Saint Bernadette and Our Lady of Lourdes
by Matthew Betts
The 11 February is the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes & the World Day of Prayer for the Sick.
One hundred and sixty-five years ago today (11 February 2023), Our Lady appeared to Saint Bernadette in Lourdes. The background of Bernadette's life before the apparations is so important to understanding why this place is special...
Bernadette was born on 7 January 1844 and was baptised the following year in an old granite baptistery that the people of Lourdes are still baptised in today. Her father Francois Soubirous ran the Boly Mill, but money was short: though they worked hard, they were probably too generous, and Francois didn’t manage it very well. Eventually the business failed, and Bernadette’s father had to find other work to support his family of four children.
No longer a miller, Francois became a day labourer. Unfortunately, the average daily pay for this job was 1.20 francs and even a horse or mule earnt more. Bernadette’s mother, Louise had to work too to try and make ends meet - she was a housekeeper for other people and worked in the fields around Lourdes. When Louise was unemployed, she would send her two oldest children (including Bernadette) to gather bones, wood and scrap-metal so they could sell them for a few pennies. School or any other education was impossible in such times.
Bernadette’s health had deteriorated since she was six. She was also asthmatic. Bernadette was often sent away to help the family to have "less mouths to feed".
The family had some luck in 1855 when they received a large legacy from Bernadette’s grandmother. They got some livestock and Francois rented another mill, but it eventually failed. Thus, they started to become poorer and poorer. Bernadette was eventually sent out to work for her aunt as a housekeeper. Unfortunately, by 1857 the family were once more thrown onto the streets and the only place they could move into also happened to be the worst place.
This was the old jail of Lourdes, which was described as a “foul, sombre hovel”. It had been abandoned in 1824 because it was so unhealthy, but thirty-three years later here was Bernadette and her family living in a room only 3.72 x 4.40 metres big. Not only were the family now the poorest of the poor, but there was famine in Lourdes – from this period there was even a story about her little brother eating church wax because he was so hungry. More sadness arrived when Francois was arrested for 'stealing' some wood. He was eventually let out, but this had created more strain on this very poor family.
We finally reach 11 February 1858 and it’s like any normal day. Bernadette’s dad will sleep in till 11am as there is no work for him. There is no more wood in the jail, so Bernadette offers to go and find some with her sister and a friend. Her mother doesn't want her to go because it is raining heavily and it woulod probably affect her asthma. Bernadette insists to go as she longs to get out of the damp prison.
They looked all over the slopes of Lourdes and made sure they avoided any wood that might be owned by anyone else (they didn't want to be arrested like their father), until finally they reached some cliffs with a grotto. They decide they needed to get closer to the grotto to see what they could find. Locally it was known as a rubbish dump. Bernadette started to take off her shoes and stockings so she could cross the stream to the Grotto.
Suddenly she heard a noise like a gust of wind but saw nothing. It happened a second time, but this time she saw branches moving so Bernadette looked closer and saw a rosebush rooted at the bottom of a light. In the light stood a “wonderfully beautiful” girl dressed in white. The girl opened her hands in welcome which invited Bernadette to come closer. Bernadette was fearful but did not run away and pulled out her rosary. She made the sign of the cross and the vision did the same.
There were seventeen more apparitions after this and Our Lady (who revealed herself as the Immaculate Conception) asked Bernadette to bring people to Lourdes and to pray.
“Go and tell the priests that people are to come here in procession and to build a chapel here.”
On 16 July 1858 on the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Our Lady appeared for the last time. Bernadette said: "“I felt that I was in front of the Grotto, at the same distance as before, I saw only the Blessed Virgin, and she was more beautiful than ever!”
Bernadette was a sick girl from the poorest of the poor – and yet, Our Lady came to her and spoke to her. Now Lourdes is a place full of people praising God because of that simple girl who was visited by Our Lady. Since then, there has been a very special group of people who visit Lourdes that is so important to the town: the sick. Like Bernadette - who was sick herself - many sick people come to the Grotto to pray and find hope.
The sick that come on pilgrimage are at the heart of the whole place – they are what makes Lourdes such a special place and they are why many of us visit as volunteers/pilgrims. No where in the whole world is there a place like Lourdes – where the sick are at the front of every single queue - and all because Our Lady visited the poor girl Bernadette. If you ever have the opportunity, do come and visit this very special place.
Let us pray…
Ever Immaculate Virgin Mother of Mercy, Health of the sick, refuge of sinners, Comforter of the afflicted, you know my wants, my troubles, my sufferings; look with mercy on me. By appearing in the Grotto of Lourdes, you were pleased to make it a privileged sanctuary, whence you dispense your favours; and already many sufferers have obtained the cure for their infirmities, both spiritual and corporal.
I come, therefore, with complete confidence to implore your maternal intercession. Obtain, O loving Mother, the grant of my requests. Through gratitude for your favours, I will endeavour to imitate your virtues, that I may one day share your glory. Amen.
Our novena to Our Lady Of Lourdes finishes today...
God of mercy,
we celebrate the feast of Mary,
the sinless mother of Jesus, your Son.
May her prayers help us
to rise above our human weakness.
We ask this through
our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you
and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.
Make your special request now.
Our Lady of Lourdes is often prayed to if you are sick or if you want protection from disease.
- Other reflections on Our Lady
- People you meet in life and how they can help
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