Life and Soul

Saint of the week: St Bernadette (February 18)

Marie-Bernarde Soubirous was a peasant girl from one of the poorest regions of France who nonetheless became one of the most influential women in recent Church history.

She was born in 1844 in the Pyrenees, a region so remote that she could never speak fluent French: Our Lady would address Bernadette in her native Occitan. She was the eldest of nine children and the family fell on hard times soon after her birth. She suffered from cholera and asthma. Educated by the Sisters of Charity, she grew to be a pious girl, although the family’s fortune had declined so far that by the time she was 14 they were now living in a former jail.

It was in this year, on February 11, 1858, that she first saw a vision while out gathering firewood. This was the first of 18 such visions that would soon draw huge attention to the region. The town was divided over the apparitions, with some believing her to be insane; there was also some worry among local officials in a region teeming with rural grievances.

It was not until the 17th apparition that the vision identified itself as the Immaculate Conception; while on its 13th appearance it had told the young girl that “a chapel should be built and a procession formed”. The Church was initially sceptical, but her claims were eventually declared “worthy of belief” after a canonical investigation.

A chapel was constructed, along with a town built on pilgrimage (after Paris, Lourdes has the highest number of hotels in all France). The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes is now of the major Catholic sites in the world. The Basilica of St Pius X can accommodate 25,000 people.

As for Bernadette, she eventually learned to read and write and joined the Sisters of Charity. But her health never improved, and she died, aged 35, of tuberculosis. Following her death her body has remained internally incorrupt. In 1933 Pius XI declared her a saint. Her feast day is the anniversary of the day that Our Lady promised to make her happy – not in this life but the next.