Who would have thought that on a cold damp day and within a dishevelled cave in the small village of Marr just outside Lourdes, France, the greatest apparition of all time would appear in essence to a young local deprived girl?. But that's exactly what happened. The year was 1858 and on the 11th day of February whilst out collecting firewood with her sister and a friend, Bernadette Soubirous , a poor socially excluded 14 year old girl was first graced with the sudden appearance of the Virgin Mary Mother of God.
This wonderful story begins on the 7th of January 1844 when Bernadette the eldest of a further eight siblings was born in Lourdes, a small market town at the foothills of the Pyrenees situated in the south west of France.. Her date of Baptism at their local parish church, St Pierre's, two days later on the 9th of January coincided with her parents wedding anniversary. Her father Francois was a local miller, her mother, Louise a laundress. In difficult economic times of that period, the Soubirous family found themselves poverty stricken and this was further hindered by her father suffering a debilitating eye injury. Such was their poverty and desperation at one stage, Bernadette's father Francois, in his quest to feed his family was accused of stealing sacks of flour and as a result was sentenced and served ten days in prison. There was an outbreak of cholera during Bernadette's early childhood which left her infected. Combined with asthma her sickness as a young child curtailed her education much to the point that by the age of 14, Bernadette was illiterate and not permitted to receive her first holy communion, nonetheless despite all this trauma in Bernadette's family and their extreme poverty, they retained and experienced a loving and supportive family environment through their love, unity, willingness to help each other and their religious faith.
Unfortunately circumstances declined even further for the Soubirous family and they became dependent on a relative to provide accommodation that consisted of one small room to cater for a rather large family, as a consequence, Bernadette left home in September 1857 to work on a farm in a little village called barters close to Lourdes only to return in the following January in 1858 as among other things she wanted to fulfil her wish to receive holy communion. On the day of the very first apparition, Bernadette, her sister and friend followed a canal on her suggestion and after trailing behind, Bernadette stopped at a grotto at the foot of the rock of Massabielle to remove her stockings in preparation to cross the water. It was here that Bernadette experienced a sound similar to a gust of wind yet while looking towards the meadow the trees remained quite still and again she heard this strange noise. Bernadette raised her head and looked at the grotto only to see what she termed as a "small young lady" wearing a white dress, a blue girdle with a yellow rose on each foot and held a rosary of pearls. This was the first of 18 separate apparitions that was to occur between the 11th of February and July the 16th 1858
Bernadette's sister and friend claimed that they saw nothing and her apparitions was met with dismay from her mother whom forbid her to return. After gaining permission, Bernadette did indeed return for her second visit on February the 14th where she threw holy water at the Lady when she reappeared to ascertain if the vision was an evil spirit or not, only to be further reassured by the vision of the apparitions beautiful bare feet which by virtue denounced any demonic characteristics. By the fourth appearance on the 19th of February, Bernadette lit and placed a candle at the Grotto. This originated the custom of lighting a candle at the grotto while offering prayer's of intention, seeking redemption or simply asking Our Lady Mother of God for a favour, a spiritual offering, reflection or request practiced by millions to this very day, all whom experience a spiritual inner supportive peacefulness. Soon after this event word of the apparitions spread among skeptical villagers and many came in the hope of witnessing an apparition or miracle. One such visitor on February the 21st was Jacomet, the local police commissioner whom was tasked with questioning these perceived apparitions. On Wednesday the 24th of February the first message during the eight apparition was given which was "Penance" and to pray to God for sinners. In the second message to be given on the 2nd of March, The Lady gives Bernadette a message for the Parish Priest Abbe Peyramale "to build a chapel here and to have people come in procession" On March the 25th the Lady in her 16th appearance told Bernadette that:
"I am the immaculate conception". This theological statement had only recently been declared as reference to The blessed Virgin by Pope Pius IX in 1854 and was not believed to be known to Bernadette which supported the authenticity of the apparitions. This led to a church inquiry and combined with over 67 miracle cures attributed to the lighting of a candle at the grotto, prayers of intention and the blessing of spring water, the apparitions were officially sanctioned in the name of the Church. On the 8th of June 1858 the grotto at the request of the Mayor of Lourdes was barricaded and a fence was erected with guards stationed to prevent public access. Any visitors found kneeling close to the Grotto were fined. On the 16th of July 1958 Bernadette experienced her final apparition With restrictions in place Bernadette knelt away from the grotto outside the fence at the riverbank and stated that "All I saw was Our Lady, She was more beautiful than ever. In October of that year Emperor Napoleon III reopened the Grotto to the public. Lourdes is now the greatest Marian shrine of the Roman Catholic Church and attracts millions of pilgrims each year.
Unhappy with all the attention now bestowed upon her, Bernadette went to a school run by The Sisters of Charity of Nevers where she learnt to read and write. She then joined the sisters at their motherhouse at the age of 22 where she lived out the rest of her short life working as a sacristan among other duties which entailed a talent for creating beautiful embroidery. She died after contracting tuberculosis at the young age of 35 on the 16th of April 1879 and was laid to rest in the Saint Gilard Convent. Bernadette Soubirous was canonized as a saint by the Catholic Church in 1933 and her feast day is celebrated in France on the 18th of February..
Such is the significance of Our Lady's Grotto Lourdes within the Catholic Church, Pope John Paul visited the shrine on the 15th of August 1983 and then again on the 12th and 15th of August 2004. In 2007 Pope Benedict XVI authorised special indulgences to mark the 150th anniversary of our Lady of Lourdes followed by a visit on September the 15th 2008