by Jim Dunning
Bernadette Soubirous was born on 7th January, 1844, in the small French town of Lourdes. Her family was poor and for much of her childhood they were forced to live in a single basement room that had once served as a gaol. It was dark, damp and smelly and Bernadette developed asthma at an early age. Her Aunt Bernarde and her former foster mother, Maria Lagues, provided the family with some relief by taking the child to live with them for long periods, but in return insisted that Bernadette, instead of attending school, should look after their children.
When Bernadette returned home she was kept busy looking after her younger sister and two brothers. Thus she missed out on her schooling and for a long time was unable to learn how to read and write. It caused some people to regard her as stupid, but as her behaviour during and after the apparitions showed, she had plenty of sturdy common sense and, on occasions, a lively personality.
Although her inability to read and write prevented her from learning her catechism, delaying her First Communion, Bernadette imbibed her faith from those around her and was completely familiar with the rosary she carried with her everywhere. Like the general population of the area she had a simple but rugged faith in God. It was typical of her that when she first saw the Lady in the grotto she instinctively pulled out her rosary and began to pray.
At the time of the visions she experienced at Massabielle Bernadette revealed two sides to her character. Humbly aware of her family’s poverty and her own backwardness, she was extremely modest and respectful in her manner. On the other hand she was invariably straightforward, honest and direct when interviewed, never embroidering her accounts. She recoiled in horror when people tried to press money into her hand and was scornful of those urging her to bless their rosaries. ‘I don’t have a purple stole,’ she reminded them. When a visiting Bishop offered to exchange his gold-mounted rosary for hers she thanked him but said quite firmly that she preferred her own.
In her scholarly book, ‘Lourdes’, Ruth Harris tells a charming story which reveals her reaction to scepticism:
‘The Comte de Broussard, a debauched atheist, talked to Bernadette in July, 1858, purely to “catch the little one in a blatant lie”. His first glance told him she was “common enough”, but her simplicity and self assurance soon disturbed him. After hearing the story of the apparitions, he asked Bernadette to show him how the “belle dame” smiled.
“Oh, Monsieur, you’d have to be from heaven to imitate that smile.”
“Can’t you do it for me? I’m a non-believer and don’t hold with apparitions.”
The child’s countenance darkened. “Then sir, you think I am a liar?”
I was completely disarmed. No, Bernadette was not a liar, and I was on the point of going down on my knees to ask her forgiveness.
“Since you are a sinner,” she went on, "I will show you the Virgin’s smile.”
'Since then I have lost my wife and two daughters, but it seems to me that I am far from being alone in the world. I live with the Virgin’s smile.’
Her simple, straightforward manner impressed all who had dealings with her. One imagines that her utter joy in experiencing visions of Our Lady must have given her added confidence. In addition, the people of Lourdes and numerous visitors from elsewhere made a great fuss of her. On one occasion when she had finally escaped the crowds by taking refuge in a sympathetic neighbour’s house, she crept home in the dark to her bed, answering her mother’s query as to how she felt with a sigh. ‘I’m worn out with all that kissing.’
But life wasn’t all serious. In her excellent book, “Bernadette and Lourdes”, Ann Stafford describes how, at recreation, ‘she thoroughly enjoyed herself; she laughed and played and joked with children of all ages, completely happy, unless she was called away to see visitors.’
In January, 1862, The Bishop of Tarbes announced the Church’s belief that Mary the Immaculate Mother of God had in fact appeared to Bernadette Soubirous, and that certain cures had taken place at Lourdes for which there was no natural explanation. ‘The finger of God is here.’
Bernadette herself was now living in the local hospice run by nuns. When the apparitions were a thing of the past she referred to herself as ‘the broom placed behind the door once it has been used.’ Her family, with the help of relatives and friends, had moved into more suitable accommodation. When the Bishop of Nevers visited the hospice and suggested it was time for her to consider getting married, she replied: ‘As for that, no way!’ When he then proposed entry to a convent she regretted that as well as always being ill, she was too poor to provide the customary dowry, adding, ‘Besides, I know nothing and am good for nothing.’ But in 1866 she entered the Convent of Saint-Gildard at Nevers.
Nevers is a long way from Lourdes, which suited Bernadette’s wish to hide from the public very well. She arrived at the Convent of Saint-Gildard on 7th July, 1866. She was twenty-two. When the Reverend Mother asked her on admission, ‘What can you do?’ her simple answer was: ‘Nothing very well.’ On her second day in the Convent she was obliged to tell her story to the whole community. The mistress of novices, Mother Marie-Therese Vauzou, decided to treat Bernadette twice as severely as the others in order to guard her against the danger of pride.
On 29th July she took the nun’s habit with the name Sister Marie-Bernard. It was not long before she fell ill and had to be taken to the infirmary. At the end of October she was deemed to be so close to death that the Bishop of Nevers administered Extreme Unction and allowed her to take her vows in advance. But she recovered the next day, much to the chagrin of the novice mistress who accused her of putting on her illness! Bernadette never complained of the severity of the mistress of novices. ‘She is right – I am proud – I shall work at trying to improve myself.’
Because of her delicate state of health the Bishop assigned her the task of prayer. She was given the light role of assistant to the convent’s nurse, but when the latter fell ill and died, Bernadette was put in charge of the infirmary where she coped well.
Later she became the convent’s sacristan, creating beautiful embroidery for altar cloths and vestments. But in 1872 Bernadette’s health deteriorated again and for a time she was confined to her room. When she recovered she reverted to the role of assistant nurse. In April, 1875, she took to her bed again and remained a permanent invalid. Of great comfort to her was the knowledge that she lived in a spirit of close intimacy with Jesus, whose love knew no limits. ‘He is sufficient for me' she once said.
Bernadette developed tuberculosis of the bone in the right knee, a most painful condition which she bore stoically. The name ‘Bernadette’ means ‘brave as a bear’, and she certainly lived up to it. Not surprisingly, she was universally loved and admired by the community she lived among, with the possible exception of the mistress of novices.
The end came on Wednesday, 16th April, 1879. Bernadette asked to be lifted from her bed. After making her last confession she recited the prayer for the dying. She asked for a drink of water, made the Sign of the Cross, bowed her head and died. It was 3 o’clock in the afternoon. She was just 35.
Sister Bernard Dalias wrote : ‘As soon as she was dead, Bernadette’s face became young and peaceful again.’ About 11 o’clock on the following day her body was brought down to the chapel. She appeared to be sleeping. The news of her death caused a sensation in Nevers and well beyond. ‘She’s gone to see the Blessed Virgin again in Heaven!’ was the cry. Crowds of people hurried through the rain to catch a glimpse of her.
The main doors of the chapel were left open for two whole days so that everyone could go in and pray before the Altar of Repose. Four of the sisters were kept busy touching the body with pious objects belonging to the lines of people filing past. Working men and women handed up their tools to be touched against Bernadette’s hands. Some of the local garrison’s officers laid the hilt of their swords on her hands and remained afterwards to pray. Such were the crowds that the funeral had to be delayed by a day.
Bernadette was not buried in the town cemetery. Her Mother Superior insisted on keeping her within the convent walls in a vault constructed in the secluded oratory.
Thirty years after her death her body was exhumed. There was no trace of corruption, though her crucifix was tarnished by verdigris and her rosary corroded with rust, proving that damp existed within the coffin. Ten years later the body was exhumed again and once more revealed no sign of corruption. After this, Bernadette’s mortal remains were placed in a casket of gilded bronze and crystal in a chapel where all can still see her today at the Convent of Saint-Gildard in Nevers.
In August, 1913, Pope Pius X conferred the title on her of Venerable. Ten years later Pius XI published a decree on the heroic nature of the virtues of the Venerable Sister Marie-Bernard Soubirous. It stated: ‘This life can be summed up in three sentences: Bernadette was faithful to her mission, she was humble in glory, she was valiant under trial.’ The Congregation for Rites examined the authenticity of the ten miracles put forward for her Beatification. It selected two – those of Henri Boisselet and Sister Marie-Melanie Meyer.
On 8th December,1933, Bernadette was finally canonized by Pope Pius XI with the words: ‘We define and declare the Blessed Marie-Bernard Soubirous a Saint.’ Her annual Feast Day is 16th April.
God exalts none but the humble. -St Bernadette, pray for us!
Click here to go to part 3 -The Miracle Cures of Lourdes
Quotes of St Bernadette/Prayers of St Bernadette
"I shall spend every moment loving. One who loves does not notice her trials; or perhaps more accurately, she is able to love them."
"Oh Jesus and Mary, let my entire consolation in this world be to love you and to suffer for sinners."
"Oh Jesus, I would rather die a thousand deaths than be unfaithful to You!"
"Oh my Mother, to you I sacrifice all other attachments so that my heart may belong entirely to you and to my Jesus."
"Love overcomes, love delights. Those who love the Sacred Heart of Jesus rejoice."
"Jesus, my God, I love You above all things."
"Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for me, a poor sinner."
-Words of St Bernadette Soubirous (1844-1879)