Bernadette Soubirous — the simplicity of refined soul

Bernadette's canonization in 1933 was the culmination of a process which had been started nearly three-quarters of a century earlier. The remarkable facts of her life are readily accessible to all. Her story even challenges the interest of those who do not share the Catholic faith. Christianity had its beginnings among humble people without influence or riches, such as Bernadette. Perhaps it is a natural human instinct to rejoice when the lowly are lifted up to the heights, and especially when a child, neglected and untaught, is chosen for special grace and favor, thus becoming an instrument for good.

The childhood

Bernadette Soubirous was born in Lourdes, France, on January 7, 1844, Bernadette was the first child of Francois and Louise Soubirous. At the time of her birth, Francois was a miller, operating a mill which had belonged to his wife's people. He was a good-natured, easy-going man, with little ability for carrying on a business, and before many years the mill had been forfeited for debt. During most of Bernadette's childhood he was an odd job man, picking up a day's work as opportunity offered, and, from time to time, escaping from his problems and responsibilities by turning to the delusive comfort of alcohol. His wife and children, naturally, were the chief sufferers from his ineffectualness. Louise, whose family was of somewhat better economic status than her husband's, was a hard worker, a warm-hearted neighbor, and exemplary in her observance of Catholic rites. Within a short space of years many children were born to her, only five of whom survived infancy. After Bernadette, there was another girl, Toinette Marie, and three boys. To help feed and clothe them it was often necessary for their harassed mother to go out to work by the day, doing laundry and other rough tasks for the more prosperous citizens, and, on one occasion, at least, helping to harvest a crop of grain. A peasant woman of the region has told of seeing little Bernadette, then about twelve, carrying the youngest baby to Louise in the field, to be nursed during the noon-day rest period. As a child, Bernadette not only did more than might be expected in caring for the smaller children, but helped in their moral and religious training as well.

Bernadette was never strong, and from the age of six she showed symptoms of the respiratory ailment that later became a chronic affliction. It is not clear at this early stage whether she suffered from asthma or tuberculosis, but we know that her mother was anxious about her health and made an effort to provide special food for her. When Bernadette was thirteen she was sent to the neighboring mountain hamlet of Bartres, to the home of one Marie Arevant, her foster mother. It was here that Bernadette had been taken for a few months when she was still an infant, to be nursed by Madame Arevant, who had just lost a baby. The woman now had a large family and little Bernadette made herself useful in the house and in the fields. One of her duties was to tend a small flock of sheep that grazed on a hillside nearby; it is this brief phase of her girlhood that has inspired artists to picture her as a shepherdess. Her life was a lonely one, and we get the impression that she was overworked and homesick while she remained in this peasant home. At all events she sent word to her parents that she wished to leave Bartres. One thing seemed especially to disturb her at this time; although she was now fourteen, she had not made her First Communion. Her foster mother had tried half-heartedly to prepare her, but after one or two sessions had impatiently given it up, saying that Bernadette was too dull to learn.

The First Communion

When Bernadette went back to Lourdes, it made her very happy to be admitted to the day school conducted by the Sisters of Charity and Christian Instruction. This was a teaching and nursing order whose mother-house is at Nevers, in central France. A hospice, a day school, and a boarding school were maintained at Lourdes by these devout nuns, who were, as a group, unusually well trained. Thus Bernadette at last began her secular education, and, under Abbe Pomian, continued to prepare for First Communion. She was also learning a little French, for up to this time she spoke only the local dialect. The nuns discovered that beneath a quiet, modest exterior, Bernadette had a winning personality and a lively sense of humor. This might have been a happy and constructive time for the little girl had it not been for the ever-increasing shadows of poverty at home.

Bernadette imbibed her faith from those around her and was completely familiar with the rosary she carried with her everywhere. Like the general population of the area she had a simple but rugged faith in God. It was typical of her that when she first saw the Lady in the grotto she instinctively pulled out her rosary and began to pray.

The grotto

After moving from one poor location to another, the Soubirous family was now living in a single room of a dilapidated structure in the rue des Petits Fosses; this damp, unwholesome place had once served as a jail and was known as Le Cachot, the Dungeon. Above loomed an ancient fortress, and the narrow cobbled street had once been a part of the moat. The town of Lourdes, itself very old, is situated in one of the most picturesque parts of France, lying in the extreme southwest, near the Spanish frontier, where the Pyrenees mountains rise sharply above the plains. From the craggy, wooded heights, several valleys descend to converge at this site, and the little river Gave rushes through the town, its turbulent current turning the wheels of many mills. There are escarpments of rock in and around Lourdes, the most famous being the Massabielle, a great mound jutting out from the base of a plateau. On the side facing the river it had an arch-shaped opening which led into a sizeable grotto-a grotto that was soon destined to become famous in every part of the world.

Apparitions of Our Lady in Lourdes

It was very cold on February 11, 1858, the day that was to mark the beginning of such an extraordinary series of events at the rock of Massabeille. Our Lady appeared to Bernadette many times in grotto Massabielle. About apparition of Our Lady we write in section: Apparition of Our Lady / Lourdes.

On a June day in 1858, Fr. Peyramale noticed a girl's head encircled by a halo as he gave her Holy Communion. When she raised her head, he recognised her as Bernadette Soubirous.

At the time of the visions she experienced at Massabielle Bernadette revealed two sides to her character. Humbly aware of her family’s poverty and her own backwardness, she was extremely modest and respectful in her manner. On the other hand she was invariably straightforward, honest and direct when interviewed, never embroidering her accounts. She recoiled in horror when people tried to press money into her hand and was scornful of those urging her to bless their rosaries. ‘I don’t have a purple stole,’ she reminded them. When a visiting Bishop offered to exchange his gold-mounted rosary for hers she thanked him but said quite firmly that she preferred her own.

In her scholarly book, ‘Lourdes’, Ruth Harris tells a charming story which reveals her reaction to scepticism: “The Comte de Broussard, a debauched atheist, talked to Bernadette in July, 1858, purely to “catch the little one in a blatant lie”. His first glance told him she was “common enough”, but her simplicity and self assurance soon disturbed him. After hearing the story of the apparitions, he asked Bernadette to show him how the “belle dame” (beautiful lady) smiled.

“Oh, Monsieur, you’d have to be from heaven to imitate that smile.”

“Can’t you do it for me? I’m a non-believer and don’t hold with apparitions.”

The child’s countenance darkened. “Then sir, you think I am a liar?”

I was completely disarmed. No, Bernadette was not a liar, and I was on the point of going down on my knees to ask her forgiveness.

“Since you are a sinner,” she went on, "I will show you the Virgin’s smile.”

Since then I have lost my wife and two daughters, but it seems to me that I am far from being alone in the world. I live with the Virgin’s smile.’”

Under the care of the sisters

The Sisters of Charity of Nevers, who conducted a hospital at Lourdes, offered to care for Bernadette, whose health was greatly impaired. Her parents acquiesced, and the child left her home to take up her abode with the Sisters. Ostensibly she was at the hospital as an indigent invalid, but in reality she was not subjected to the regime of the sick poor. She had a room apart, bright and healthful, and at table she had a place among the students of the school. Despite all the care lavished on her, she became feebler in health, and was at the point of death, but rallied, and recovered, but was always ailing.

Innumerable visitors made her life here, from the age of sixteen to twenty-two, a series of receptions. She was always patient, and never refused to see any one. She had, on certain feast days, scarcely time to take her meals. Although she disliked this publicity, she felt that she was an apostle of devotion to Our Lady of Lourdes, and recounted overhand over the details of the apparition.

When the Bishop of Nevers visited the hospital and suggested it was time for her to consider getting married, she replied: “As for that—no way!” When he then proposed entry to a convent she regretted that as well, as always being ill, she was too poor to provide the customary dowry, adding, “Besides, I know nothing and am good for nothing.”

Bernadette becomes a nun

In July, 1866, she resolved to become a member of the order of Sisters of Charity. The time arrived for her to bid farewell to the grotto, her family, and the good Sisters, who had cared for her. On the evening of her departure, she repaired to the grotto accompanied by the religious of the hospital. She was very much affected and a torrent of tears poured from her eyes. She prostrated herself on the ground and exclaimed: "O my mother! My mother! How can I leave you!"

The Sisters, witnessing her keen suffering, gently signified that it was time to leave. She asked for another minute. The delay was granted, but finally the Sisters were obliged to take her by the arms and lead her away. With heroic resolution, she forced back the tears, took a last look at the grotto, and walked quickly towards the town. The Sisters asked her why she was so affected, and if she did not know that the Blessed Virgin was her mother everywhere.

She replied: "O yes, I know it, but at Lourdes the grotto is my Heaven." Her parting with her family was most affecting. On entering her home, she fell fainting into the arms of her .mother. She bade each one an affectionate farewell, and then as she heard the carriage wheels rolling up to the door, she tore herself from the arms of her parents, and rushed out, saying several times, "Adieu! Adieu!".

She made a short visit to the hospital to bid good bye to the Sisters with whom she had lived for six years, and departed, never to see Lourdes again.

In novitiate of the Sisters of Charity

On July 8, 1866, Bernadette entered the novitiate of the Sisters of Charity, at Nevers. She received the name of Sister Mary Bernard. Except for the first months of her religious life, she suffered almost continually from physical infirmity. She was at death's door at one time during the first year of her novitiate. She received the last sacraments, and the bishop of the diocese, believing that she was dying, granted her permission to make her religious vows. She recovered, and was able to return to the novitiate. She renewed her vows in solemn profession, in the presence of Monsigneur Farcade, the Bishop of Nevers, in the chapel of the mother house of Saint Gildard on October 30, 1867. For a short period, she ministered to the sick in the infirmary, but was obliged to relinquish this function of consoling the infirm, which was especially dear to her.

The Superior of the convent entrusted her with the care of the chapel of the community. Here she was engaged in light work which did not tax her strength. In this charge she revealed an aptitude that was not suspected in her. She exhibited an exquisite taste in decorating the altars, and became an adept in the use of the needle. There are preserved in the convent, as relics, specimens of embroidery executed by her, which in design and finish are of superior excellence. Her sufferings from physical debility increased day by day. Asthma, rheumatism, tumors, caries of the bone, hemorrhages, caused intense and agonizing pain.

One day a Sister said to her: "I wonder, Sister, that you do not ask to be cured."

"No," she answered, "I am not going to. I am not going to ask for that. Our Lord would say: 'Look at that little nun! she is not willing to suffer anything for Me, tyfho have suffered so much for her!' "

The perpetual vows

After twelve years of a model religious life, she made perpetual vows on September 22, 1878. A few days after her final and solemn consecration* to God, she was obliged to go to the infirmary, where she remained till her death. On December 12 she was required to proclaim again, by a last and solemn testimony, the marvels which the Immaculate Virgin had revealed to her at the grotto. Sister Mary Bernard made this last deposition before the representatives of the bishops of Tarbes and Nevers, in presence of the superior general of the congregation of Nevers and his council.

She manifested on this occasion a great joy, which was not usual for her in similar circumstances. She answered willingly a long series of questions. She repeated in a charming manner, in the sweet language of the Pyrenees, the words which fell from the lips of the Immaculate Virgin of the grotto. More than twenty years after these events, in presence of death and eternity, this holy religious affirmed what she had testified as a child. This was her last testimony of the apparitions of the grotto. She could die now, but death did not come; she must suffer still more. The asthma which had embittered her entire life, tortured her by more frequent and acute attacks. A large tumor enveloped her right knee. Caries eat away the marrow of her bones.

Sufferings and death

The demon attacked her soul, with tortures of conscience, which are like the torments of hell for generous souls who offer themselves as victims for the sins of the world. She had never forgotten Mary's recommendation, in the grotto, to pray for sinners, and to do penance for them.

Holy week came, and with it a share in the sufferings of her Master. "What will do you at Easter ?" some one asked her. She answered : "My passion will last till death."

Easter arrived, and with it the joys of the Resurrection, but Sister Mary Bernard was still at Calvary and Gethsemane. On Wednesday of Easter week the devil tempted her violently, as he had tormented God's saints. She was heard to say several times: "Begone Satan!"

She confided to her spiritual director that when she pronounced the name of Jesus all her fears at the devil's attacks disappeared. On Wednesday, of Easter week, she received the Holy Viaticum.

A Sister who attended her said to her : "I will ask our Immaculate Mother to give you consolation."

"No," she replied, "not consolation, but fortitude and patience."

She remembered the special blessing which Pope Pius IX. had granted her in advance for the hour of her death. She wished to hold the pontifical document in her hand, and in order to gain the plenary .indulgence, she pronounced with fervor the name of Jesus.

A moment afterwards she added: "My God, I love you with all my heart, with all my soul and with all my strength." She repeated in a feeble voice the acts suggested by the prayers for the dying, which were recited by the Sisters. She kissed each of the five wounds of the crucifix which she held firmly in her hands. She made a large sign of the cross, such as she had learned from the Immaculate Virgin at the apparitions in the grotto.

The end was approaching. The Sisters continued to recite prayers. She showed that she was following them. Finally she murmured twice the second part of the Hail Mary, which she had so often recited joyously at the grotto.

A third time she said: "Holy Mary, Mother of God." She could not finish it. The Sisters, seeing that she was dying, said: "Jesus, Mary, Joseph, assist us in our last agony."

Bernadette bowed her head, and gave up her soul to God. It was three o'clock, the hour in which Christ died on the cross. Mary promised that she would make her happy, not in this world, but in the next world. The chalice of bitter suffering was offered her, and she drank deeply. Like all of God's faithful servants, she had the cross for her portion. The crown followed. Mary's promise has been realized, and she has long since made Bernadette happy in the Kingdom of her Master.

She died on April 16, 1879. She was thirty-five. Her body has not been embalmed or specially treated in any way. Her incorrupted body is in the convent chapel of the Sisters of Charity in Nevers.

Beatification and canonization

In August, 1913, Pope Pius X conferred the title on her of Venerable. Ten years later Pius XI published a decree on the heroic nature of the virtues of the Venerable Sister Marie-Bernard Soubirous. It stated: “This life can be summed up in three sentences: Bernadette was faithful to her mission, she was humble in glory, she was valiant under trial.” The Congregation for Rites examined the authenticity of the ten miracles put forward for her Beatification. It selected two — those of Henri Boisselet and Sister Marie-Melanie Meyer.

On 8th December, 1933, Bernadette was finally canonized by Pope Pius XI with the words: “We define and declare the Blessed Marie-Bernard Soubirous a Saint.” Her annual Feast Day is 16th April. In France it is celebrated on February 18th, the date of the third apparition, when Our Lady first spoke to her.

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Saint Bernadette (1)

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Saint Bernadette (2)

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Saint Bernadette (3)

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Parents of St. Bernadette, Francois and Louise Soubirous

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Home of parents of St. Bernadette (XIX century)

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Home of parents of St. Bernadette (currently)

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Bernadette as nun in a convent Sister of Charity in Nevers (1)

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Bernadette as nun in a convent Sister of Charity in Nevers (2)

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Bernadette as nun in a convent Sister of Charity in Nevers (3)

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The infirmary in a convent in Nevers. Sign of the cross marked bed St. Bernadette

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St. Bernadette after her death

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St. Bernadette after her death

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Her incorrupted body

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Her incorrupted body

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Her incorrupted body