As a young 14-year-old girl, Bernadette Soubirous had multiple visions of the Blessed Lady in a grotto in the outskirts of Lourdes. Although her visions were widely doubted at the time, her humility, truthfulness and modesty encouraged many to believe. A few years after her reported visions, she became a nun and took the name Sister Marie Bernarde. She was later canonised by the Catholic Church. Lourdes has become one of the most popular locations of religious pilgrimage.
Short biography of Bernadette Soubirous
Bernadette was born on January 7th, 1844, into a loving and devoted family. At the time of her birth, her family were relatively prosperous; however, due to a series of misfortunes, her family were plunged into dire poverty. At one point, Bernadette’s father was arrested on suspicion of stealing firewood (a single wood plank); he was later released without charge, but the event was indicative of their poverty. Because of the family’s poverty, they were forced to live in a single room that used to be a prison cell. The cell was so dank that it was actually deemed to be too “unsanitary” even for prisoners. However, despite their material privations, the family were said to be loving and devoted to each other. The young children were brought up to accept their lot without complaint. Bernadette herself was generally very well liked and displayed great courtesy and kindliness to others. She suffered from ill health (asthma aggravated by damp living quarters) and because of the family’s poverty she missed the opportunity to get a proper schooling. When she was 14, she was still studying the basic Catechism with 7-year-old children. Thus she was intellectually ignorant of concepts such as the Immaculate Conception, which was soon to have a great impact on her life.
First Vision of the Virgin Mary
On February 11th, 1858, Bernadette had her first vision of ‘a beautiful lady’. During a mission to collect firewood, Bernadette stumbled across a grotto that at the time was filled with rubbish washed up from the river. As her friends went on to collect firewood, she was left in the grotto. In her own words she describes the vision she saw:
“I came back towards the grotto and started taking off my stockings. I had hardly taken off the first stocking when I heard a sound like a gust of wind. Then I turned my head towards the meadow. I saw the trees quite still: I went on taking off my stockings. I heard the same sound again. As I raised my head to look at the grotto, I saw a Lady dressed in white, wearing a white dress, a blue girdle and a yellow rose on each foot, the same color as the chain of her rosary; the beads of the rosary were white.”
Bernadette describes how initially she felt bewilderment, but after a while, she felt overcome with a great peace.
On returning home, she reluctantly told her companions, and they proceeded to tell her parents. As a result, her mother forbade her from returning. Usually, Bernadette was very obedient to her parent’s wishes but, in this instance, Bernadette felt inwardly compelled to return. After mass on Sunday, she found her way back to the grotto where she once again experienced a vision of the “Lady in White.” (Aquero) On Thursday, February 18th, she made her way again for the third time. This time she was accompanied by a few grown-ups who advised her to take a pen and paper. This was the first time that the lady spoke to her. The lady said it would not be necessary to write anything down, but if she could do her the favour of coming here for the next fortnight. It was also on the third visit that the lady said to Bernadette:
“she could not promise to make me happy in this world, only in the next.”
Over the next fortnight, the visions of Bernadette created remarkable interest and speculation within the village of Lourdes. Many thousands of people began to accompany her to the grotto. Several witnesses remarked how they felt a reverential atmosphere during Bernadette’s visions; they could see in her face a deep absorption – an otherworldly consciousness.
“What struck me was the joy, the sadness reflected in Bernadette’s face … Respect, silence, recollection reigned everywhere. Oh it was good to be there – It was like being at the gates of paradise.”
Fr. Desirat, Lourdes, March 1st, 1858
Criticism and Disbelief of Bernadette
However, although some believed they were witnessing a miraculous occurrence, others in the town were both critical and suspicious. Town elders and the police brought Bernadette several times in for questioning; she even had to undergo medical testing to prove she wasn’t fit for a mental asylum. Great pressure was placed on Bernadette to avoid going back to the grotto. However, under cross-examination, she retained a childlike innocence and also an implacable faith in the veracity of the experiences she had witnessed. Despite frequent and intense examination, they were unable to find flaws in her tales. She didn’t seek to exaggerate or materially profit from her experiences. (see transcript from Bernadette’s cross-examination)
Bernadette and the Spring of Lourdes
On the ninth apparition, Bernadette was asked by the Lady to drink from the spring. Yet, Bernadette could not see any spring, (there was none at the time) therefore she began digging with her bare hands in a muddy patch and drank a few drops of muddy water; the lady also asked her to eat some loose grasses. To the onlookers this appeared to be a disgusting act (Bernadette’s face was covered in mud until her relatives wiped it clean with a handkerchief) Many returned in dismay, proclaiming it was a fraud after all. However, in the following days, water started to flow from the spring where Bernadette had been digging. From this water flowed a spring in which people started to have miraculous healing experiences, and this remains one of the great attractions of Lourdes to this day.
After this incident, the interviews and questioning intensified. (see excerpts from the interview with Bernadette) The Lady also asked Bernadette to go to her parish priest to request the building of a chapel at the site of the Grotto. Initially, her own parish priest greeted her with great scepticism and even hostility. She found it very difficult to speak with Father Dominique Peyramale. (Father Peyramale would later relent and, indeed, he became one of her most stalwart supporters, feeling that Bernadette was a uniquely saintly character). However, Father Peyramale requested that her lady reveal her name. On several occasions, the angelic lady only smiled when Bernadette had asked her name. But on March 25th the Lady stated to Bernadette “Que soy era Immaculada Councepciou.” “I am the Immaculate Conception” At the time, Bernadette did not realise the significance of these words. (The doctrine on the Immaculate conception of Mother Mary had only recently been approved by the Vatican). But she repeated the words inwardly to avoid forgetting them before speaking the words to her astonished priest.
Two more apparitions were to follow this announcement by the lady. In Bernadette’s apparitions, people noticed how Bernadette seemed to slip into ecstasy. One witness to these apparitions was Dr. Dozous:
“She was on her knees saying with fervent devotion the prayers of her Rosary which she held in her left hand while in her right was a large blessed candle, alight. The child was just beginning to make the usual ascent on her knees when suddenly she stopped and, her right hand joining her left, the flame of the big candle passed between the fingers of the latter.
Though fanned by a fairly strong breeze, the flame produced no effect upon the skin which it was touching. Astonished at this strange fact, I forbade anyone there to interfere, and taking my watch in my hand, I studied the phenomenon attentively for a quarter of an hour. At the end of this time Bernadette, still in her ecstasy, advanced to the upper part of the Grotto, separating her hands. The flame thus ceased to touch her left hand. Bernadette finished her prayer and the splendour of the transfiguration left her face.
She rose and was about to quit the Grotto when I asked her to show me her left hand. I examined it most carefully, but could not find the least trace of burning anywhere upon it. I then asked the person who was holding the candle to light it again and give it to me. I put it several times in succession under Bernadette’s left hand but she drew it away quickly, saying ‘You are burning me!’
I record this fact just as I have seen it without attempting to explain it. Many persons who were present at the time can confirm what I have said.”
On Friday, July 16th Bernadette made one final pilgrimage to the Lady. Under the instructions of the bishop and local authorities she wasn’t able to enter the grotto, but even from across the river, she felt that the lady was as close to her as in the cave. Silently they said goodbyes; during the apparitions of the Blessed Virgin, the Virgin Mary made several revelations to Bernadette. She asked Bernadette to do penance and pray for sinners. She also told her one secret she was not to reveal to anyone and this she never did.
Bernadette and the Virgin Mary
Bernadette described Our Lady as being very young and very beautiful. In her own words:
“so lovely that, when you have seen her once, you would willingly die to see her again!” 
Later, many would try to reproduce the Lady through art, statues and paintings. However, Bernadette was never satisfied with the outcome. She was particularly disappointed with the statue created for the grotto; Bernadette noted many differences. But, also it was as if the beauty of her visions could never be captured through the images of the world.
Life after the Apparitions
Bernadette never sought publicity or name and fame, in many ways she wished to live a quiet life; after the apparitions, she became increasingly attracted towards living a religious cloistered life. The miracles of Lourdes had become a significant national event, attracting the attention of many people from all over the country. For a couple of years, she had to patiently meet many well-wishers, sceptics, disbelievers and the curious who wished to hear directly from the ‘Visionary of Lourdes’ herself. Many reported how Bernadette was always very patient, kind and tolerant of the many uninvited visitors. Even sceptics were impressed with her evident sincerity, humility and simplicity; it is said that as she recounted her memories of seeing the Virgin Mary, her eyes would light up giving a powerful credence to her reminiscences.
Although she patiently met visitors, Bernadette was increasingly attracted to the idea of entering a Carmel Convent, but her weak health made the demanding routines of the Carmelite convent unsuitable. In the end, she settled on entering the Convent at Nevers.
Sister Marie Bernard
For the next 13 years, Bernadette (now called Sister Marie Bernarde) lived the simple life of a nun, eschewing the fame and attention that would have accompanied any worldly life. During her time as a nun, she frequently suffered from ill health. On one occasion she wryly remarked her only function was to “suffer”. However, her humility, obedience and cheerful attitude adhered her to the other sisters. In particular, young novices often gained much inspiration from spending time with Marie Bernard (the monastic name of Bernadette) Throughout her life, many noted how Bernadette made the sign of the cross with great devotion and sincerity. In prayer, her face often stood out, shining with an inner fervour. Although, Bernadette would refer to herself as the ‘stupid one’ and felt unworthy of the many graces she had received, to others her spirituality and saintliness were more than self-evident.
Despite suffering tremendously, she never complained, but continued to offer, in her own words, her “feeble prayers.”
On arriving at the convent, all the sister were invited into the chapel where Bernadette was asked to recount her visions for the benefit of the sisters. After this time, the Mother Superior requested that the matter should never be referred to again. Bernadette was quite happy to accept this injunction as she herself wished to move on from merely repeating her stories. However, many senior clergy and other dignitaries came to the convent with the hope of speaking to the young visionary. On most occasions, the Convent gave permission for the senior priests to have an interview with Bernadette. Bernadette, with failing health, found these repeated interviews quite exhausting and on occasions tried to escape. However, although she felt drained from giving so many interviews, Bernadette would always answer the questions with good grace and humility. In these interviews, she displayed remarkable patience and modesty, even though she had to frequently repeat the same answers. She was also frequently asked to reveal the “secrets of the lady” – this, of course, she never did.
Death of Bernadette Soubirous
Prior to her death, Bernadette seemed to suffer from various ailments and afflictions. For several months she had been unable to take an active part in the convent lifestyle. For long periods she was confined to her bed. When asked why she didn’t go to Lourdes for healing, she replied, “It is not for me.”
Sister Nathalie Portat was present during the final day of Bernadette’s life. She remarked how in the afternoon the patient seemed to be tortured by an inexpressible interior agony and asked for those nearby to pray for her soul.
“At the words of the Angelic Salutation: “Holy Mary, Mother of God”, the dying woman revived, and, in a voice full of conviction, a voice that in her final moments expressed her profound humility and her daughterly confidence in the Immaculate Virgin, she twice repeated: “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for me, a poor sinner.” – Sister Nathalie Portat 
A few moments later Bernadette made a large sign of the cross, drank a few drops of water and left her mortal body.
Saint Bernadette Soubirous
Following the events of the apparitions, a papal investigation was founded. After long deliberation and careful examination of the evidence, it was declared that the visions of the Virgin Mary really did occur at the Grotto of Lourdes.
She received Beatification in 1925 and Canonization in 1933 under Pope Pius XI, not so much for the content of her visions, but rather for her simplicity and holiness of her life. St Bernadette is the patron saint of sick persons and also of the family and poverty.
30 years after her death, Bernadette’s body was exhumed and found to be intact. Since 1925, the body of Bernadette is preserved in a shrine in the chapel of the Convent of St.Gildard of Nevers. Espace St. Gildard Convent in Nevers, France [link]
Citation: Tejvan Pettinger. “Biography of Bernadette Soubirous”, Oxford, UK. www.biographyonline.net, 24th Nov. 2007. Updated 21st March 2017.
Useful books on Bernadette Soubirous:
St. Bernadette Soubirous: 1844-1879
St. Bernadette Soubirous: 1844-1879 by Francois Trochu at Amazon
St. Bernadette Soubirous: In her own words
St. Bernadette Soubirous: In her own words by Rene Laurentin at Amazon
 Bernadette Speaks by Rene Laurentin
 A Holy Life, by Patricia A. McEachern p; 201
- Quotes by Bernadette Soubirous
- Excerpts from the cross-examination of Bernadette Soubirous
- Bernadette Soubirous at Catholic Pilgrim
- Bernadette Soubirous Incorrupt relic
Films About Bernadette Soubirous
- Bernadette Soubirous – starring Sydney Penny and Roland Lesaffre (probably closest to historical accuracy)
- The Passion of Bernadette – sequel to the previous film, focusing on her cloistered life
- Bernadette of Lourdes (1962) starring Josée Steiner, Renaud Mary, Blanchette Brunoy, and Madeleine Sologne
- Je m’appelle Bernadette (2011) starring Katia Miran
- Song of Bernadette at Amazon.com
- Song of Bernadette at Amazon.co.uk
- View: DVD review “Song of Bernadette” starring Jennifer Jones
- Differences between film “Song of Bernadette” and Real life of Bernadette Soubirous
- Image bottom: Sister Marie Bernarde – in-corrupt body, after exhumation. Her body is still displayed in a glass coffin at the convent of Nevers.
- Image second to bottom. Copyright (c) by St. Bernadette Institute – All rights reserved
- Image by Bernadette and Spring of Lourdes, from the Grotto of Lourdes with the statue that Bernadette never cared for.
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