The growth of Lourdes has been astonishing. Where does it come from? There are many Sanctuaries throughout the world. Doubtless it is because the Message of Lourdes is simple and alive, it is for everyone and linked directly to the Gospel. It was in a heart to heart meeting that young Bernadette Soubirous received a message without any political or nationalistic reference, without any threats, without any special secrets about the ways of the world and no prophecy for the future. This message was given during eighteen apparitions between 11 February 1858 and 16 July 1858.
Bernadette saw her first vision of Our Lady on Thursday 11 February 1858. She was fourteen years old. She had left her home, the Cachot, with her sister Toinette and a friend of theirs, Jeanne Abadie, to collect wood for the fire. They made their way down the narrow streets around the Chateau Fort and across the old bridge out of the town into the semi wooded area that lay between the River Gave and the canal that fed the five mills of Lourdes. They followed the canal to where it joined the River Gave opposite the rock Massabielle. They could see that there was wood to be gathered here, and the girls began to take off their shoes and stockings to wade over the canal for the wood on the other side. Bernadette was slower than the other two…
1st Apparition: 11 February 1858
The sign of the Cross
“I’d hardly removed my stockings when I heard a noise like a gust of wind: I turned and looked across the field. I saw that the trees weren’t moving so I continued to take off my shoes and stockings. Then I heard the same noise again. As I looked up towards the Grotto I saw a lady in white. She had a white dress, a white veil, a blue cincture and a yellow rose on each foot the same colour as her rosary beads. I was startled – I thought I was seeing things. I rubbed my eyes and looked again but I could still see the lady. I felt in my pocket and found my rosary. I wanted to make the sign of the Cross but couldn’t lift my hand to my forehead. The Lady then took the rosary she was holding in her hands and made the sign of the Cross. Then I tried a second time to make the sign of the Cross and was able to. Immediately I’d made the sign of the Cross the startled feeling I’d had disappeared. I knelt down and said my beads with that beautiful lady. The vision fingered her beads but didn’t move her lips. When I had finished saying my rosary, she just disappeared.
2nd Apparition: 14 February 1858
“The second time was on the following Sunday, I returned with some young friends to make sure I wasn’t seeing things. When we got to the Grotto I knelt down and began to say the rosary. I’d said the first decade when I saw the same lady. I’d brought a little bottle of Holy Water with me so I shook the Holy Water at her saying if she came from God to stay: if not from God to take herself off! The more I sprinkled her, the more she smiled…”
3rd Apparition: 18 February 1858
“She had not spoken to me until the third time. Arriving, I began to say my rosary and after the first decade I saw the same lady. I asked her if she had something to say to me and would she be kind enough to let me write it down. She smiled at me and said she had something to say but that it would not be necessary to write it down: would I have the courtesy to come here for the next fourteen days. I answered yes. She then told me that she wasn’t promising to make me happy in this world but in the next.
4th, 5th, 6th and 7th Apparitions 19, 20, 21, 23 February 1858
“I returned there for the next fourteen days. The vision appeared every day except for a Monday and a Friday.”
During these apparitions Our Lady appeared to pray together with Bernadette but not to converse with her. Bernadette herself never indicated in her accounts of the apparitions that Our Lady spoke to her on these occasions.
8th Apparition: 24 February 1858
Prayer and Penance
Bernadette was accompanied by her aunt Lucile on this occasion together with quite a crowd of people. During the apparition Bernadette was distracted when her aunt fainted. Our Lady asked Bernadette: ‘Pray to God for the conversion of sinners: Kiss the ground as a penance for sinners.’
9th Apparition: 25 February 1858
The Spring of Water
The lady called for penance; three times she asked for penance. She told Bernadette to eat the grass, drink at the spring and wash herself as a sign of conversion. Bernadette recounting the apparition later in her life said: Not seeing a spring I went towards the Gave but she told me it wasn’t there and signed with her finger to go beneath the cliff….I could hardly find any water there and it was so dirty I could hardly drink it. I began to scrape away the earth until I was able to collect some, but three times I threw it away and it was only at the fourth attempt I was able to drink – the water was so dirty”.
10th, 11th, 12th Apparitions 27, 28 February, 1 March 1858
These apparitions are sometimes known as the Penitential Apparitions. Bernadette would come to the Grotto and prostrate herself kissing the ground and praying. The number of people who followed her down to the Grotto now was quite considerable, over a thousand. Already a pattern of behaviour was emerging; prayer (the Rosary) and penance (washing with water). Bernadette would say her rosary, smile, do penance and come away without saying whether the lady spoke to her.
13th Apparition: 2 March 1858
Come in procession: build a church
By this time the first miracles were taking place: a quarry man who was blind in one eye got his sight back after bathing the eye in the spring water. Later these early miracles were to help the Bishop judge that the happenings at Lourdes were an act of God. But Bernadette never took notice of the miracles, nor did she ever see one. On this occasion she was given a twofold message: ‘Go and tell the priests that the people are to come here in procession, and they are to build a church here’.
14th Apparition: 3 March 1858
Who is she?
Over three thousand people gathered and at first the Vision did not appear. Bernadette left the Grotto and returned later. It was then that the apparition took place. She was asked again for the chapel and when she told her parish priest, Father Peyramale, he replied: ‘If she wants a chapel get her to tell you her name and get her to make the rosebush in the Grotto bloom’.
15th Apparition: 4 March 1858
Again with thousands gathered with her, Bernadette was seen to pray, and speak, with the Vision. To smile and to look happy and sad also at times. She reported to Father Peyramale that she had asked the lady her name again and that again she only gave a smile in answer. And when asked that the rosebush bloom – again only a smile.
16th Apparition: 25 March 1858
I am the Immaculate Conception
On the feast of the Annunciation, the day we recall Our Lady gave her ‘fiat’ to God through the angel Gabriel, Bernadette felt the need to go to the Grotto again. Early in the morning she left home. “I asked her three times one after the other ‘Madam would you be so kind, please, to say who you are?’ Each time she just smiled. Finally I was going to ask a fourth time and it was then that she said to me, with her hands joined on her breast, that she was the Immaculate Conception: ‘I am the Immaculate Conception’ (Que soy era immaculada counceptiou.)”
17th Apparition: 7 April 1858
Light a candle for me.
This time when Bernadette came to the Grotto she brought with her a candle given to her by Mr Blazy who was one of the first to be cured at the Grotto. She lit the candle and stood it on the ground cupping her hands around the flame to protect it. The flickering flame licked at her hands during her ecstasy but there was no sign of her being burnt. A Doctor Dozous who was present testified that he saw this and examined her hands immediately afterwards.
18th Apparition: 16 July 1858
Because the crowds coming to the Grotto were so large, barricades were set up to protect the area and keep the people controlled. On the evening of the 16 July, Bernadette went down to the Grotto but this time stayed on the far side of the river. She lit her candle and prayed. For the last time Our Lady appeared to her.
“I saw neither the planks nor the river. It seemed to me that I was in the Grotto, no further away than the other times. I saw only the Holy Virgin. She appeared to me in the usual place without saying anything to me. I’d never seen her looking so beautiful”.
On the 18 January 1862 the Bishop of Tarbes announced the findings of the Ecclesial Commission. “It is our judgement that Mary, the Immaculate Mother of God, truly appeared to Bernadette Soubirous on the 11 February 1858 and on subsequent days, eighteen times in all, in the Grotto of Massabielle close to the town of Lourdes”.