Bernadette Soubirous was from a poor family in Lourdes in the south of France, in the foothills of the Pyrénées Mountains. On the evening of Thursday, February 11, 1858, at the age of 14, she went to gather firewood with her sister and a friend, and stopped at a grotto by a stream. Fearful because of her asthma, she hesitated while the others crossed the chilly waters to the other side. She described in her own words what happened then:
"I had just begun to take off my first stocking when suddenly I heard a great noise like the sound of a storm. I looked to the right and to the left, under the trees of the river, but nothing moved; I thought I was mistaken. I went on taking off my shoes and stockings, when I heard a fresh noise like the first. Then I was frightened and stood straight up. I lost all power of speech and thought when, turning my head toward the grotto, I saw at one of the openings of the rock a bush - only one - moving as if it were very windy.
Almost at the same time, there came out of the interior of the grotto a golden coloured cloud, and soon after a Lady, young and beautiful, exceedingly beautiful, the like of whom I had never seen before, came and placed herself at the entrance of the opening, above the rose bush. She was dressed with a brilliant white dress and tied to it was a blue ribbon; a long white veil that fell to her feet covered her body. Two gold color brilliant roses covered the top of her bare feet. Her hands were clasped together in front of her chest in a fervent, prayerful position. She looked at me immediately, smiled at me and signed to me to advance, as if She had been my Mother. All fear had left me, but I seemed to know no longer where I was. I rubbed my eyes, I shut them, I opened them; but the Lady was still there continuing to smile at me and making me understand that I was not mistaken. Without thinking of what I was doing I took my Rosary in my hands and went on my knees.
The Lady made with Her head a sign of approval and Herself took into Her hands a Rosary which hung on Her right arm. When I attempted to begin the Rosary and tried to lift my hand to my forehead, my arm remained paralysed, and it was only after the Lady had signed Herself that I could do the same. The Lady left me to pray all alone; She passed the beads of Her Rosary between Her fingers but She said nothing; only at the end of each decade did She say the Gloria with me. When the recitation of the Rosary was finished, the Lady returned to the interior of the rock and the golden coloured cloud disappeared with Her."
Bernadette met ridicule when the word spread about the episode. At first forbidden to return to the grotto, her mother gave in 3 days later, and she received a second visit from the Lady at the nearby grotto of Massabieille on Sunday. She returned Thursday February 18 for a Third Apparition, and the Lady asked her if she would return daily for fifteen days. In all Bernadette received 18 visits from the Lady, from Thursday, February 11 to Friday July 16, 1858.
During the Sixth Apparition on Sunday February 21, 1858, the Lady asked her to pray for sinners, and on the Eighth Apparition on Wednesday February 24, Bernadette appeared sad and cried out her first public message, Penitence, Penitence, Penitence.
It was during the Ninth Apparition on Thursday, February 25, 1858, that she was directed to "Drink from the fountain and bathe in it." This was puzzling, for there was no fountain there at Massabieille. But she began digging at a moist spot in the ground, and a small pool began to form. By the next day, the pool was overflowing, and water began to form a stream falling over the rocks.
In spite of severe opposition from the Police Commissioner, the Procurateur, and a multitude of sceptics, Bernadette continued to attend the grotto. Fortunately she received support from Dr. Dozous, the prominent physician of Lourdes, as well as a Monsieur Estrade.
At the Eleventh Apparition on Sunday, February 28, 1858, the Lady requested Bernadette to ask the clergy to build a chapel on the site of the Grotto. This was met with stern rejection by the Pastor Abbe Peyramale.
It was not until the Sixteenth Apparition, on Thursday March 25, 1858, on the Feast of the Annunciation, that the Lady revealed herself:
This Marian doctrine was declared a truth of the faith by Pope Pius IX in his Apostolic Constitution Ineffabilis Deus only four years earlier on December 8, 1854.
As she did not understand its meaning, she asked the Abbe what the words meant. Abbe Peyramale was staggered by these words. How could this simple peasant girl come up with this?! The Lady was Mary, the Mother of God!
At this point, there were from three to five thousand visitors a day at the grotto. The healing of a paralytic child at the grotto following the Seventeenth Apparition on Wednesday April 7 only served to swell the crowds. The authorities closed the grotto. It was not until Friday July 16, 1858, on the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, that Bernadette received the Eighteenth and final visit from the Blessed Virgin Mary. It took the Bishop only four years of investigation to approve the apparitions of Mary to Bernadette.
About seven thousand have since been cured at the Grotto of Massabieille, thanks to Our Lady of Lourdes, nearly seventy of which have been formally approved as miracles by the Church. Two Basilicas grace the property of the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes. The Basilica of the Immaculate Conception was built between 1866 and 1872 above the Grotto, and the Basilica of the Rosary was completed in 1901 below the Grotto.
Bernadette Soubirous was declared a Saint on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, December 8, 1933.