Marie Brown was my maternal grandmother and a devout Catholic. When she died, she left behind a string of rosary beads, connected by a small Saint Bernadette medal. Curious about the saint, my sister Lynn and I turned to the Internet, where we came across a strange, recent photo of Bernadette’s body lying in a glass tomb. Bernadette died in 1879, but in the photo, her face and hands appeared as fresh and alive as Lynn’s or mine.
Intrigued, Lynn and I dug deeper and learned that the mortal remains of many Catholic saints are preserved intact. The Church has deemed their bodies incorruptible. In 2009, Lynn visited Nevers, France, to see Bernadette for herself. Thin wax masks covered the saint’s face and hands to hide discolored, decaying skin.
My sister and I were fascinated with Bernadette in death. But, who was she in life? Recently, I learned the full story of a saint who shunned the kind of attention she still receives today.
Who Was Bernadette?
Bernadette Soubirous was born in 1844, the first child of a miller and a laundress who lived at the foot of the Pyrenees Mountains in Lourdes, France. Hard times fell on the family when Francois Soubirous lost his milling work. Bernadette was a sickly girl, and her recurring asthma attacks were aggravated by the family’s poverty.
February 11, 1858, began like many other days for 14-year-old Bernadette. Joined by her sister and a friend, she left the Soubirous home to gather firewood. The girls walked toward the Gave River, but at the embankment, Bernadette hesitated as her healthier companions crossed the frigid waters and continued searching for wood beyond the opposite shore. Bernadette braced herself to wade into the river, bending down to remove her stockings. At that moment, a bright light caught her eye. It came from a nearby rock formation, where she saw “a lady” smiling at her from a niche in the rock. The other girls returned to find Bernadette staring at the grotto. But, they didn’t see what she described to them. Over the next six months, Bernadette returned frequently to the grotto and experienced 17 more visions. In each apparition, a mysterious lady revealed herself to Bernadette’s eyes only.
During the ninth apparition, the lady instructed Bernadette to dig into the soil at the grotto and drink the fresh spring-water there. Bernadette walked over to the river, thinking the lady must be referring to the Gave. But, the apparition motioned instead to a patch of dirt away from the river. Confused, Bernadette scratched at the soil with her hands and found no water there, only dark mud. Then, at the lady’s request, she tasted the mud, which drew mocking jeers from a crowd of onlookers. Yet, later that day, something unexpected happened: water began to flow from the ground where Bernadette had been digging earlier. Word spread across France and beyond. Soon, miracle-seekers flocked to the grotto to drink from the spring and pray for cures to sickness and disease.
On March 25, during the 16th apparition, Bernadette asked the lady to reveal her name. After repeated requests, the lady responded, “I am the Immaculate Conception.” This term, another name for the Virgin Mary, was brand-new to the Catholic lexicon, and Church authorities agreed it was impossible for young Bernadette to have heard it before that day.
According to Bernadette, the lady also directed her to build a chapel at the grotto. In time, a large church was erected on the site and dedicated to the Virgin.
The apparitions brought fame to Lourdes and the Soubirous girl. Churchmen scrutinized Bernadette’s story, forcing her to repeat it again and again to determine her truthfulness. Meanwhile, pilgrims worshiped the visionary. Some followed her through town, snipping off pieces of her hair and clothing to keep as souvenirs. Wealthy admirers pressed money into her palms, hoping to relieve her poverty, but the girl rejected these gifts.
Bernadette left her family’s home to board with the Sisters of Charity in Lourdes, although the sisters were unable to protect her from a constant stream of visitors. Bernadette intensely disliked the attention she was receiving. She saw it as misplaced devotion that should have been directed at her Lady and the god she believed in.
Reaching adulthood, Bernadette chose to enter the religious life. Her greatest wish was to spend her days ministering to the sick and dying. Hoping to escape her fame and the constant intrusions that came with it, she left Lourdes to join the motherhouse of the Sisters of Charity in Nevers. Bernadette was assigned to work in the infirmary, where she excelled at caregiving. However, her lifelong recurring asthma interfered, and much of the time she was a patient herself. What’s more, even while bedridden, her fame was not diminished, and a stream of persistent visitors plagued her.
One welcome visitor who never came to see Bernadette again was the lady of her childhood ecstasies. Still, the visionary-turned-nun remained steadfast in her faith. And by all accounts, she was humble and kind, especially to the convent’s young novices, who felt intense homesickness on arrival. She was a loyal friend, and she endeared herself to others with her down-to-earth honesty and a playful sense of humor.
Physical suffering was Bernadette’s constant companion during the last years of her life. She endured the pain gracefully, even after contracting tuberculosis. That ravaging disease led to her premature death at age 35.
The stories of the apparitions and the grotto’s healing waters transformed Lourdes from an unremarkable village to a major pilgrimage site known the world over. Five million people, non-Catholics included, travel to Lourdes each year, seeking blessings from the Virgin Mary. Many of these pilgrims are sick or dying — the very people Bernadette hoped to serve as a Sister of Charity. According to Church investigations, 69 people have been miraculously cured by drinking or bathing in Lourdes water.
My Song for Bernadette
I traveled to Lourdes in 2016. At the grotto, I lit candles and prayed for friends, family, and the sick pilgrims around me. I bathed my hands in the spring-water and bottled some of it to take home. And while dipping my feet in the Gave River, I tried to imagine what it was like to be a young French girl who thought she saw the Virgin Mary in a rock. That inspired my song Bernadette. ∗