Bernadette and Lourdes,
2, February 1858

By Donal Anthony Foley

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Bernadette and Lourdes, 2, February 1858 by Donal Anthony Foley

This article continues the story of Bernadette and Lourdes, and deals with further apparitions she received, and later events in her life.

On Saturday 27 February 1858, Bernadette had to carry out another humiliating request, when she was told once more to, “kiss the ground as a penance for sinners,” by the young woman only she was able to see, who also said to her: “You will tell the priests to have a chapel built here.” She visited Fr. Peyramale and delivered this message, but he told her that he needed to know who this Lady was and see some sort of sign before he could agree to having a chapel built.

During the apparition on the next morning, Sunday 28 February, when over a thousand people were present, Bernadette put Fr. Peyramale’s points to Our Lady, but only received a smile in answer. She was questioned again later that day, this time by a magistrate; but again she was not put out by his threats to imprison her, and in the end was released. In fact, the very thoroughness with which the authorities dealt with Bernadette is a striking testimony to the plausibility of the apparitions.

Meanwhile some workmen had dug a basin for the water which came from the spring, as talk about cures began to grow. These included cases such as that of a man who had been blinded in an accident but had now recovered his sight, as well as a young child who was cured of some form of consumptive wasting disease after being placed in the spring water. These particular cures were submitted to the episcopal commission and declared miraculous in 1862. By the end of the year it had become necessary to establish a medical commission to deal with an increasing number of cures, and this work was carried on by the Lourdes Medical Bureau from 1884.

Most of these cures have taken place either in the baths or during the Blessed Sacrament procession, but they probably represent only a small fraction of the many physical cures that have taken place at Lourdes, to say nothing of spiritual conversions.

On Monday 1 March, Bernadette saw the Lady before a crowd of about 1,500 and on the next day, before a similar crowd, she was given another message for Fr. Peyramale: the request for a chapel was repeated and she was also to ask him that people should come to the grotto in procession. The priest, however, said that he would do nothing until he knew the Lady’s name.

Thursday March 4, was the last day of the promised fortnight, and a great crowd, estimated at up to twenty thousand, thronged the area surrounding the grotto, in the expectation of some great sign. The Prefect, Baron Massy, had told the authorities to ensure that order was kept; but there was no great disturbance as Bernadette saw her beautiful Lady, and the people of Lourdes gazed on her transfigured features. Nothing spectacular happened, though, and Bernadette again had to confront Fr. Peyramale, who again insisted that the Lady would have to reveal her name before anything could be done about a chapel or processions.

Early on March 25, the feast of the Annunciation, Bernadette again made her way to the grotto, where Our Lady was already waiting for her. Bernadette asked her name, but she merely bowed and smiled, so Bernadette asked a second and a third time, to be given the same response. She persisted and asked again, and now the Blessed Virgin extended her arms to assume the position shown on the Miraculous Medal before rejoining them at the breast, looking up to heaven and saying, before disappearing, “I am the Immaculate Conception.”

Bernadette hurried off toward the presbytery, repeating the Lady’s strange words, so as not to forget them, since the phrase was a puzzle to her. Fr. Peyramale greeted her a little harshly, but was dumbfounded when Bernadette burst out with the words “I am the Immaculate Conception.” Controlling the emotion he felt, the priest asked if she knew what the words meant and when she replied that she did not, he sent her off telling her he would investigate the matter further. Soon, the news was all around Lourdes, as the local people realized the significance of the name the Lady had given herself.

An attempt had been made in late March to have Bernadette consigned to hospital on the grounds of mental instability. But this plan was thwarted by Fr. Peyramale, who told the Prefect that the police would have to step over his body to take Bernadette away. The next step in the campaign of harassment, in early May, was to declare the grotto an illegal place of worship, and when this failed to prevent people coming, it was closed on 8 June and the spring water declared unsanitary. Despite the opposition, though, larger crowds, including the governess of Emperor Napoleon III’s children, were coming to Lourdes, and it was not long before an order came from him that official opposition to Lourdes must cease.

But opposition came from more than one quarter. A series of false apparitions, generally involving other young girls from Lourdes and the surrounding villages, began in early February and lasted for some time. But their false nature began to become apparent when the activities of these copycat visionaries began to become ridiculous and bizarre, in contrast to the grace and dignity exhibited by Bernadette; eventually they had the opposite effect and tended to strengthen her testimony.

Bernadette was able to receive her first Holy Communion on the feast of Corpus Christi; and, significantly, she saw Mary for the last time from outside the grotto, on 16 July, the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, in a wordless apparition.

Bishop Laurence set up a Canonical Commission of Inquiry into the apparitions and their cause on 28 July, and Bernadette was first interviewed in mid-November; the Commission members were impressed by her testimony and by the evidence for a growing number of cures due to the miraculous spring. They met again two years later, and once more Bernadette’s testimony was convincing, but it was not until January 1862, nearly four years after the apparitions, that the bishop delivered his positive verdict on Lourdes in a pastoral letter.

Bernadette later became a nun, but her later years were increasingly marked by sufferings, due to asthma and a tubercular condition that caused her to cough blood. A tumor on her knee was particularly painful and her general condition meant she was often confined to bed for long periods. Her knee caused her terrible pain; it would often take an hour to change her position in bed, and she spent whole nights without sleep.

Bernadette died on 16 April 1879 at the age of thirty-five, at the convent in Nevers, but moves to canonize her did not begin until 1908; in the following year her body was exhumed and found to be incorrupt although slightly emaciated. Her cause progressed and she was eventually beatified in 1925, when her body was moved to a shrine in the convent chapel. It can still be seen there today, completely lifelike apart from a thin covering of wax on face and hands. She was finally canonized as St Bernadette in December 1933, as Lourdes became increasingly famous throughout the Catholic world.

This article appeared initially in the Wanderer.


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