The First Apparition of Our Lady of Lourdes

On the morning Thursday of February 11th, 1858, when the family awoke in the damp and miserable Cachot there was no more firewood for the fire and Bernadette pleaded with her mother to be allowed to find some new firewood. Eventually her mother consented, although she as always was concerned for her daughter and whether she would suffer another asthma attack. Bernadette and her sister, Toinette, and a friend, Jeanne Abadie, were told to fetch some firewood for the fire. It was while gathering firewood with her sister and a friend, near the grotto of Massabielle, that she would have her first vision.

As St. Bernadette herself says: “The first time I went to the grotto, was Thursday, 11th February, 1858. I went to gather firewood with two other little girls (Toinette, her sister, and their friend Jeanne Abadie). When we got to the mill (of Savy), I asked the other two if they would like to see where the water of the mill joins the River Gave. They said 'Yes.' From there we followed the canal. When we arrived there (at the foot of the rock of Massabielle) we found ourselves before a grotto.”

On land bordered by a loop of the River Gave (Gave de Pau), is an outcrop of rock called Massabielle (the word comes from "Massevielle" which means "old rock" in the local dialect). In this outcrop of rock, on its north side, there was an area near the river bank, where a naturally occurring, irregularly shaped shallow cave or grotto had been formed. The rock, in which we find the grotto, is about 70 feet high and is covered with shrubs and ivy. It seems to be supported by an enormous natural vault, which is nothing more than the grotto itself. It is here that the apparitions would take place.

Their path was obstructed by a small stream running into the river, at which point one of the girls suggested they take off shoes and stockings, wade across and continue searching on the opposite side. Bernadette never seemed to enjoy good health and was reluctant to go wading in cold water, fearing an attack of asthma. For it was a cold day, and she had been told by her mother not to get wet and risk catching a cold. Bernadette asked Jeanne to take her on her shoulders, but Jeanne refused and bluntly told Bernadette, “If you won’t come, stay where you are!”

Her sister and friend raced on and quickly removed their stockings in order to cross the river in front of the grotto. St. Bernadette continues in her own words: “As they could go no further, my two companions prepared to cross the water lying before their path; so I found myself alone on the other side. They crossed the water; they started to cry. I asked them why and they told me that the water was cold. I begged them to help me throw a few rocks into the water so that I could cross without taking my stockings off. They replied that I could do as they had done.”

Whilst being teased by her sister, she eventually decided to cross the river to help find the firewood. So she started looking for a place to cross where she wouldn’t get her stockings wet. She finally sat down in the grotto to take her shoes off in order to cross the water and was taking off her first sock when she heard the sound of rushing wind, but nothing moved. A wild rose in a natural niche in the grotto, however, did move. From the niche, or rather the dark alcove behind it, “came a dazzling light, and a white figure.” This was the first of 18 appearances that Our Lady would make to Bernadette. Here is St. Bernadette’s own account of the events (Taken from “Ecrits de Saint Bernadette” — The Writings of Saint Bernadette):

“I had hardly taken off the first stocking when I heard a sound like a gust of wind. Then I turned my head towards the meadow. I saw the trees quite still: I went on taking off my stockings. I heard the same sound again. As I raised my head to look at the grotto, I saw a Lady dressed in white, wearing a white dress, a blue girdle and a yellow rose on each foot, the same color as the chain of her Rosary; the beads of the Rosary were white.

“The Lady made a sign for me to approach; but I was seized with fear, and I did not dare, thinking that I was faced with an illusion. I rubbed my eyes, but in vain. I looked again, and I could still see the same Lady. Then I put my hand into my pocket, and took my Rosary. I wanted to make the sign of the cross, but in vain; I could not raise my hand to my forehead, it kept on dropping. Then a violent impression took hold of me more strongly, but I did not go.

“The Lady took the Rosary that she held in her hands and she made the sign of the cross. Then I commenced not to be afraid. I took my Rosary again; I was able to make the sign of the cross; from that moment I felt perfectly undisturbed in mind. I knelt down and said my Rosary, seeing this Lady always before my eyes. The Vision slipped the beads of her Rosary between her fingers, but she did not move her lips. When I had said my Rosary the Lady made a sign for me to approach, but I did not dare. I stayed in the same place. Then, all of a sudden, she disappeared.

“I started to remove the other stocking to cross the shallow water near the grotto so as to join my companions. And we went away. As we returned, I asked my companions if they had seen anything. ‘No,’ they replied. ‘And what about you? Did you see anything?’ ‘Oh, no, if you have seen nothing, neither have I.’

“I thought I had been mistaken. But as we went, all the way, they kept asking me what I had seen. I did not want to tell them. Seeing that they kept on asking I decided to tell them, on condition that they would tell nobody. They promised not to tell. They said that I must never go there again, nor would they, thinking that it was someone who would harm us. I said no. As soon as they arrived home they hastened to say that I had seen a Lady dressed in white. That was the first time.”

On realizing that she alone had seen the apparition, and not her companions, she asked her sister Toinette not to tell anyone what had happened. Toinette, however, was unable to keep silent, and told their mother, Louise Soubirous. Both girls received a beating, and Bernadette was forbidden by her mother from returning to the Grotto again.

The Litany of Our Lady of Lourdes (1)
The Litany of Our Lady of Lourdes (2)

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Bernadetta Soubirous

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The grotto of Massabielle (about 80 years ago)

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The grotto of Massabielle (today)

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The grotto of Massabielle (today)