It began very simply. On February 11, 1858, a fourteen-year-old French girl was gathering wood with her sister and a friend on the outskirts of a village in the foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains. As they walked, the girl heard a noise like a gust of wind, and looked up to see a woman dressed in white and glowing with light standing in an opening in the rock above her. The woman smiled at the girl, who later said that the lady was the loveliest thing she had ever seen. Over the course of the next five months the woman would appear to the girl seventeen more times, bringing a series of messages that would make Lourdes one of the most famous pilgrimage places in the world and the girl, Bernadette Soubirous, a saint.
Today more than five million people stand before that same rock each year, seeking healing in a place that has become synonymous with miracles. They light candles, march in procession, and drink from the water that flows from the grotto. Most of all they pray, following the example set by the simple peasant girl who was transfixed by a radiant vision of light on that February day.
The place where Bernadette received her visions was known by the villagers as Massabielle, or the old rock. It was hardly a scenic spot, for below the outcropping was a dirty and unkempt area where pigs rooted. The beautiful visions experienced by Bernadette were all the more startling because of the filth that lay just below where the lady appeared.
The first vision was without words. “I saw a young lady dressed in white,” Bernadette would later recount. “She wore a white dress, with an equally white veil, a blue belt and a yellow rose on each foot.”
Her sister and friend didn’t share in the vision, but Bernadette in her excitement couldn’t keep her experience to herself. When they returned home, her sister told their mother what had happened. Bernadette was sternly warned not to go to Massabielle again, but an inner force drew her back and Bernadette returned to the spot three days later. Again the lady appeared, and Bernadette prayed the rosary in front of her, as she had done during the first apparition. When Bernadette sprinkled holy water at her, the lady smiled and bent her head.
During the third apparition, the lady spoke for the first time when Bernadette asked her to write her name. “It is not necessary,” she replied, then added, “I do not promise to make you happy in this world but in the other. Would you be kind enough to come here for a fortnight?”
Word of the strange events occurring at Massabielle quickly spread. Onlookers began to gather when Bernadette went to the outcropping. While they didn’t share in the visions, they could see that Bernadette was transfixed by some mysterious force while standing before the grotto. She was immune to distraction and impervious to pain (once a large pin was even stuck into her shoulder to try to break her trance).
The fortnight requested of Bernadette stretched into five months, with the lady appearing again and again to Bernadette. Disturbed by the growing crowds and worried that the visions were of demonic origin, local civic and church authorities urged Bernadette to confess to lying, but she held firm in her story.
During the ninth apparition, Bernadette astonished the hundreds of people who were present by suddenly falling to her knees and digging in the dirt. The lady had told her to dig, and when she did a spring appeared. A few days later a woman immersed her injured arm in the water and was miraculously healed. Once word of the healing spread, even more people flocked to the grotto.
The lady continued to give Bernadette messages, saying that she wanted people to repent and do penance, and that priests were to build a chapel at the grotto and lead processions there. During the sixteenth apparition, she finally gave Bernadette an answer to the question of her identity: “I am the Immaculate Conception,” she said, using a phrase that puzzled the young girl.
By the time of the last vision on July 16, so many people were gathering at the grotto that barriers had been erected to keep the crowds under control. Even Bernadette herself couldn’t approach the scene, and so her final vision of the lady was from across the Gave River. The woman was more beautiful than ever, Bernadette said, and she felt as if she was standing right before her instead of across the river.
While the visions had ended, the story of Lourdes was just beginning. After at first distancing themselves from the story, church officials eventually embraced Bernadette’s visions, in large part because of the lady’s statement that she was the Immaculate Conception. The phrase referred to a theological doctrine that had been declared official church teaching just four years before, the belief that Mary had been conceived without original sin. The uneducated Bernadette didn’t know the significance of the phrase, but simply repeated it to her local priest. The statement supported the belief that the Virgin Mary had indeed chosen to appear in this obscure mountain village.
The fame of the grotto also grew because of the healings that started to happen there. First it was the woman with the injured arm, then a man who regained sight in an eye. As word spread, the sick began to flock to Lourdes from throughout Europe. In an age when medical care was still primitive, many people sought cures from the water that was said to have miraculous properties. The area in front of Massabiele was cleared of rubbish, and in 1871 the Church of the Immaculate Conception was completed. At around the same time the spring uncovered by Bernadette was piped to baths where the sick could immerse themselves and was also sent to fountains where pilgrims could drink and fill containers to take home.