise to make you happy in this world, but in the other”. Lastly, came her own request to Bernadette, noted for the strikingly courteous way in which it was put, “Would you be kind enough to come here every day for fifteen days?”. This request heralded the Holy Fortnight.

Bernadette obeys

Bernadette had no doubts in her mind that she should obey the white lady’s gracious invitation to attend her at the grotto over the next fortnight. And it seemed that no obstacle was going to deter her from this mission. For after this third visit and invitation, Bernadette seemed transformed in energy and character, despite intimidation from the authorities, scepticism and ridicule from the church, curiosity or adulation from townsfolk, and latterly throughout the region. Even the initial prohibition put on by her parents was of little effect, and as her mother sadly told a friend, “She is not usually disobedient, but she told me that she felt herself pushed to go by something that she could not explain”. This formerly shy, sickly, reticent, immature teenager, of little education and with only a basic knowledge of her faith, now, almost overnight, displayed a strong and visible sense of purpose and commitment, of which no obstacle was going to deter.

This insistence and attitude must have been enough to convince her parents and relations of her resolute intent, as, after no doubt perplexed discussion, it was reluctantly agreed that Bernadette would be allowed to visit the grotto daily. Over the next five days (19th – 23rd February) she experienced four more apparitions, the content of which – prayers and secrets – were known only to Bernadette.

Features of Apparition

Of the visible features that soon became evident during the apparitions, was the obvious signs of ecstasy and trance that Bernadette fell into as soon as Our Lady appeared. There are many eye witness reports of this, and although sentiment and romanticism can easily colour and overstate these impressions, the best witnesses that one can turn to are the arch sceptics, one of whom was a Jean-Baptiste Estrade, one of the town notables and intelligentsia, and Bernadette’s uncle by marriage. When he went to the grotto to satisfy his curiosity he reported that he saw many, “common women kneeling in prayer. I could hardly repress a smile at the facile faith of these good Christians”. It was, however, a scorn that was swiftly dispersed, for as Bernadette knelt and went into trance, she was suddenly, “…no longer Bernadette she was like an angel in prayer, reflecting in her features all of the glory of the heavens… We, positivists of the first rank, so proud until that moment, we knelt like children”.

Other indications of her transformed and trance-like state was her insensitivity to physical stimuli, the most striking example being when she obviously felt no pain or incurred no physical damage when the flame from a candle that she was shielding during an apparition continually played over her bare hands. This phenomenon was objectively observed during the seventeenth apparition by one of the town doctors, Doctor Dozous, who examined her afterwards, “Not the slightest trace of burns”.

Increasing effects

As that Holy Fortnight progressed so did events in and around the town, with actions and reactions taking on their own momentum, and they seemed to ebb and flow round Bernadette, who was the unwilling centre of attention and remained largely impassive to them. The most visible manifestation of the events was the growing numbers who soon started going to the grotto to witness the goings-on. Estimates of numbers vary widely, but indications are from the handful on 19th February, thirty on the 20th, building through three hundred and fifty on the 25th, to over sixteen hundred on the 2nd March, ending with estimates from eight to twenty thousand on the 4th March, the last day of the fortnight. With these increasing numbers grew increasing rumour and speculation as to who was appearing and for what purpose. Accounts of miracles and healings started circulating, further fuelling expectation and speculation.

Bernadette stands firm

With all this, the civic authorities started becoming concerned with the prospect of large gatherings, creating at best, congestion and crowd control problems in the town, to at worst, civic unrest giving rise to local political de-stabilisation. On 21st February Police Commissioner Dominique Jacomet sought timely pre-emption of these issues by summoning Bernadette for interview. From the written record of this interview it is obvious that Jacomet, who was not a stereotypical authoritarian, and was in fact remembered warmly by many as a man of ‘exceptional ability and integrity’ who stayed with the people during the cholera epidemic, was completely nonplussed by this person whom he initially thought to be a simple child, either suffering from delusions, or part of some conspiracy or fraudulent money-making venture.

After a long period of intense questioning it was becoming obvious that Bernadette was unshakeable in her assertions. In his frustrations Jacomet could only end the interview with threat and bluster, “I am quite willing to fix things up between us, but on one condition. Admit that you haven’t seen anything”. “Sir, I did see something. I cannot say otherwise”. In an admission of defeat on this point: “At least promise me that you will not go back to the grotto any more. This is your last chance”. “Sir, I promised to go there”. “All right then, have it your way. I am going to get the policeman to take you to prison”. Bernadette did not move. Happily for Jacomet any execution of this threat was forestalled by her father who came to take her home.

The eighth apparition on Wednesday 24th February saw Bernadette weeping bitterly, prostrating herself and kissing the ground in response to our Lady’s second spoken message, “Penance! Penance! Penance! Pray to God for sinners. Go kiss the ground for the conversion of sinners.”

The spring uncovered

But, of the apparitions during the Holy Fortnight that claimed most attention through Bernadette’s actions, was that of the ninth on 25th February. On this occasion, instead of kneeling in rapt fixation and transformation, Bernadette was seen to be actively engaged in searching for something. She moved in and out of the grotto, sometimes on her knees. Finally, near the back, she bent and started scooping her hands in the wet, sticky mud. On the first three attempts she examined the contents in her hands and rejected them. On the fourth, reluctantly and with some repugnance, she drank at the contents of the muddy excavation. On looking up, the crowd could see her face smeared with mud. She then picked and ate a few leaves of golden saxifrage that was growing nearby.

These actions caused great consternation and puzzlement amongst the crowd. For those who believed, or had been convinced that something Divine was present at the apparitions, like M. Estrade, it was a moment of embarrassment and doubt as to what these bizarre and grotesque actions were all about. For those who were scoffing anyway, this was simply proof, in the words of one, “She’s mad!”. Bernadette completed this episode by going back to her usual place to pray before leaving, unmoved by those jeers of some of the onlookers.

When asked why she did this Bernadette simply explained that she was told, “‘Go and drink at the spring and wash yourself in it.’ Not seeing any water I went to the Gave. But she indicated with her finger that I should go under the rock. I found a little water, more like mud, so little that I could scarcely cup it in my hand. Three times I threw it away, it was so dirty. On the fourth try I managed to drink it”. That afternoon some of the towns folk returned to the grotto, and on seeing that a sizeable puddle had formed, scooped a bit more, eventually producing clear flowing water. From those days the springs have consistently produced nearly 27,000 gallons per day. And from those bizarre scrapings in the mud came the clear meaning, Lourdes was blessed with not just a holy spring, but one uncovered directly at Our Lady’s bidding.

The civic authorities sought to up the tempo of prohibition through the Procureur Impérial, M. Dutour, summoning Bernadette to interview on the evening of the 25th of February. Dutour was seemingly contemptuous of “these miserable people, their language, above all their standards”, who inspired, “not only doubt but also disgust”. But despite his lofty attitude, he also came off second-best. Bernadette’s replies were brief and cold, “I expect no profits in this life”, and her demeanour won the grudging admiration of the Procureur, particularly when she spoke of “uncommon thoughts”. By his own admission the only way he could stop her was by imprisonment, but as there was no evidence of any serious law breaking, including fraud, it would be difficult to justify.

The tenth and eleventh apparitions manifested the same words and actions from Our Lady and Bernadette of the eighth, invoking prayer and penance. The twelfth, on Monday 1st March, was ‘silent’.

Church’s reaction

The local Church authorities were becoming concerned for different reasons. Not only is the Catholic Church in general rightly extremely circumspect about reports of such happenings, but more so in this region of folklore and fairy tale. Of the many hundreds of apparition experiences reported throughout the world, very few even get to the point of being officially examined by the Church: it is a thorough, painstaking process described in detail in the CTS booklet ‘Medjugorje’. Father Peyramale’s early reaction of ‘wait and see’ was therefore expected and typical, as was his prohibition on any clergy going to the grotto. A certain Father Desirat, though, from outside Lourdes and unaware of this, was present at the apparition on the 1st of March. He watched Bernadette with ‘meticulous attention’, “What a difference there was between the girl she was then and the girl I saw at the moment of apparition! …the most consummate actor could never reproduce her charm and grace”.

However, the local clergy’s difficulties soon compounded in a very short space of time. The first was to test Father Peyramale’s tolerance to the limit, for during the apparitions of the 2nd and 3rd March Our Lady instructed Bernadette to, “Go and tell the priests that people are to come here in procession and to build a chapel here”. The mere fact that Bernadette had the temerity to go to him with these seemingly outrageous requests suggests some superhuman courage and motivation on her part – for the priest, although by now struggling with favourable images of religious resurgence among his flock – Mass attendance and confessions had gone up – was, nonetheless, not impressed. He is described as angrily retorting, “…you can go and make the procession; everyone would follow you, you have no need of priests”, and cutting off the second vital part of the message about building the chapel. Bernadette had to summon up yet more courage, and bolstered by a friend’s presence, returned to the presbytery, with no doubt great trepidation, to relay the full message. His only tactic was that of obfuscation and delay – he demanded to know more about the Lady.

First miracles

The second difficulty that the parish priests had to contend with were the inevitable wildfire tales of miracles and cures beginning to occur as a result of grotto visits. Many were indeed just false rumour or wishful thinking, and efforts were made early on to trace and investigate such reports, either to debunk or support. Some indeed did prove to be miraculous, and emanated from those early days in the Holy Fortnight. Subsequently they underwent the proper investigations and were accepted by the Church as miraculous. Of these was a Catherine Latapie whose paralysed arm, with which she could neither cook or sew, was completely cured after bathing them in the grotto spring on 1st of March, as was the eyesight restored to stonemason Louis Bouriette, who was blinded in one eye in a mine explosion.

Holy fortnight ends

The day of the last of the fortnightly apparitions (4th March) dawned to a huge crowd gathered on both sides of the Gave, also a crowd with huge expectations. People had been there, praying, since 11pm the night before. The Police Commissioner diligently inspected the nooks and crannies around the grotto to forestall any mechanical or illuminatory trickery. Bernadette took her usual spot. She went into ecstasy on the second decade of the rosary. After about half an hour she went on under the grotto roof where she usually conversed with Our Lady. She was there for some short minutes, showing some sadness, some joy. After which she returned to her kneeling place and continued with the rosary for another quarter of an hour. After that, without saying a word, she snuffed out the candle and left for her home, oblivious to the vociferous and passionate questioning of the throng. There had been no miracle, no message, no revelations – it all seemed a huge and disappointing anti-climax.

She was besieged at her home that day by the faithful and the curious, something she endured with fortitude and patience, pointedly refusing to accept money or any form of gift. Despite these attentions she managed to find time to report back to the priest: “No, she gave no name, …but she still wants the chapel.” “Do you have the money to build this chapel?” “No, Reverend Father.” “Neither do I, tell the lady to give it to you.” Despite the lack of drama, it appears that many were satisfied with the sheer occasion of the day. The police were certainly happy as there had been no civil disorder. As noted by M. Estrade, “An opinion, so strongly held as to be a certainty… was that the Lady of the Grotto had not yet said her last word”. Indeed she had not: there was no mention of her having said farewell to Bernadette at that last meeting.

The relief of the civic and Church authorities, however, proved to be short-lived. Bernadette attempted to resume her normal life eschewing any personal attention. Her very telling response to those who sought her out for healing was, “I am not responsible for curing people, go and wash in the water of the grotto”, presaging the future purpose of the holy spring that Our Lady bid be uncovered. And that is where people went, to the grotto, and that was what worried the authorities. People prayed there, candles were ever present, as were flowers, and a steady trickle of gifts and money were left. There was an air of hope and anticipation at Lourdes.

‘I am the Immaculate Conception’

On 25th March, the Feast of the Annunciation, Bernadette once again experienced the irresistible urge to answer Our Lady’s summons to the grotto. To her great joy Our Lady appeared, and after having said the rosary, Bernadette braced herself to pursue her visitor’s identity. “Mademoiselle, would you be so kind as to tell me who you are, if you please?” At the fourth asking Our Lady ceased her smiling, extended her hands and raised her eyes, saying in the local patois with which she habitually addressed Bernadette, “Que soy era Immaculada Councepciou (I am the Immaculate Conception)”. On completion Bernadette hurried straight to the presbytery, accompanied by her aunt, repeating these strange ‘grown-up’ words over and over again for fear of forgetting or getting them wrong.

Father Peyramale was astounded. “A woman cannot have that name! You are mistaken! Do you not know what that means?” Bernadette shook her head. “Then how can you say the words if you did not understand them?” “I kept repeating them along the way”. One of Father Peyramale’s first actions after this was to check with the Sunday school mistress that she had not mentioned the Immaculate Conception to her class. Realisation started sinking into his mind. Never before had Bernadette identified the apparitions specifically with Our Lady – in fact up to now she had always called it ‘Aquero’ (‘that’); it was others that had started the assumption, but Bernadette, as many children may have been tempted in seeking favour or affirmation, never endorsed it. In a way, the priest started feeling a great sense of relief as he reported all this to his Bishop by letter, because these were the words which summed up the dogma pronounced four years earlier by Pope Pius IX that Mary was immaculately conceived, ‘ preserved immune from all stain of original sin’. In appearing at Lourdes, Our Lady was simply confirming the reality of her status, and affirming what in fact the faithful were already believing in their hearts (sensus fidelium).

Final appearances

The penultimate vision was on Easter Wednesday, April 7th, where Bernadette quietly prayed in ecstasy with the Virgin. It was around this period that activities in, and associated with, the grotto seemingly started getting out of hand in the eyes of the authorities. Plans to have Bernadette hospitalised were thwarted by the doctors who themselves commented, “Is there any need to treat this affliction?” and that there was no danger to her health. There were reports of other visionaries and goings-on. The grotto was shut off, being declared as an illegal place of worship – which was largely ignored. In the words of René Laurentin in his book ‘Bernadette of Lourdes’, “The pure prayer of the apparitions period degenerated into pretence and superstitious, feverish rites”. The greatest consolation and joy to Bernadette during this time was when she made her first Holy Communion on June 3rd, the Feast of Corpus Christi.

The solution to these problems, however, were remarkable in their simplicity: the Bishop of Tarbes, whilst still remaining neutral about the apparitions, officially denounced all these other goings-on in and around the grotto on 11th of July, and, “they disappeared in the twinkling of an eye”. Later, the civic authorities, having to reckon with the reality of the situation, and on orders direct from Napoleon III, removed all the trappings of confrontation from the grotto, and in doing so all the confrontation and aggravation disappeared. Life at the grotto took on the air of pilgrimage, prayer and healing that has gone on to this day.

The final appearance of Our Lady to Bernadette, the eighteenth, happened on 16th of July, the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, in the evening at about 7pm. Direct access to the grotto was still at that time being denied by barricades; Bernadette knelt opposite the Grotto, on the other side of the river. It was again a low key and silent affair for onlookers. She went into ecstasy as she started the rosary, clearly joyous at seeing Our Blessed Lady, saying that, “she was more beautiful than ever”. On completion she stood up – it was over. Her only comment on the way home was, “I saw neither the barriers nor the Gave. It seemed to me that I was in the grotto, no more distant than the other times. I saw only the Holy Virgin”.

Our Lady’s visits to Lourdes, initially heralded by nothing more than a stirring breeze, were gentle, almost prosaic, and to start with enigmatic, as if she were almost reluctant to immediately reveal her identity and purpose. It was only when she declared, towards the end of her visits, that she was the Immaculate Conception that everything suddenly and clearly fell into place, and that the message and mission of Lourdes, discussed in a later chapter, started impacting on the local people, and the local clergy, and rippling swiftly to the rest of the world.

This blog is extracted from our book Lourdes: A Place of Healing and Hope, which tells the story of Bernadette Soubirous, while also serving as a spiritual and practical guide for pilgrims to the best known Marian shrine and its message of hope, healing, intercession and conversion.

To learn more about Lourdes and St Bernadette, order your copy of Lourdes: A Place of Healing and Hope today.