Visionary of Lourdes
St. Bernadette Soubirous (1844 - 1879) is best known for having been visited by the Blessed Virgin Mary in eighteen apparitions over the course of five months when she was fourteen years of age. These apparitions led to the establishment of Lourdes as a place of pilgrimage that now attracts millions of visitors each year. Many come to Lourdes for healing, and many leave having been healed in spirit if not in body. And, it was because this young, poorly educated girl who suffered from asthma believed the messages from Our Lady. She was absolutely convinced that she had encountered Our Lady, and she would need that resolution in order to make it through everything that happened in the wake of the visions.
It was never easy for her. Bernadette was the only one who saw or heard the Blessed Virgin Mary. Although many supported her, there were many, especially people in positions of authority, who were convinced that she received no apparitions. And she received endless questioning and interrogations from government and ecclesiastical officials that lasted for years long after the apparitions.
However, Bernadette would go on to live twenty-one more years after the apparitions. What became of this young girl?
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An Education and the Sisters of Charity
In the fall of the year of the apparitions, 1858, Bernadette began to receive a proper education courtesy of the Sisters of Charity. Within two years, the sisters invited Bernadette to stay with them in order to continue her studies. She would eventually be trained as an infirmarian and help the sisters in that capacity. And, Bernadette would also help teach the young children who received instruction from the sisters. And then, of course, there was the constant stream of visitors who wanted to hear about the apparitions directly from Bernadette. And when her duties allowed, she would patiently tell the details again and answer the questions of these visitors.
Throughout her life, Bernadette struggled with her health, and in particular, she had difficult bouts with her asthma. While with the Sisters of Charity, she spent quite a bit of time in the infirmary herself. In March of 1862, she caught pneumonia and received the last rites at the end of the next month. However, she had an almost instantaneous recovery from pneumonia but would continue to suffer from asthma.
Discerning Her Vocation
Bernadette was certain that she was called to the religious life, but she did not know to which congregation. As she said, "I am supposed to become a nun, but I do not know with which order. The Holy Virgin did not tell me. I am waiting."
In September of 1863, the Bishop of Nevers came to visit with Bernadette and asked her about her vocation. Bernadette replied that she was still discerning and not yet made a decision. The bishop had a particular interest because within his diocese there was a house of the Sisters of Charity.
Within that house, the mother superior, Mother Louise Ferrand, was completely opposed to the idea. The bishop had a visit with Mother Ferrand and was shocked at her rejection of the idea. The bishop reminded her that many congregations were interested in Bernadette joining them. Mother Ferrand bluntly replied that Bernadette was sickly and would be constantly in the infirmary and beside she did not know how to do anything and would be of little use. The bishop replied that he knew that Bernadette could peel carrots as he had seen her do that.
The irony of this, of course, is the Our Lady came to Bernadette in spite of her poor health and lack of education.
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Entering the Sisters of Charity in Nevers
Three months after his visit with Mother Ferrand, she was replaced by Mother Josephine Imbert who agreed to accept Bernadette as a postulant. And so in 1866, Bernadette traveled away from Lourdes for the last time and went 400 miles away to enter the order of the Sisters of Charity and Christian Instruction in Nevers, France. After much delay due to Bernadette being ill, she finally arrived on July 7, 1866.
On the very next day, she met with all of the members of the congregation, and being prompted to do so, she gave her account of the apparitions for the one and only time to these sisters. Later that month, she received her habit and her name as St. Marie-Bernard. Her work was to help in the infirmary. However, as had been predicted by Mother Ferrand, Bernadette would spend quite a bit of time in the infirmary as a patient. This was so much the case that Bernadette would speak of her "job of being ill". Her condition worsened in October of 1866 and she again receive last rites before recovering quickly. A year later, she would make her first profession. After that she was assigned the job of praying along with her work in the infirmary because she, as one of the superiors said the to bishop after Bernadette's first vows, "She is not good at anything."
Visitors and Letter Writing
Over the years she spent in the convent in Nevers, many came to try to visit with Bernadette. For the most part, she was prevented from having to speak to just anyone who came. However, when it was a prelate or dignitary of some sort, she was asked to comply. In obedience, Bernadette, who much preferred to remain hidden, would graciously share her story and answer questions. It was not always easy for her and was most often an act of the will to be obedient to these requests.
After Bernadette had learned to read and write, she began a very frequent letter writer. Having moved hundreds of miles from her home, she kept in touch with her biological and extended family through many letters. Through these letters she expresses her love and concern for her younger siblings back in Lourdes along with the Sister of Charity who had initially taken her in and given her an education. She also would receive written requests from many, and she would defer to her superiors as to which ones she should give a reply.
The Bishop of Nevers gave the Bishop or Tarbes, the diocese in which Lourdes resided, permission to send a photographer to take photos of Bernadette. In those years photos required the subject to sit for long periods of time trying not to move. The photographer asked Bernadette to recreated the pose she had when she was in ecstasy seeing the Blessed Virgin Mary. We do not know, but this impossible request probably frustrated Bernadette a great deal. Before coming to Nevers, she had longed to go far from Lourdes to escape the celebrity status she had unwittingly achieved.
The purpose of the photographs was to sell them to raise money for the building of the chapel at the grotto of the visitations as requested by Our Lady. When Bernadette learned of this and heard the price, she remarked that she was certainly not worth that amount.
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Her Suffering and Death
Her suffering was not confined to her own illness. There were many deaths in her extended family including very young nieces and nephews. Bernadette also lost her mother and father and the priest, Fr. Peyramale, who had been a strong source of support to her during the apparitions.
Much of the last four years of Bernadette's life was spent in and out of the infirmary with illnesses either brought about by her asthma or worsened by her asthma. She called her bed surrounded by white curtains her "White Chapel." Indeed, she hung several holy cards on the curtains to provide herself with holy reminders as she suffered through numerous illnesses.
During those years, she was asked by the Bishop of Nevers to write to the Holy Father to ask his blessing upon her and upon the Sisters of Charity. This task mortified Bernadette due to her humility. However, in obedience she did write the letter which the Bishop took to Pope Pius IX. The Holy Father wrote a note back in response giving his blessing.
Even when she was essentially an invalid, Bernadette was pressured to provide additional information to inquirers including authors of books. Under obedience, despite being essentially terminally ill, she answered questionnaires and provided additional information about the apparitions.
In September of 1878, Bernadette made her perpetual vows. She also saw some of her family members for the last time. First, her brother Jean-Marie came to visit. The sister carried her in a chair for Bernadette to spend time with her brother. They had long been separated and the relationship had grown difficult when Jean-Marie had abandoned religious life and not corresponded with Bernadette for a long time. Then, Marie, her sister, and her husband Joseph visited her for the first (and last) time in early 1879.
On April 16, 1879, Bernadette, having received the last rites a few weeks before, passed away at 3:15 p.m.
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