anuary 7, 1844–April 16, 1879
What is Bernadette the patron saint of?
She was declared venerable by Pope Pius X in 1913 and beatified on June 14, 1925, by Pope Pius XI, who also declared her saint on December 8, 1933. Saint Bernadette is the patron of the ill, poor, sheep tenders and those ridiculed for their piety. Her feast day is February 18.
St. Bernadette of Lourdes was a French nun who lived in the 1800s. As a young teenager, she had a series of visions of the Virgin Mary in the Massabielle grotto, ultimately leading to the founding of the shrine of Lourdes.
“From this moment on, anything concerning me is no longer of any interest to me. I must belong entirely to God and God alone. Never to myself.”
Saint Bernadette Soubirous
Saint Bernadette Soubirous’ Story
Bernadette Soubirous was born in 1844, the first child of an extremely poor miller in the town of Lourdes in southern France. The family was living in the basement of a dilapidated building when on February 11, 1858, the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to Bernadette in a cave above the banks of the Gave River near Lourdes. Bernadette, 14 years old, was known as a virtuous girl though a dull student who had not even made her first Holy Communion. In poor health, she had suffered from asthma from an early age.
There were 18 appearances in all, the final one occurring on the feast of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, July 16. Although Bernadette’s initial reports provoked skepticism, her daily visions of “the Lady” brought great crowds of the curious. The Lady, Bernadette explained, had instructed her to have a chapel built on the spot of the visions. There, the people were to come to wash in and drink of the water of the spring that had welled up from the very spot where Bernadette had been instructed to dig.
According to Bernadette, the Lady of her visions was a girl of 16 or 17 who wore a white robe with a blue sash. Yellow roses covered her feet, a large rosary was on her right arm. In the vision on March 25 she told Bernadette, “I am the Immaculate Conception.” It was only when the words were explained to her that Bernadette came to realise who the Lady was.
Few visions have ever undergone the scrutiny that these appearances of the Immaculate Virgin were subject to. Lourdes became one of the most popular Marian shrines in the world, attracting millions of visitors. Miracles were reported at the shrine and in the waters of the spring. After thorough investigation, Church authorities confirmed the authenticity of the apparitions in 1862.
During her life, Bernadette suffered much. She was hounded by the public as well as by civic officials until at last she was protected in a convent of nuns. Five years later, she petitioned to enter the Sisters of Notre Dame of Nevers. After a period of illness, she was able to make the journey from Lourdes and enter the novitiate. But within four months of her arrival she was given the last rites of the Church and allowed to profess her vows. She recovered enough to become infirmarian and then sacristan, but chronic health problems persisted. She died on April 16, 1879, at the age of 35.
Bernadette Soubirous was canonized in 1933.
We all know the story of how Mary appeared to Bernadette, a simple girl of fourteen, at Lourdes. But what sometimes gets lost in the story is Bernadette’s strong faith. Her statements were challenged, over and over again, by Church officials and local authorities who attempted to catch her in lies and contradictions.
People were openly skeptical about why the Blessed Virgin would appear to a girl who was functionally illiterate, who at the time of the first apparition had not even made her First Communion. Bernadette was so unimportant! She lived with her family in a one-room cottage that had once served as a jail!
But Bernadette was spiritually indifferent to the doubts and verbal rocks thrown her way. With unfailing simplicity and calm, Bernadette shared what had happened—nothing more and nothing less—about the eighteen times in six months that she saw Our Lady. When investigators changed her words or tried to add to them, she corrected them. When they asked what it meant when Our Lady said, “I am the Immaculate Conception,” she said it was not her responsibility to explain these things, only to share the message.
And when the visions ceased, Bernadette did not make a single attempt to trade on her fame. She entered a convent—not leaving even for the dedication of the Lourdes Basilica. When someone asked why she herself, sickly her entire life, was not cured by the waters, Bernadette responded: “The Blessed Virgin perhaps desires for me to suffer. I need it.”
It can be tempting to do some self-aggrandisement, to inflate our own importance to the well-being of our family, our parish, or our employer. Yet we are all only vessels for God’s work in the world. May we, as Bernadette did, respond to the profound gifts we are given with humility, modesty, and clarity.
Millions of people have come to the spring Bernadette uncovered for healing of body and spirit, but she found no relief from ill health there. Bernadette moved through life, guided only by blind faith in things she did not understand—as we all must do from time to time.