Before our trip to France in May 2003, some of our friends questioned our visiting at a time when our respective national leaders were not getting along. In a post 9-11 world, with an impending war in Iraq, tensions between the two powers were anything but cordial. Because we thought that what is played out in the political arena is not necessarily reflected in the everyday lives of ordinary people, we had no misgivings concerning our trip to research pilgrimage sites. Our instincts turned out to be correct. The French people were exceedingly sweet and inviting everywhere we went. Even though we spoke only rudimentary French, everyone we met attempted to have long conversations with us, using their sometimes-limited knowledge of English. We had expected the devout individuals at the shrines to be accommodating, but our entire experience was consistently positive.
One of our favorite sanctuaries was in Nevers, where St. Bernadette is enshrined. After she left Lourdes, she spent the last thirteen years of her life here, and her sanctity can still be felt at her shrine and throughout the grounds. To walk where she walked, to pray where she prayed, was a special privilege we cherished. We also felt Lourdes, one of the most popular shrines in the world, was exceptionally upliftingjust to be surrounded by thousands of people from all over the world who simply love God. Even in Paris, a city famous for its worldly pleasures, we found the popular shrine of St. Catherine Labouré of the Miraculous Medal, a testament to modern day faith. In the middle of this big city, it is a refuge with obvious devotion, alive and active.
Then there was Ars where St. John Vianney lived and died. This little town is a great place for retreat, with comfortable lodgings and the shrine of St. John Vianney always available for prayer and meditation. A surprise blessing awaited us from St. Edmund of Abingdon, who resides in a mostly ignored crypt in the abbey of Pontigny. His love for this abbey and the rich monastic history of the Cistercians could still be felt in this ancient church. Likewise, Pellevoisin at first appeared to not have much to offer, until we sat and meditated in the room where Estelle Faguette had visions of the Virgin Mary. The sweetness of this holy site, and the religious order that caretake the shrine, touched our hearts and left a lasting memory.
France has been particularly favored with many apparitions of the Virgin Mary. The five Marian shrines in this volume represent some of the more inspirational sites in the entire country and every year attract increasing numbers of pilgrims from around the world. Many of the routes to Santiago de Compostela in Spain are part of the history of French pilgrimage, as they originate on French soil. There are shrines that were stopping points for pilgrims along these routes since the eleventh century, and continue to accommodate those brave souls making the sacred journey today. France has some of the most beautiful cathedrals ever constructed on the planet. From Chartres to Reims to Notre-Dame of Paris, France is bejeweled with Gothic wonders, making even an architectural pilgrimage an exceptional experience.
Our goal is to provide enough information on each shrine to enable you to design your own pilgrimage adventure, tailored to your own needs. Some people told us Lourdes was a disappointment because it was so crowded and commercialized, but we felt special blessings there and would return again. La Salette, in the Alps, looked too distant on the map, but we are so happy we ventured there because it was a delight walking the beautiful hills where the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared. These were two very different experiences, but each was
We have discovered that we feel a saint’s spiritual power and blessings more easily when we create an inner environment that invites them to visit. For this very reason, we include a chapter in the back of the book entitled: How To Meditate with the Saints. Here we give instructions for stilling the heart and mind through meditation. When we are receptive, the saints transmit their love of God to us as a taste of what awaits us if we stay centered in God. Many spiritually minded people are seeking profound and transformational experiences to inspire them on their spiritual paths. To assist in their efforts we offer straightforward tools that have helped us realize this goal. Even without visiting a shrine, we have often found inspiration when reading about the life of a saint, beginning to imagine how it would be to live for God alone, as they have done.
Though the saints in this book are Roman Catholic, we have written for people of all faiths. In this age of expanding spiritual awareness and interest in understanding different religions, it becomes apparent that most faiths share basic beliefs. We believe that Truth is universal and transcends religious boundaries. God-realized souls, or saints, can share that Truth with us, regardless of their, or our, particular faith.
While France is known worldwide for the romantic grandeur of Paris, beautiful chateaux, lush vineyards and gourmet cuisine, it also offers an exceptional opportunity for spiritual enrichment. Our hope is that this travel guide will provide the inspiration, tools and information you need to create a more meaningful, and possibly profound, experience when visiting the saints and shrines of France. May the saints of all religions bless you on your spiritual journey.
James & Colleen Heater
Burgundy is the wealthiest region of France, due to the worldwide notoriety of its wines and gastronomical treats. Located in the central eastern part of the country, Burgundy consists of lazy rolling hills laced with fields and wine vineyards. The region is historically known for its religious culture, its spiritual wonders lying within the stone walls of its Cistercian abbeys and medieval cathedrals. The abbeys of Cluny, Citeaux, Fontenay and Pontigny date from the eleventh and twelfth century, and are central to the long history of monasticism in the area. During its zenith, the Cistercian culture exerted a tremendous influence in the Western world but kept its roots in Burgundy. In the middle ages, the Basilica of St. Madeleine in Vézelay was one of the great places of pilgrimage as it was one of the primary starting points for pilgrims taking the road to Santiago de Compostela, in Spain. Today, the spirituality of the region is alive in the community of Taizé, in the chapels of Paray-le-Monial, and especially at the crypt of St. Bernadette in Nevers
As the Loire River winds through the gentle landscape of Burgundy, it joins the Nièvre and Allier Rivers at the city of Nevers. The city center is located on the north bank of the Loire and is punctuated by meandering streets lined with a mixture of modern and ancient architecture. The twentieth century Cathedral St. Cyr-St. Juliette with its modern stained glass windows and the nearby Ducal Palace are the major points of interest in the historical center of town, and are typical examples of period architecture. This center is dotted with cafes and shops, many of the latter featuring the fine faïence pottery for which the city is known. As a whole, the city is another nice little town in Burgundy; what makes it special is the presence of the relics of one of the great saints of France-St. Bernadette. Her relics are found in the Convent St. Gildard, a short walk northwest of the city center. St. Bernadette lived there for her final thirteen years after leaving Lourdes. This is the real reason for visiting Nevers.
Sainte Bernadette Soubirous 1844-1879
"Come! We must learn to do everything for God alone in order to deserve Heaven."
The appearance of the Virgin Mary at Lourdes is one of many apparitions in the history of spirituality. In each instance, there is necessarily someone to serve as a channel, and at Lourdes, Bernadette Soubirous was that special soul. In most accounts of apparitions, the person receiving the vision fades into the background of the story because the message of the vision is of prime importance, not the messenger. What makes the story of Bernadette so intriguing is that she left behind her experiences at Lourdes and became a highly venerated saint on her own merits. She was not canonized because she witnessed the apparitions, but due to the life she led and the souls she touched. She was a living example of absolute devotion to God, for she took all that God placed before her and saw it as a blessing - whether it was a vision of Our Lady, a harsh reprimand from a superior, or severe pain and suffering. Her willing acceptance of all circumstances was based on the understanding that all things of this temporal world will pass, but our life in God is eternal. As Our Lady told her, "I do not promise to make you happy in this life, but in the next."
Bernadette's life began very inauspiciously. She was born on January 7, 1844 in the small town of Lourdes as the first child of François and Louise Soubirous. Louise would eventually bear eight more children, though only five would survive to adulthood. At the time of Bernadette's birth, the family lived in a flour mill, which they worked for their sustenance. Before Bernadette was even a year old, her family life became disrupted when her mother severely burned herself while tending the fire. She was unable to continue nursing her ten-month-old child, and arranged to send Bernadette to the nearby village of Bartrès to be wet-nursed by a friend of the family who had just lost a baby. Bernadette remained at Barts for ten months before returning to her own family.
Life in the Soubirous family was not easy, for the flour mill was often unprofitable and illness frequently plagued the family. Young Bernadette contracted cholera at the age of two, and shortly thereafter had a bout with tuberculosis. She also developed a chronic asthma, which would cause her much suffering throughout her life. Bernadette survived all these trials of the body, but as a result she was very small, looking much younger than her age. As she grew older, the other girls of Bernadette's age were in school and taking catechism classes, but she had to remain home most of the time to care for her younger siblings and help with family chores. Bernadette was a bright and cheerful child, but her academic development was much neglected, and she longed to study and prepare for her first communion.
In 1857, the Soubirous family was sinking ever deeper into poverty as millwork was unavailable, and both mother and father had to find day work to feed the children. The entire family was now living in a single room - a dark, damp place that had been a dungeon. In their despair, they sent the thirteen-year-old Bernadette back to Bartrès to work for her old friends and help care for their children. It was hoped she would also be able to attend school and prepare for her first communion. As it worked out, Bernadette became a shepherdess for the family - tending the lambs and spending most of her time alone in the pastures. It was a solitary life for the young girl, but also a time when she could be alone with God. She built a little altar at the foot of a tree and prayed often while she watched over her flock. Still, a girl of her age gets homesick, so she returned home in January of 1858, just one month before she ventured to the grotto at Massabielle and first experienced her Lady. (Refer to the chapter on the Midi-Pyrenees and Lourdes to read the story of the apparitions of Bernadette.)
For five months Bernadette was blessed with visions of the Blessed Virgin Mary-eighteen apparitions in total. With each one she experienced an ecstatic state. Bernadette admitted, "When one has seen Her, one cannot love the world." Though transformed by these raptures, Bernadette still had to function in the "real" world. She had to withstand the condemnation of the local authorities, the threat of imprisonment, doubt from her own church and constant harassment from all those wanting to see her and touch her.
Bernadette's life became like that of a modern superstar - everyone literally wanted a piece of her. In one instance, she was surrounded by curiosity seekers who began to cut at her veil to procure "relics." Perhaps her most difficult ordeals were the constant interviews she held with members of the clergy and aristocracy who wished to hear her story directly, and who would often doubt and question her. Bernadette later told a confidant, "God alone knows how I hate presenting myself to bishops, priests and people of high society." In one of these interviews, a parish priest questioned her for two hours, and then demanded that Bernadette give him the rosary she had used while praying with Our Lady. She obeyed. He then demanded her to give up her scapula, but Bernadette respectfully refused. Though she had a right to feel the indignity of her treatment, Bernadette always remained calm and poised, with a humble spirit, charming all those she met with her open sincerity and honesty.
To escape notoriety, Bernadette became a boarder at the Hospice of Lourdes, which was run by the Sisters of Nevers. It was two years after the apparitions, and she was ready for some peace. The constant interviews were still a part of her life, but she was able to have a little time to herself. At the Hospice she attended school, worked in the kitchen and performed various other duties. She was happy being just one of the school children, and finally had the opportunity to develop her skills in French, reading and writing. But her favorite activity was visiting the grotto. Twice a week, a Sister would take her to Massabielle for prayers and meditation, and Bernadette would kneel in her usual place and pray deeply to her Lady. There were few people coming to the grotto at this time, as the chapel was still under construction, so Bernadette was able to pray without being disturbed. This was the last period of her life in which she directly enjoyed the blessings of the grotto.
Bernadette continued to battle her weak body and was so ill from pneumonia in April of 1862, that she was given last rights and expected to perish during the night. Coughing up blood and experiencing great pain, she finally asked for blessed water from the grotto. A few small droplets were trickled down her swollen throat and she was instantly relieved. These constant bouts with illness also kept Bernadette from participating in many activities, including the installation of the statue of Our Lady at Massabielle in 1864. When asked if she liked the statue, Bernadette said, "Having seen Our Lady Herself, I find no statue of the Virgin beautiful."
By now, Bernadette was over twenty years old and it was time for her to decide what to do with her life. Since the time of her visions she wanted to become a nun, but was never clear as to what order would suit her needs and temperament. Sisters and priests were ever approaching her to come and join their community, but she always felt it was because of her notoriety that she was sought out. She wished to become a nun, but one of complete obscurity. In 1864, she met with the Bishop of Nevers and being very impressed by him, finally decided to join the Sisters of Charity at Nevers. However, physical weakness kept her from leaving Lourdes then, and for two years she fought to regain her vitality. Finally, in the summer of 1866, she was ready to leave Lourdes for her new home. Her last public act in Lourdes was attending the consecration of the crypt and a Mass at the grotto in May of that year. When she left for Nevers on July fourth, she knew she would never return to her earthly birthplace or the site of her spiritual awakening.
The Convent of St. Gildard's at Nevers was the Mother House for the Sisters of Charity. Their mission was to work in the local hospitals, serving the poor and needy. Soon after Bernadette arrived, she took the religious habit and was given the name Sister Marie-Benard. It was clear to her from the beginning that she would be treated as no one special-simple another child of God. Just what she had prayed for! Bernadette was permitted to tell a gathering of her sisters the story of the apparitions one time only, and then was ordered to never again mention those events unless requested by a superior. The Mistress of Novices was very hard on Bernadette, for she did not want Bernadette to fall into the trap of feeling special. Although difficult at first, Bernadette eventually welcomed the treatment with understanding and acceptance. When she was reproved or humiliated by her Superior, she would say, "I have just been given a sweet."
Illness still haunted Bernadette's life. Within three months of her arrival at Nevers, she had a nearly fatal asthma attack. She again received last rights and with a special dispensation took the vows of her order. The next morning she related to a sister who was surprised to see her alive, "I am better. Almighty God did not want me; when I reached the gates of heaven, he told me to go away; it is too soon." Physical suffering was the hallmark of Bernadette's life for it was her way of purifying herself and helping others. Her charge from the Blessed Virgin was to do penance and pray for sinners. As she said to one sister, "My job is to be ill." And to another, "Suffering passes, but to have borne suffering remains."
A prayerful life was equally Bernadette's mission and she practiced it with zeal, often remaining in the chapel long after Mass to meditate deeply. She would pray for sinners and unite her consciousness with that of her Lord. "I imagine that Our Lady herself is giving me the Child Jesus. I receive Him I speak to Him and He speaks to me." When speaking of prayer and inner contemplation she said, "We must receive Our Lord with love and make him feel at home in our hearts, for then He is bound to pay the rent."
Bernadette's poor health came and went over the years, so at times she was in charge of the sick room, and at other times, she was the patient. Through all her trials, one thing remained constant-her sweet humility. "I was able to admire her deep piety, her extraordinary evenness of temper, her childlike simplicity and above all her profound humility," related a fellow sister. As the years passed, Bernadette became more of a patient than a caregiver, and finally became a constant resident of the infirmary. Beside severe asthma, a tumor found root in her right knee and completely devoured the flesh. To say it was intensely painful is to put it mildly. She had no painkillers-nothing but pure faith to combat the anguish. But she did so with grace. When the pain became too intense, she offered it to God crying, "Oh, my God! I offer them to you! Oh, my God! I love you!"
As death approached, Bernadette had all the pictures of saints and loved ones removed from her curtain around her bed, saying, "He is all I need," while pointing to a crucifix. In the days following Easter of 1879, her suffering grew ever more intense, and she relinquished herself to her Beloved. Laying on her deathbed she called out, "Oh! My God! I love you with all my heart, with all my soul and with all my strength." She held her crucifix and slowly and devoutly kissed the five wounds. Then, raising her eyes to heaven, she stretched out her arms as if on the cross herself and cried out, "My God!" As soon as her spirit left the body, the face of Bernadette became young and peaceful. At last she was finished with earthly suffering and could live in the arms of her Blessed Lady.
Bernadette, Sister Marie-Bernard, passed on April 16, 1879 and was buried in the St. Joseph chapel on the grounds of St. Gildard. Her body remained buried in the chapel until 1909. At that time, the corpse was exhumed and inspected as part of the initial steps in the process of canonization. It was discovered that her body was incorrupt-still in perfectly supple condition. St. Marie-Benard was declared venerable in 1913 when the body was again examined and found to still be incorrupt. In 1925, for the final time, her body was examined, relics were taken, and a wax covering was made for her face and hands. In June, she was proclaimed Blessed, and on August 3rd, her body was transferred to the Chapel at the Convent of St. Gildard and placed in a glass urn. This is where it remains and is venerated by pilgrims to this day. On December 8, 1933, Sister Marie-Benard Soubirous was canonized as a saint.
Espace Bernadette Soubirous Chapel
Espace Bernadette Soubirous Chapel was constructed as the Mother Center for the Sisters of Charity in 1850, and was built over the ruins of an ancient abbey-the resting place of St. Gildard of the seventh century. The Convent has always maintained its position as the Mother Center, and was home to Bernadette from 1866 until her death in 1879.
After her death, St. Bernadette was buried in the St. Joseph Chapel within the Convent's grounds, but her body was moved to the Chapel of St. Gildard and placed in a glass urn in August of 1925. This was shortly after she was declared a Blessed. Her incorrupt body has resided in this urn ever since, and it is visited by half a million pilgrims every year. This side chapel is small and intimate-a quiet place to pray and meditate on the life of the saint. Tour groups of pilgrims frequent the chapel, but early morning is always a time of limited activity.
The Espace Bernadette Soubirous is encircled by several acres of beautifully maintained grounds and has many private areas for meditation. The tiny Chapel of St. Joseph, where Bernadette was initially buried, is located directly behind the main building, in the lower garden area. In the far right corner of this garden area, by the outside stone walls, is the statue of the Virgin Mary-Our Lady of the Waters. This is the statue that Bernadette declared was the most like the Lady in her vision, and she would often go here to pray. Another intriguing spot for prayer is just northeast of the main building, where, hidden under trees and through a tunnel, is a minute cave with a statue of Jesus and Mary. Just outside the Chapel of Gildard is a scaled-down replica of the Massabielle grotto of Lourdes and a statue of the young Bernadette. This is a gathering place for pilgrims and presents an opportunity to experience the power of Lourdes.
Espace Bernadette Soubirous Chapel is one of the most powerful places in France. It is one of our favorites because you are able to stay in the convent where Bernadette lived, walk the halls she walked, pray in the gardens where she prayed, and mediate quietly in the chapel with her relics. If you are looking for a place to stay, this is an ideal location.
Where is the Sanctuary of St. Bernadette?
Where is the crypt of St. Bernadette?
Shrine: Espace Bernadette Soubirous Nevers
Address: 34, rue Saint-Gildard/F-58000 Nevers/France
Phone: 33 03 86 71 99 50 Fax: 33 03 86 71 99 51
Website: www.sainte-bernadette-nevers.com - Official website
Quiet areas for meditation: The chapel containing the body of St. Bernadette; Our Lady of the Waters in the garden; the convent grounds in good weather.
English spoken: Occasionally in the winter; Typically from May to September.
Hours: April through October, Daily 7am-12:30pm; 1:30pm-7:30pm; November through March, 7:30am-12 noon; 2pm-6pm.
Mass: Daily 8:00am, 11:30 am; Sun 10 am
Feasts and festivities: February 11 - Our Lady of Lourdes; February 18 - Feast of St. Bernadette; April 16 - Anniversary of her Death; July 7 - Anniversary of her arrival at Saint-Gildard.
Accessibility: The Chapel and Convent Lodging are accessible.
Tours: Sisters and laypeople are available by reservation between May and September to guide groups on a walk in the footsteps of Bernadette as a spiritual endeavor, (not a sight-seeing tour). These guided groups will visit, among other places, the Chapel of the Holy Cross where St. Bernadette died and the welcome chapel, formerly the novitiate room. For individuals, there is a welcome packet at the reception desk with the Walk in Bernadette's Steps.
Bookstore: Next to the Information sign, there is a bookstore with brochures and books in English.
Recommended books: Some of Bernadette's Sayings published by the Saint-Gildard Convent available at their bookstore; Saint Bernadette Soubirous by Abbé François Trochu published by Tan Books, a big book to read before you go.
Lodging: The entrance is the same for Information. Pilgrim lodging is available for individuals or groups. They stress that it is not a hotel, but available for retreat. They have two hundred rooms with showers/toiletes down the hall and five dining rooms. There are also conference rooms available. The Gîte Saint-Michel is a separate building provided to accommodate up to thirty young people.
Directions: The Saint Gildard convent is across from the northwest corner of Parc Roger Salengro, at the corner of rue St. Gildard and boulevard Victor Hugo. It is north of the train station (Gare SNCF). It is enclosed by walls and easy to miss the entrance. Park on boulevard Victor Hugo and enter the small gate on the right of the large gate, or go around the corner and enter on rue St. Gildard. If you are staying there, once you check in, they will tell you how to enter the convent with your car for overnight parking.
Coming and Going
Car: From the North take A77-N7 and exit #33 at sign for town-centre. From the South take N7 from the town of Moulins and follow signs for Paris, then Fourchambault which is north of Nevers. Exit at #34 and follow signs to town-centre and Saint Bernadette's Shrine. The Convent is about half a mile from the train station (Gare SNCF). Nevers is 144 miles (232 km) from Paris; 143 miles (230 km) from Lyon; 112 miles (180 km) from Dijon.
Train: Paris-Marseille via Clermont-Ferrand; Nantes-Lyon via Saincaize. The train station (Gare SNCF) is half a mile from the Convent Saint-Gildard.
Plane: Nevers-Fourchambault is a small airport. Phone: Air Normandie 33 02 32 85 38 53
Office de Tourisme/Palais Ducal - BP 818/ 58008 Nevers Cedex/France Phone: 33 03 86 68 46 00 Fax: 33 03 86 68 45 98 E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.orgemail@example.com/ www.ville-nevers.fr French
Sainte Bernadette - Nevers www. sainte-bernadette-nevers.com - Official website of the Sanctuary.
More St. Bernadette Shrines in France
Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes
Lourdes is where St. Bernadette was born and where she witnessed the eighteen apparitions of Our Lady of Lourdes. It is in the southwest part of France, and is one of the largest pilgrimage centers in the world. In planning your pilgrimage, it would be ideal to combine Nevers and Lourdes. Refer to the Midi-Pyrenees chapter under Lourdes for more information.
The region of the Midi-Pyrenees exhibits some of the most beautiful scenery in the southwestern area of France. The southern extent of the region encompasses the snow-capped mountain range it shares with Spain and boasts the last remaining wilderness in southern France. The mountains give way to the rolling foothills and plains of the central area of the region and culminate in the serene and picturesque valleys of the Dourdonge. The pilgrimage mecca of Lourdes nestles in the foothills of the Pyrenees and the cosmopolitan city of Toulouse is found in the central plains, while Rocamadour hangs from the cliffs above a tributary of the Dourdonge River in the north. The area offers not only geographical variety but architectural diversity as well. The quaint town of Conques with its tiny medieval streets and petite basilica stands in contrast to the imposing brick edifice of the Sainte-Cecile Cathedral in the modern city of Albi. For the spiritual traveler, the Midi-Pyrenees offers many treasures to choose from, but the jewel not to be missed is Lourdes and the Grotto of Massabielle.
In the foothills of the Pyrenees, situated on a tributary of the Gave de Pau River, Lourdes rests in the shadow of the ancient castle that towers high above the town. The castle dates back to Charlemagne and was a crucial pawn in the war with the Moors from attacking from Spain. The Virgin Mary has long been adored here, and as early as the 11th century was declared mistress of the region. In 1858 Lourdes was a sleepy town of 4,000 villagers when the Virgin Mary appeared to the shepherdess Bernadette and transformed the town forever. Lourdes is now one of the most visited pilgrimage sites in the world, attracting seekers of all faiths from around the world. This once small town now hosts 6 million visitors a year and fat its 400 hotels (second in France only to Paris) and a profusion of tourist shops lining the streets that lead to the Basilica and grotto. However don't let the large numbers of pilgrims deter you from visiting this great spiritual center, for the multitudes actually add a tangible grace through the sheer force of their prayers and devotion.
"I am the Immaculate Conception."
The Blessed Virgin Mary has appeared to many souls in France, but the most well known of these apparitions occurred in 1858 in the small Pyrenean village of Lourdes, as witnessed by the young girl Bernadette Soubirous. In our day, millions of pilgrims travel to Lourdes each year just to bathe in the blessings that flow from the sacred grotto and miraculous spring, but in Bernadette's time, the remote village was unknown to the world. It was simply a quiet place for a small girl to grow up among the mountains, fields and pastures of the Pyrenees. All this would change forever when Our Lady of Lourdes began appearing to this child, attracting the attention of the world's faithful and renewing their belief in the loving presence of their Holy Mother. There are two parts to this miraculous story, that of the apparitions and that of Bernadette herself. In this chapter, we will tell of the apparitions and the blessings received at the grotto of Lourdes. We will portray the saintly life of Bernadette in the chapter on Burgundy, where she spent the later years of her life in a monastery in Nevers.
Bernadette was not unlike the girls her age as she attended school, helped with the household chores and, when time allowed, played in the beautiful hills around Lourdes. Time for play was often scarce for Bernadette as she was the first-born child of a poor family and had to help care for her siblings. This was not an easy task, for she was a slight and sickly child as a result of a bout with cholera at the age of two, followed by a fight to survive tuberculosis. Bernadette overcame those tests, but remained afflicted by asthma, which remained with her throughout her life.
The winter of 1858 was like many others in Lourdes, as it was cold and blustery and the Soubirous family needed a good supply of wood to keep their meager one-room home warm. On February 11th, Bernadette, her sister Antoinette, and a friend set out to scrounge for firewood around the outskirts of the village. South of town, along the Gave River, the children gathered bits of firewood and followed the river past the inactive Savy Mill to the area of the Massabielle massif, a rocky area where they were told they would find more wood. The small canal leading from the mill was nearly empty that day, and Bernadette's companions waded knee deep through the frigid water and began collecting more branches on the other side. Bernadette was careful not to aggravate her sickly condition, and chose to walk upstream towards the rocky grotto, where she could walk across the waterway in shallow water and not risk a chilly bath. Near the grotto, she bent down to remove her stockings, then heard the sound of a strong wind. She looked over the river to her right, and saw that the trees there were perfectly still. Perplexed, she continued to remove her stocking, and began to step across the brook when the sound of the wind returned, and she saw before her the branches in a small niche above the grotto swaying in the breeze.
Suddenly, a glowing light appeared and a smiling figure emerged and gazed into Bernadette's eyes. The image of a young girl the size of Bernadette, in a white veil and dress with a sash of blue was shrouded in dazzling light. A rosary with a yellow chain and white beads hung on her right arm, and her toes were visible beneath the hem of her dress, where a yellow rose rested atop each foot. Bernadette was initially startled by the apparition and rubbed her eyes repeatedly to make certain they were not deceiving her. She tried to call to her friends, but she could not speak. The figure remained in the niche, smiling continually, and beaming love and light to the child. Bernadette's next reaction was to pray, and taking her rosary from her pocket, she tried to cross herself but was unable to lift her arm in reverence. Turning and stepping towards Bernadette, the vision of light made the sign of the cross. Bernadette was then able to repeat the sign and, upon doing so, all her fears departed. Kneeling, she said her rosary with her gaze fixed on the beautiful girl before her. As Bernadette whispered her prayers and slipped the smooth beads through her fingers, the figure did the same, but did not move her lips. Finally, as Bernadette finished her round of prayers, the figure of light bowed to her and disappeared into the niche. When describing the beauty of the vision, Bernadette said the girl was "so lovely that, when you have seen her once, you would willingly die to see her again."
This was the first of eighteen apparitions experienced by young Bernadette. She visited the grotto frequently over the next several months, returning whenever she received an inner calling to do so. The visions she beheld varied in their substance and message-sometimes she would simply pray before the angelic presence, while at other times she would receive special instructions or blessings. (Here we have included descriptions of the most important apparitions of Bernadette, but a full reading of her experience is very inspiring. Please see the bibliography for references.) It is interesting to note that Bernadette definitively described the vision as a young girl of her age and size, and that she communicated with her in the local dialect, not formal French. Although we refer to her as the Lady, or Our Lady of Lourdes, it is delightful to imagine her as a young girl, as she appeared before Bernadette.
Among the eighteen apparitions, the third apparition was significant in two ways. First, Bernadette promised her Lady that she would return for a fortnight to commune with her. Secondly, she received a prophetic promise from the Lady: "I do not promise you happiness in this world, but in the next." This was to become Bernadette's mantra, for she experienced great suffering in this material world, but always lived in the blissful expectation of her next life in God. She endured much pain, doing penance for many souls, but always while living in the presence of God. In this way, Bernadette lived a saintly life; not because of her visions, but because of her response to them.
Four other apparitions were also very significant in the unfolding of this heavenly drama. In the seventh vision, three secrets were revealed to Bernadette - secrets for her ears only. She never revealed the content of these secrets to anyone. During the ninth apparition, on the 25th of February, the Lady told Bernadette to drink from a spring, and pointed to an area of the grotto. Bernadette found only muddy ground there, but at the insistence of the vision, dug up the earth to reveal murky water, which she drank as requested. She was also instructed to eat some grass growing near the grotto. This became a day of mocking for the gathering crowds, as they laughed at the obedient girl and ridiculed her silly behavior. But all were astonished the following day when the area exposed up by Bernadette was transformed into an abundant spring, bubbling with blessed water. This water would soon become known worldwide as the famous healing elixir of Lourdes. The spring runs strong almost a century and a half later and remains a source of countless blessings and miracles.
During the thirteenth apparition, Bernadette was instructed to tell the local priests to build a chapel at the grotto. When confronted with this news, the parish priest demanded to know the name of the Lady of Bernadette's visions. On what authority could they build a chapel if they did not even know who was making the request? Bernadette returned to the grotto the next day, but received no answer, just sublime smiles and gracious love. At the insistence of the priests, she asked again on the following day and finally received her answer: "I am the Immaculate Conception." Although confused by the answer, Bernadette repeated it over and over to herself so as not to forget it-for the meaning of the words made no sense to her. When she repeated the words to the parish priest, he was amazed at the reply, but knew it was the truth, for the simple child before him obviously did not comprehend the expression or its implications. The church had just introduced the dogma of the Immaculate Conception two years prior to this event. This doctrine maintains that the Bless Virgin was conceived and born without sin, a concept unknown to Bernadette.
This was the last time the Blessed Virgin of Lourdes spoke to Bernadette, although she witnessed the Lady's presence twice more. The grotto was soon fenced-off by the local authorities, and two years would pass before the truth of the visions was confirmed through the authority of the church. But for Bernadette there was never any doubt, for she always held the truth of the experience in her heart.
During the time of the apparitions, the news of the miraculous visions quickly spread throughout the countryside, and crowds started gathering at the grotto to witness the young maid in ecstasy. As the crowds grew in size from hundreds to thousands, the local authorities, both secular and religious, became nervous about all the attention. On several occasions Bernadette was detained by the Commissioner of Police and questioned about her behavior and the meaning of the visions. Threatened with imprisonment for disturbing the peace, she never changed her story or attitude. She was always forthright and calm in the inner knowledge of the righteousness of her visions. The clergy questioned her too, anxious to discover the source of her ecstasies. She was a quiet, simple girl-why would God use her as a tool of inspiration? What was in it for her? In time, Bernadette would win over all her opponents through her sincerity and joyous spirit. They would come to respect her and even support her story, for they could feel the truth of her conviction.
Bernadette continued to live in Lourdes for the next eight years, two years with her parents then six years as a boarder at the Hospice of Lourdes. She finally left the secular life behind in 1866 to become a novice at the convent of the Sisters of Charity of Nevers. Here she would spend the final thirteen years of her life serving her fellow sisters, fighting with continual bouts of illness, and blessing many souls through her prayers and penitence. Though she never saw the construction of the Basilica at Lourdes, or witnessed the growth in popularity of the grotto, she always lived in the memory and presence of her Blessed Lady. As for her secrets - she took them with her to her next life in God.
Sanctuaries of Our Lady of Lourdes
The Sanctuaries consist of a complex of buildings built above and around the Grotto of Massabielle, with the Crypt below the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception being the original structure. The three primary buildings are the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, the Crypt, and the Rosary Basilica, all built atop or adjacent to the stone Grotto of Massabielle. The other buildings of the complex are located around the enormous central Rosary Square and along the banks of the River Gave. There are two entrances to the complex: St. Michael's Gate enters from Blvd. De la Grotte and faces the front of the Basilicas, and St. Joseph's Gate leads from Place Mgr. Laurence at the side of Rosary Square, directly to the front of the Rosary Basilica.
To accommodate the six million pilgrims who visit Lourdes each year, many facilities with a variety of uses have been constructed. The complex includes 22 places of worship where an average of 52 masses are celebrated each day. To avoid confusion, it is best to go straight to theForum Information (see map) for a map and guides in English or, better yet, request information before you leave on your trip. There is an excellent website, www.lourdes-france.org, which has all the information required for an inspiring visit.
If you have only a single day to experience Lourdes, visit the Grotto and the Basilicas built around it. If you have the time and energy, add a dip in the water at the baths and walk in the torchlight Marian procession at 9 pm. If you have more than a day, there are many other options to consider. Among the many points of interest in the Sanctuary grounds, check out the Museum of St. Bernadette, the Museum of Precious Objects, and the 30-minute video of Bernadette's life. In town, you can visit the birthplace of Bernadette at the Boly Mill, and the room at the Cachot where her family lived at the time of the apparitions. There is also a walking path to Bartrs, 2.5 miles (4km) from Lourdes. Leave time to collect the healing water from the miraculous spring. You may want to collect it in a large bottle, and later pour it into smaller bottles available at the multitude of tourist shops.
The Sanctuaries are open all year, but the official pilgrimage season is from April through October. During the season more services and activities are offered than during the winter months. Mass in English is held at 9:00 am in the Chapel of St. Cosmos and St. Damian every day during the season. Once on site, see the daily program for other Masses in English.
Eight thousand volunteers offer their services each year at Lourdes, and donations account for 90% of the 18 million Euro yearly budget. This is evidence of the staggering amount of faith and service that supports the shrine and makes it all possible. The volunteers are the members of the Hospitality and Youth Services, which consists of lay people from all nationalities, and each one pays his or her own way to Lourdes to help welcome pilgrims and accompany the disabled and sick. The tradition of welcoming the sick and disabled started in 1887 when Mademoiselle de Saint-Frai and Father Ribes, founders of the Daughters of Our Lady of Dolours (Filles des Notre-Dame des Douleurs), built a hospice near the Sanctuary.
The Grotto of Massabielle
The swiftly flowing Gave de Pau winds its way past the Grotto where the Blessed Virgin appeared to Bernadette. This is to the right of the Rosary Basilica. The statue of Our Lady stands in the same little hollow in the cliff where she appeared to Bernadette. Pilgrims enter the Grotto from a line behind barricades on the left side of the Grotto. Lined-up next to them are pilgrims with disabilities in carriages. As you step into the cave you will see the miraculous spring through a hole in the floor covered in glass. You may touch or kiss the rock as you pass under the statue of Our Lady that is inscribed in the local dialect, "I am the Immaculate Conception." Prayer requests are collected in baskets along your path. In front of the Grotto, Masses are performed throughout the day in different languages. Every afternoon at the Grotto there is a blessing for children at 4pm, then at 5pm there is a blessing of the sick, and in the evening a torchlight procession leaves from the Grotto at 9pm.
The Baths are to the right of the Grotto. If you wish to be immersed in the water of the spring, volunteers will assist you in the ritual. Once you pass through the lines, a dip In the bath takes only a few minutes. There are separate lines for women and men, and 17 baths in all: 11 for women, 6 for men, including 2 for children. The water is changed twice every day. The Virgin said to Bernadette, "Go and drink at the spring and wash yourself there." Bathing in the water is believed to cleanse sins and heal the sick.
The Basilica of the Immaculate Conception
The Gothic style Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, or Upper Basilica, was built on top of the rock of the Grotto between 1866 and 1872. The Basilica creates an inspiring image with its spires rising towards the heavens and two sloping pedestrian pathways reaching out on each side to encompass the open plaza below, inviting the multitudes of pilgrims to come pray in this holy place. Inside, the stained glass windows tell the story of the Blessed Virgin Mary from her birth until the Apparitions of Lourdes in 1858.
The Crypt is below the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception and above and behind the Rosary Basilica. By following either of the long ramps on each side of the Basilica or climbing the stairs outside the Rosary Basilica, you will arrive at the level of the Crypt. This was the first chapel to be built at the site, and it was opened in May of 1866 with Bernadette attending. Built into the rock, the small, intimate chapel is very calm and peaceful, often filled with people praying with deep devotion. It is the best place for quiet contemplation in this busy sanctuary.
The Rosary Basilica
The Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary was begun in 1883 and finished in 1889. It is on ground level, in front of the Crypt and the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception. It can seat up to 1500 people and has ongoing services for different pilgrim groups. The Blessing of the Sick is held outside every afternoon in front of the Basilica.
The Basilica of Saint Pius X
This cavernous underground Basilica was consecrated in 1958 to celebrate the centenary of the apparitions. It is a large concrete structure with little atmosphere, but it accommodates 25,000 worshipers and is used continuously for gatherings of large groups of pilgrims. After you enter the gate of St. Michel, entrance to the Basilica is on the left at the bottom of the ramp, before you reach theForum Information and the Crowned Virgin statue.
The Church Saint Bernadette
Across the bridge from the Grotto, the most recent church, inaugurated in 1988, was built on the spot where Bernadette saw her last apparition of Our Lady. Unable to reach the Grotto because of police barricades, she crossed the river to this location and proceeded to experience herself with the Blessed Virgin at the Grotto. The church holds 5,000 people and also contains meeting rooms. In addition, it has an Adoration Chapel that is a quiet place to pray and meditate.
Where is the Forum Information?
Where is the grotto?
Shrine: Forum Information / Sanctuaries of Lourdes (Sanctuaries de Lourdes)
Address: 2, avenue Mgr. Théas/65108 Lourdes Cedex/France
Phone: 33 05 62 42 78 78 Fax: 33 05 62 42 89 54
Website: www.lourdes-france.com/bonjour.htm - Official website for the Sanctuary
Quiet areas for meditation: The Crypt under the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception; Across the river, in the Adoration Chapel in the Church of St. Bernadette; and the Tent of Adoration in the meadow.
English spoken: Typically
Daily Hours: Forum Information: 7am-7pm; Main entrances: 5:30am to midnight; Grotto and the grounds are accessible at all times through a smaller gate behind the Upper Basilica and opposite the Chaplains' Residence. Follow a winding path that leads directly to the grotto.
Mass: Mass in English is held at 9:00 am daily at St. Cosmos and St. Damian chapels in the Accueil Jean-Paul II. Get a hold of the list of all the masses at the Forum Information.
Feasts and festivities: February 11 - First Apparition; February 18 - Feast St. Bernadette.
Accessibility: Lourdes prides itself on being at the forefront for providing accessibility. There are many accommodations for the sick and disabled called Accueils and many of the hotels in town are equipped also. The Accueil Notre-Dame is on the grounds of the sanctuaries. Phone: 33 05 62 42 80 61 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. The Accueil Marie Saint-Frai is in town. Phone: 33 05 62 42 80 00 Email: email@example.com. More details are on their website at www.lourdes-france.com/bonjour.htm. All the churches are accessible. Inquire about details before you go.
Volunteer: If you are interested in volunteering, contact: Hospitality of Our Lady of Lourdes/Phone: 33 05 62 42 80 80 Fax : 33 05 62 42 80 81 E-mail : firstname.lastname@example.org
Information office: Facing the Basilicas from St. Michael's gate, to the left of the Crowned Virgin statue on the ground floor of the convention center is the Pilgrimage office (Abri du pèlerin) or Forum Information. Maps, hours of mass, and information regarding all the sites are provided in English. Ask for everything they have in English.
Tours: A free pilgrimage program in English is provided every day from July 1st to September 30th. It meets at 8:30 am at the Statue of the Crowned Virgin near theForum Information. It consists of Mass, the Message of Lourdes, Way of the Cross, visits to the places associated with St. Bernadette and the two Processions. There are audio guides and personal guided tours. Inquire at theForum Information.
Groups: If traveling in a group, it is advised to contact the group offices a few months in advance so that a guide might be able to be provided. Call 33 05 62 42 79 11 or Email: email@example.com.
Bookstore: The Pastoral Administration Centre contains the bookstore and is part of the small complex of buildings that make up theForum Information.
Recommended books: The Official Guide of the Sanctuary has everything you want to know about the sanctuaries with brief descriptions of the apparitions and St. Bernadette. For more depth (393 pages), read Saint Bernadette Soubirous by Abbé François Trochu.
Lodging: Lodging for the sick and handicapped is provided in the "Accueil's" mentioned above under Accessibility: There is no lack of lodging, with 400 hotels in Lourdes and many close to the Sanctuary.
Directions: www.lourdes-france.org/gb/gbvb0003.htm - a map of Lourdes using Adobe Acrobat and directions by all modes. Once in town, just ask directions. Everyone is either going to the shrine or knows where it is.
Other places of interest in Lourdes
The Boly Mill
The Boly Mill is near the Sanctuary exit of porte St. Michel and across the bridge Pont St. Michel on rue Bernadette Soubirous. This was the birthplace of Bernadette (La Maison Natale de Bernadette) and where she lived for ten years, from 1844-1854. In 1854, her family was evicted because of financial difficulties, and they moved into the Cachot. Open 9am-12pm, 2-6:30pm.
The Cachot Bernadette
Located near Place Peyramale on Rue des Petits Fossés, this single room dwelling called the Cachot had once been used as a prison cell before it was offered to Bernadette's family for free. They stayed here less than a year, but it is important because Bernadette lived here while she experienced the eighteen apparitions at the Grotto. Open 9am-12pm, 2-7pm.
There are other places to visit if you have the time: The Presbytery - the Parish Church where Bernadette was baptized; the Hospice - where she was educated; and the village of Bartrès-where Bernadette was raised as a baby and later labored as a shepherdess. All these places are described in your guide and on the maps you will receive from the Forum Information.
Coming and Going
Car: From Toulouse, take A64 Toulouse-Bayonne to Tarbes, exit #12 Tarbes-Ouest ou Soumoulou. Then take N21 south to Lourdes. From Bayonne, take A64 past Pau to exit #11, then take N177 to Soumoulou, and D940 to Lourdes. Call the tourist information office 33 05 62 42 77 40 about free car parks. There are also car parks for a fee close to the Sanctuaries.
Train: TGV Paris-Lourdes-Tarbes takes 5 hours 30 minutes: 4 daily return departures from April to October, 3 daily return departures from November to March. Direct rail links from Bordeaux, Toulouse, Montpellier, Marseilles, Nice, Lyon, Vintmille, Geneva, Hendaye, Irun. For further info contact: GARE SNCF de Lourdes at 33 08 36 35 35 35 or www.sncf.com. Taxi Lourdais: 05 62 94 31 30.
Bus: Most buses arrive at the train station. Pau, & Tarbes have local bus service to Lourdes.
Plane: Tarbes-Lourdes-Pyrenees International Airport (TLP) phone 33 05 62 32 92 22 email firstname.lastname@example.org www.tarbes-lourdes.aeroport.fr http://www.tarbes.cci.fr/aeroport/AeroportG.htm
Tourist Office of Lourdes/Place Peyramale/BP 17/65101 Lourdes cedex/France; Phone: 33 05 62 42 77 40 Fax: 33 05 62 94 60 95 E-mail: Lourdes@sudfr.com/
Official website of Lourdes www.lourdes-france.com/bonjour.htm - Excellent website with information about all aspects of your pilgrimage.
More St. Bernadette Shrines in France
Espace Bernadette Soubirous Nevers
Bernadette chose to join the Congregation of the Sisters of Charity of Nevers in 1864 but, due to her bad health, she did not leave for Nevers until July 4, 1866. She would never return to Lourdes. She spent her final thirteen years at the Convent Saint-Gildard (now called Espace Bernadette Soubirous Nevers) and, on April 16, 1879, died at the age of 35. The Convent at Nevers is a special place to visit. St. Bernadette's incorrupt body is on view in the chapel, and you can visit the grounds where she walked and prayed. It is an excellent place for retreat with lodging available in the Convent. To read more about St. Bernadette and her time in Nevers, refer to the chapter on Burgundy.