False visions which followed Lourdes

It is at Lourdes that large scale false apparitions, as a counter to genuine apparitions, seem to have come into their own. There is a report of “diabolical voices” during one of Bernadette’s apparitions, but this is discounted by Réne Laurentin. However, there is no question that a number of “imitation” seers, flourished at the time of the apparitions and after.

It was reported that on 10 April 1858 some women from Lourdes claimed to see the Blessed Virgin while praying at the grotto, and they were the first of many. They climbed up to the back of the grotto and along a small shaft to a hidden cavern. One of these, Claire-Marie Çazenave, aged twenty-two, claimed to have seen something in the shape of a woman, carrying a child, and dressed in white.

Two older women alleged that they too saw “something,” but they variously described it as a ten year old or a four year old girl. Their only source of lighting was candles, and it seems that what they saw was actually a white stalactite, which given heightened emotions, a little imagination, and flickering candlelight, might well have been turned into a lady or girl in white.

This was not apparent at this time though, and another woman also claimed to have seen “something” in the cavern on 14 April. A few days later a young girl had to be brought down from the cavern in some distress, claiming to have seen, “the Immaculate Conception, carrying a child in her arms, and standing beside her a man with a long beard.” All of this led to a great deal of confusion, causing some to believe in all these new “apparitions,” as well as Bernadette’s, while others rejected all talk of apparitions as nonsensical.

More sinister false visions

While the above “visions” might be classed as hysterical, others seem to have a more sinister provenance. More visionaries came forward, with another woman, Marie Bernard, claiming to have seen three persons in the grotto, an old man with a white beard, a young woman and a child. She said that the man held a bunch of keys in one hand and twirled his moustache with the other! This vision was repeated, but this time, according to Marie Bernard, the figures indulged in indecent gestures.

Clearly all this was very unhealthy, and the way events were developing is apparent from a description of another visionary, the Mayor’s servant, Marie Courrech. She struck a contemporary as completely inferior to Bernadette in terms of deportment and manner, and, in addition was subject to “sudden twitchings and convulsive movements. Often, when she saw her visions on the other side of the Gave, she would rush forward, explaining afterwards that the vision had been calling her to the grotto. If we had not restrained her with great difficulty, she would have thrown herself into the river.” (see Saint-Médard) 

Clearly it would have suited the devil’s purposes very well if someone had been drowned at Lourdes while trying to reach an imagined or diabolical vision.The number of visionaries, both male and female, continued to grow, and their antics persisted until the beginning of 1859. Twenty years later, Fr Cros, the most famous early chronicler of Lourdes, was able to discover more than thirty of these visionaries, and these were only the best known.

Many school pupils had claimed to see visions at the grotto, and witnesses described how they saw a girl of ten or eleven, shouting and screaming and claiming to have seen a vision.One young girl cried out that the “Lord” was going to recite a rosary, apparently oblivious to the fact that it was not possible that God would pray to Mary. On other occasions visionaries claimed the power to bless rosaries.

Particular child visionaries

Other children were described as follows: “Each of them held a rosary; but all the rosaries were new and unconsecrated: they did not want any others. They would hold the rosary loosely, with the crucifix on a level with their eyes, and the beads swinging in front of their faces: they used to run about in every direction, bent almost double, making strange faces and noises like young dogs baying at their prey …”

Another witness described what he saw when he followed a visionary as far as the mill near the grotto: “He went into a bedroom and started climbing up the curtains of the bed, with hideous grimaces: he was grinding or gnashing his teeth, and his eyes had a wild look.” Another reported how she “was present when Minino was having a vision: he was braying, and his face was so terrible that I could not bear to look at it.” The similarities with events at Saint-Médard are only too obvious.

These imitation visions also began to occur in neighbouring villages. This is a description of the activities of two children from Ossen, the Lacaze boys, Laurent aged ten and his brother aged eight: “For some considerable time they were, so to say, pursued and obsessed by the Vision. They ran after her in the streets and into houses as if they were on a hunt. Their cries were often more like howls and their movements awkward and ungainly: more often than not people were shocked by their disorderly and unseemly conduct.”

Another visionary performed an apparently preternatural feat of acrobatics in pursuit of a vision. The local Mayor compiled a report in which a witness stated that: “One day Jean-Pierre Pomiès, a boy of thirteen, was in the Lacaze house, standing about six feet from an attic window overlooking the courtyard. The window was two feet high by eighteen inches broad, and more than three feet from the floor. Suddenly the boy looked into the courtyard, saw a vision there, and disappeared like a flash of lightning through the window without touching the sides, landed on his feet in the yard and ran after the vision. This so upset me that I immediately withdrew, and when I got home, I said to my wife: ‘There’s something queer about this business: I can’t get over it.’ “

Presumably the drop from the attic window was considerable, and indeed Fr Cros, having examined the scene, found it “humanly inexplicable,” that anyone could have made such a leap. This visionary, like many others, had an intense aversion for blessed rosaries, and indeed blessed objects in general.The Curé of Ossen received this reply to a request for advice from the bishop, Mgr. Laurence: “I consider the boys Lacaze and Pomiès, the visionaries, to be suffering from an affliction of the nerves. They must be treated as such. As far as I can judge, there is nothing supernatural in their experiences. Celestial beings do not make futile remarks. They are not frivolous or familiar. If these children say or do unseemly things they must be scolded and treated with severity.”

Further disruption and its aftermath

The spirit behind these false visions also sought to stir up jealousies and antipathies in the locality of Lourdes. An inhabitant of Omex, another village nearby, reported that: “One day I was at the Grotto, and the young visionaries from Ossen, with many others from Lourdes, were in the hollow of the rock, when the Devil appeared to them.

Suddenly a voice could be heard, coming from the cleft in the rock, a very light voice, like that of a rather spoilt and affected child. The voice was saying: ‘In the valley of Batsurguère, and especially at Ossen, there are a lot of good people: at Lourdes they are only riff-raff.’ So I stood up in front of everybody and said: ‘Whoever it is, he’s more devilish than the Devil himself. The Blessed Virgin doesn’t despise anyone, and still less those who are badly in need of conversion.” ‘

Interestingly enough though, when Fr Cros interviewed the Ossen visionaries as adults, in 1878, he found that they had forgotten many of their experiences and indeed become excellent Christians. Laurent Lacaze did though “remember that I used to go to the Grotto with other children: [and] that I saw a kind of shadow, but I have no idea whether it had any outline, or whether it was a man or a woman.”

Jean-Pierre Pomiès went into more detail: “I used to go often to the Grotto, attracted by all the stories of what was going on there. During these visits I twice had a vision, the first time I saw a dazzling light in the hollow of the rock, and in the middle of it, a rather thick shadow. The light was neither red nor white, and stood about three feet high. I could not distinguish any face. This lasted about a quarter of an hour.”

These recollections of a Lourdes visionary are equally disturbing: “The other children would make faces, just as I did, and they would shout, but I didn’t know what they were shouting: I was afraid. I never went to the Grotto alone except by day. I would not have dared to go there at night if the women hadn’t come and fetched me. They believed I used to see the Blessed Virgin. … The women used to ask me: ‘What did you see?’ I used to answer: ‘The Blessed Virgin,’ but it was really a man that I saw. The face wasn’t always the same. There was sometimes a beard. Once I saw this being dressed in white, but I don’t remember noticing any feet or hands.”