Today the Church celebrates the memorial of Our Lady of Lourdes. In 1858, the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to a 14-year-old French peasant girl, St. Bernadette Soubirous. The first appearance was on Feb. 11, and she would meet with Bernadette a total of 18 times through July 16 of that year.
On Feb. 11, Bernadette went to gather firewood with her sister and a friend. She saw light coming from a rosebush at a grotto near the river, and in that light, a woman in a white dress appeared, holding a rosary. The woman made the sign of the Cross, so Bernadette knelt, took out her own rosary, and began to pray. When they had finished the rosary, the woman motioned for Bernadette to come closer, but she hesitated, and the woman disappeared.
Bernadette’s friend and sister had not seen anything, and Bernadette swore them to secrecy, but they quickly spread the story. The next Sunday, Bernadette returned and saw the lady again.
On her third trip on Feb. 18, Bernadette was accompanied by several adults, but only she was able to see the woman. The lady asked her to return for two weeks, telling her that she could not promise to make Bernadette happy in this world, but in the next.
Over the next few days, as Bernadette kept returning to the grotto, crowds gathered to join her, but no one else saw the lady. On Feb. 24, 250 people surrounded Bernadette as the lady told her: “Penance! Penance! Penance! Pray to God for sinners. Go, kiss the ground for the conversion of sinners.” Bernadette wept and did as she had asked. She continued to drink muddy water and eat weeds as penance for sinners, and the onlookers quickly began to ridicule her.
On Feb. 27, Bernadette found that the spring she had been drinking from was no longer muddy, but now ran clear. A woman from the crowd with a paralyzed arm came to the water, hoping to be healed. Four years later, this was recognized as the first miraculous healing at Lourdes. There have been 67 verified cases of miraculous healings at that stream.
The woman eventually began telling Bernadette that the priests must bring people in procession, and have a chapel built on the site. Many believed now that Bernadette was seeing the Blessed Mary, but when she asked the vision, the woman smiled and remained silent.
Finally, on the Feast of the Annunciation, Bernadette came to the grotto, and asked the lady her name. The woman folded her hands and said “I am the Immaculate Conception.” Although Bernadette did not know what that meant, her parish priest was stunned, and told the local bishop.
Mary appeared to Bernadette twice more, on the Wednesday after Easter and on the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. After a four-year investigation, the bishop declared the apparitions to be real, and worth believing.
In 1866, Bernadette left Lourdes to join a religious order, where she served until her death in 1879. A basilica was built and consecrated at the grotto at Lourdes.
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