Lourdes, in the middle of the last century, was a small garrison town of perhaps four or five thousand people. Nestling at an altitude of about 420 metres in the foothills of the Pyréneés, it was dominated by its fortress or castle, a symbol of its military connections. In fact, for two periods of over fifty years in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, Lourdes was occupied by English forces. Like many similar places in this part of the world, it was served by a swift mountain river, the Gave, which passed through the town on its westward route towards Pau, and all in all, apart from its picturesque natural surroundings, it was a most unremarkable place. It had its own parish church and convent, a mayor and council, a hospital, a local newspaper, and a work force which consisted principally of farmers and of marble and slate quarry workers.
It was in this town that Francois Soubirous and Louise Casterot had set up their home. They married on January 9th 1843, when he was thirty five years old and she was only nineteen years old. Francois was a miller and he went to live with his wife’s family and work at the Boly Mill in Lourdes.
A year later, on January 7th, 1844, their first child was born, a daughter who was baptised two days later in the Parish church and given the name of Marie-Bernard, although she was always knows as Bernadette. Madame Soubirous was to give birth eventually to nine children, of whom four boys and one girl would die before reaching the age of ten.
Due to an accident, in November 1844, during which Madame Soubirous was burned when her blouse caught fire from a lighted taper, she was unable to continue breast-feeding Bernadette. So Bernadette was sent to Bartrès, a couple of miles outside Lourdes, where she stayed for about a year and a half to be wet-nursed by Marie Aravant Lagüe, who acted as her foster mother.
Bernadette’s father proved not to be the best of business managers, and things went from bad to worse at the mill. In 1852 the mill was sold, although the Soubirous family had thought that they owned the property. By 1854 Francois could no longer meet the bills and the family was evicted from the mill. They found accommodation for a while in what today is Rue Bernadette Soubirous.
Worse was to follow. In 1855 Lourdes was attacked by an out-break of cholera, and Bernadette fell victim to the epidemic. Although she recovered, she developed asthma and tuberculosis, sicknesses which were to remain with her for life.
As their fortunes plunged, the Soubirous family moved from one dwelling to another in an attempt to keep a roof over their heads. They moved away to a mill in Arcizac-ès-Angles, then back to Lourdes where they lodged at the present day Rue du Bourg. In 1857 they found themselves in the direst of straits and ended up living in one tiny room of the Cachot, a rotting and disused prison in Rue des Petit Fossés. Their situation was aggravated when in that same year Francois, unemployed and destitute, was thrown into prison for a week, allegedly for stealing a sack of flour.
While the family tried to exist at the Cachot, Bernadette, who once more was ill, went back to her foster mother in Bartrés, where she acted as a shepherdess. With the scant education that had been afforded her, she could neither read nor write. This meant that she had also missed her formal religious education and although at the age when she would normally make her First Communion, she knew little catechism.
In January 1958 Bernadette returned to Lourdes and began preparation with the Sisters of Nevers for her First Communion. She attended their free classes, but because she was illiterate, she was taught with children who were many years younger than her.
Within a month of returning in 1858, she saw the eighteen apparitions of the Virgin Mary. A full chronicle of what took place during these is given in the next section.
On June 3rd 1858, at the age of fourteen and just over a month before the final apparition, Bernadette made her First Communion with the rest of her class in the Hospital Chapel at Lourdes.
Bernadette began to be visited by groups of pilgrims who now came to Lourdes, but despite her poverty she refused to accept any gifts or money saying, “I prefer to remain poor”. The parish priest, Fr Peyramale, found an alternative home for the Soubirous family who moved out of the Cachot. During this time Bernadette was under continual scrutiny from those authorities who sought to discredit the story of the apparitions and the message of the Virgin Mary. Her constant reply to this was, “It is not my job to make you believe it; I am charged only with the task of telling it to you.”
Early in 1860 Bernadette was confirmed by Bishop Laurence of Tarbes, in whose diocese Lourdes is situated. Later that same year she went to school as a boarder with the nuns in Lourdes. She was small for her age, about 1.40m (4ft 7in), though extremely playful despite being sickly, and soon began to read and write, as well as developing her skills at needlework. She stayed with the nuns for the next six years, and it was whilst she was there, on January 18th 1862, that the Church authorities declared the apparitions to be true and work on building a church began.
During this period, as she hosted more and more pilgrims who began to descend on Lourdes, she began to consider whether she was being called by God to a religious vocation. Two things hampered her: her continual sickness and the lack of a dowry. The bishop of Nevers, Monsignor Forcade, agreed to admit her to the congregation of the convent at Nevers despite having no dowry to offer, and after much thought and prayer interspersed by bouts of ill health, she left Lourdes for the Congregation of the Sister of Nevers on July 3rd 1866.
Bernadette took Simple Vows on October 30th 1867, having reverted to her true baptismal name as Sister Marie-Bernarde. She considered it her duty to perform in the convent surroundings the works of prayer and penance that Our Lady had asked of her. She looked after the sick sisters as Infirmarian until 1873 and was renowned for her ability to be cheerful in her duties, even though she herself did not enjoy good health. For a short while she worked as sacristan in 1874, but by 1875 she was mostly confined to the infirmary herself as a seriously ill patient.
Her Perpetual Vows were made on September 22nd 1878. She struggled with respiratory problems and with asthma. In addition she developed a tumour on her right knee.
On Wednesday April 16th 1879 the nuns gathered round the bed and she joined them in prayer. It was in the course of these prayers she died, aged thirty-five years.
She was beatified by Pope Pius XI on June 14th 1925, and canonized by him on December 8th 1933. Today she is honoured as a saint not because the Virgin Mary appeared to her, but because of the holiness which she showed throughout her life and particularly in her final thirteen years in the convent.