1858 was the year of the apparitions at the Grotto of Massabielle near Lourdes. Eight years later, in 1866, a chapel had been built over the Grotto rock, and in May of that year the first Mass was celebrated there and its altars consecrated. This was done to fulfil a wish expressed by Our Lady to Bernadette. In the eight years between these two events local people had been drawn to visit the scene of the apparitions and the numbers grew year by year, in spite of much initial opposition from the town officials. The commission, which had been set up by Monsignor Laurence, Bishop of Tarbes, to investigate the strange happenings, gave its verdict on the authenticity of the apparitions in 1862, and from then on work could proceed to carry out Our Lady’s wishes.
By the time the first chapel (now known as the Crypt) had been consecrated, the statue of Our Lady of Lourdes had been erected in the Grotto, and a number of Garaison Fathers, who had been put in charge of the shrine, had arrived. The first pilgrims to Lourdes came mainly from the surrounding areas: Bigorre, Bearn and the Basque country, people to whom a devotion to Our Lady came naturally. The year 1866, however, was to be an important year in another way, for it saw the completion of a railway link to Lourdes and the building of the Railway Station. A train pilgrimage from Tarbes in that same year was to be the forerunner of a rapidly growing number of pilgrimages from further afield.
The little chapel that had been built was soon found to be too small for the growing number of pilgrims, and work proceeded on the new church, planned to rise above the original edifice, which was to be its crypt. And so in 1871, the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception (the Upper Basilica) was opened for divine service. The Basilica was constructed, contrary to custom, to align from East to West so that the foundation of the sanctuary would lie over the Grotto rock. In the year of its opening, the number of pilgrims who came to Lourdes by train was 28,000. In 1872, pilgrims came from dioceses in different parts of France, and the following year saw the first official French National Pilgrimage, for which 140,000 pilgrims arrived by train.
Soon pilgrimages were arriving from all parts of France and even from a few neighbouring countries. During this period several innovations were introduced which are now an integral part of the Lourdes scene. Torchlight processions began in 1872; the Lourdes hymn, “Ave Maria”, was composed; the Hospitalité of Notre Dame de Lourdes was formed and began its great work; the crowned statue of Our Lady of Lourdes was set up in its present commanding position on the Esplanade in 1877. Although there had been processions from the early years of the shrine, it was not until 1888 that the Blessed Sacrament Processions began. The increasing numbers of pilgrims and the growing need to provide more accommodation for the ceremonies resulted in work commencing on a new church. 1889 saw the opening of the Rosary Basilica, nestling between the two ramps at the foot of the Upper Basilica and its Crypt.
From the beginning of the twentieth century, the shrine at Lourdes has received pilgrims from all over the world, and the expansion has continued except during the war years. Now, Lourdes has an international character which is one of its most noticeable features. In 1954, the Baths, as we know them, were opened, replacing the earlier inadequate facilities. On 25th March 1958, the Pius X Basilica (the Underground) was consecrated by Cardinal Roncalli (later Pope John XXIII). The architect was Pierre Vago and the construction of the Basilica was a triumph of ingenuity and engineering. Here the biweekly International Masses are held and the Blessed Sacrament Procession can be held when it rains or the weather is very hot.
Over the years the area in front of the Grotto has been improved by diverting the river, allowing a greater paved area where pilgrims can assemble. In recent times, bridges have been constructed over the Gave, to give access to the meadows on the far side, where a new Hospital has been built. And so the work of development proceeds to meet the needs of pilgrims. In 1980 over four and a quarter million pilgrims came to Lourdes from all over the world. The common ceremonies, are now geared to embrace pilgrims from all regions and all countries with the readings, prayers and responses carried out in different languages.