Saint of the Day – 16 April – Saint Bernadette Soubirous (1844-1879) Marian Visionary of Lourdes, Virgin, Consecrated Religious. Born on 7 January 1844 at Lourdes, Hautes-Pyrénées, France and died on 16 April 1879, Nevers, Nièvre, France of natural causes, aged 35. Patronages – Bodily illness, Lourdes, France, shepherds and shepherdesses, against poverty, people ridiculed for their faith. She was Canonised on 8 December 1933 by Pope Pius XI. Her Body is incorrupt and is on display in Nevers, France.
The eldest of nine children, only four of whom survived childhood, Marie-Bernarde Soubirous was born at Lourdes, in the foothills of the Pyrenees. After her father, a miller, lost his job in 1854, the family was exposed to the direst extremes of poverty.
By the time she was 14, Bernadette had been sick so often that she hadn’t grown properly. She was the size of a much younger girl. She, her parents and her younger brothers and sisters all lived in a tiny room at the back of someone else’s house, a building that had actually been a prison many years before. They slept on three beds: one for the parents, one for the boys and one for the girls. Every night they battled mice and rats. Every morning, they woke up, put their feet on cold stone floors and dressed in clothes that had been mended more times than anyone could count. Each day they hoped the work they could find would bring them enough bread to live on that day.
“Bernadette” grew up uneducated, undernourished and asthmatic, obliged to work as a waitress and a farmhand. The little girl spoke in a Basque dialect and could scarcely read or write. She did, however, imbibe from her parents a deep Catholic devotion.
By 1856 the Soubirous were living in an abandoned prison cell which stank of sewage. On 11 February 1858 Bernadette, with her sister Toinette and a friend, went to gather firewood. In a grotto beside the River Gave, at a place used as a watering hole for pigs, she saw a vision of a “Lady” wearing a white dress, a blue girdle and a yellow rose on each foot. Bernadette’s companions saw nothing and she herself wondered whether her experience had been an illusion. Three days later, though, she returned to the grotto, and again saw the apparition. On 18 February her third visit, the vision spoke for the first time, asking for her presence over the next fortnight. Next day, the Lady instructed Bernadette to tell the priests to build a chapel at the grotto.
Crowds began to gather to witness the regular phenomenon of the small girl in ecstasy. The police, concerned, interrogated Bernadette, who related her experiences with clarity and conviction. Local interest quickened after the Lady told Bernadette to drink from a muddy trickle in the grotto. By the morrow the trickle had turned into an active spring.
On 4 March at the end of the prescribed fortnight, a crowd of 10,000 gathered to watch Bernadette. In fact, she would experience three more apparitions, bringing the total to 18. Chivied by the parish priest, she insisted that the Lady should give her name. “I am the Immaculate Conception,” came the reply, in perfect Basque dialect. Bernadette had no idea what this meant. She repeated it to herself over and over on her way back to the village so she wouldn’t forget the strange, long words. When she told her parish priest what the lady had said, he was quite surprised. The priest knew that what the mysterious lady had said meant that she was Mary, Jesus’ mother. The mysterious lady of the grotto had told Bernadette who she was. But it was not very common for people—especially poor little girls who couldn’t read—to think of Mary as the “immaculate conception,” a phrase that reminds us of how God saved Mary from sin even before she was born. The Blessed Virgin also told her: “I do not promise to make you happy in this world but in the next,” the apparition had told her.
Disliking the attention she was attracting, Bernadette went to the hospice school run by the Sisters of Charity of Nevers where she had learned to read and write. Although she considered joining the Carmelites, her health precluded her entering any of the strict contemplative orders. On 29 July 1866, with 42 other candidates, she took the religious habit of a postulant and joined the Sisters of Charity at their motherhouse at Nevers. Her Mistress of Novices was Sister Marie Therese Vauzou. The Mother Superior at the time gave her the name Marie-Bernarde in honour of her godmother who was named “Bernarde”.
Bernadette spent the rest of her brief life there, working as an assistant in the infirmary and later as a sacristan, creating beautiful embroidery for altar cloths and vestments. Her contemporaries admired her humility and spirit of sacrifice. One day, asked about the apparitions, she replied:
“The Virgin used me as a broom to remove the dust. When the work is done, the broom is put behind the door again.” and “They think I’m a saint,” she observed. “When I’m dead they’ll come and touch holy pictures and rosaries to me, and all the while I’ll be getting boiled on a grill in purgatory.”
She later contracted tuberculosis of the bone in her right knee. She had followed the development of Lourdes as a pilgrimage shrine while she still lived at Lourdes but was not present for the consecration of the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception there in 1876.
For several months prior to her death, she was unable to take an active part in convent life. She eventually died of her long-term illness at the age of 35 on 16 April 1879 (Easter Wednesday) while praying the holy rosary. On her deathbed, as she suffered from severe pain and in keeping with the Virgin Mary’s admonition of “Penance, Penance, Penance,” Bernadette proclaimed that “all this is good for Heaven!” Her final words were, “Blessed Mary, Mother of God, pray for me! A poor sinner, a poor sinner”.
In the 1858 Lourdes apparitions, the Blessed Virgin Mary declared herself as the Immaculate Conception to the innocent little shepherd girl named Bernadette: … The Immaculate Conception (CCC, 490-3)