Bernadette Soubirous was born 7 January 1844, the eldest of six children belonging to Francois Soubirous and Louise Casterot. She was born Marie Bernarde, but was called Bernadette because she was so small. Bernadette was sickly her entire life, suffering from asthma even as a very young child. Her family was always poor, and for a time had to live in the cell of what used to be a prison, where they lived when the apparitions began. At the age of ten, Bernadette was sent for seven months to live with her aunt, both for the sake of her health – negatively affected by the cold winter that year – and because her father was having trouble finding enough work to feed his entire family. She returned once the weather and her health had improved, and her father was finding more work again.
In the summer of 1857, she left her home in Lourdes again to spend a few months with a woman, Marie Aravant, in a neighboring town with whom she had lived for a short time as a baby. She worked there as a shepherdess, and Marie Aravant also tried to teach her about the Catholic faith. Never having been properly schooled due to her poor health and her family's financial situation, Bernadette was not the best student. She returned to Lourdes where she began a day school run by the Sisters of Charity and Christian Instruction, beginning her first formal secular education as well as preparing for her First Holy Communion.
Shortly after returning to Lourdes, Bernadette's life changed forever when Mary chose to appear to her. On 11 February 1858, she was collecting firewood with her sister and a friend, when they left her behind to cross an icy stream. Bernadette did not go initially because of her poor health, but was about to take off her stockings to follow when she heard a rustling noise and saw a beautiful young woman in a small opening above the large grotto in the Massabielle rock. This was the first of eighteen apparitions Bernadette would experience.
Upon hearing what had happened, her parents initially did not want her to go back, thinking that she was hallucinating. Bernadette insisted, however, and the following Sunday she went again, taking holy water to sprinkle on the vision in case it was a demon. Friends who accompanied her began spreading the story when Bernadette saw the vision again, and more and more people became interested in what was going on. Many were still skeptical, including the local church authorities who tended to ignore such visions since most who claimed to see visions like these tended to be unbalanced or suffering from delusions. Civil authorities also tried to discourage Bernadette, trying to get her to admit that she was making up the story, or that she and her parents, who had eventually come to believe their daughter, were simply trying to profit from the frenzy that was continuing to grow as the apparitions became more widely known. In fact the opposite was true – even when people would come to visit Bernadette or her family, trying to give gifts of money or food, both she and her family refused all such offers.
The Hidden Spring
Over the course of the eighteen apparitions, Mary revealed to Bernadette a previously undiscovered spring in the ground under the grotto, instructed her to tell the priest to build a church at the site, and when he told Bernadette to make the vision give her a name, she eventually told Bernadette that she was the Immaculate Conception – a dogma that had been promulgated by Rome only four years earlier. Bernadette also said that Mary disclosed three secrets, but that she was not to tell anyone what they were.
After the sightings ended on 16 July 1858, many people continued to seek out Bernadette to hear the story from her own lips, to pray with her, or just to be in the presence of this amazing young woman who was blessed to have seen and talked with the Mother of God. For Bernadette, the swarms of visitors were a burden she felt she had no choice but to carry – she did not like or want the attention she received, but she never wanted to appear ungrateful or distant. Eventually she went to live at the convent where she had been taught so she could have some amount of privacy, but even here people went to see her. When she was twenty she decided to become a nun, and she moved away at age twenty-two to Nevers, France where the mother-house of the convent was located. Even her life here was full of trials, partially because the novice-mistress believed Bernadette must have become vain with all the publicity and attention she received and thus gave her many menial tasks to do. Bernadette did them happily, even when it was difficult for her because of her weak body. Throughout her years there, she became loved and regarded as a humble and willing servant who never sought acknowledgment for herself.
Even as a nun people went to visit her, to see the woman who some already regarded as saintly. Bernadette did not want to deny people the opportunity to see her if it might help to inspire them, but she did cherish her privacy. She also experienced much physical pain in her last years, developing a tumour on her knee, tuberculosis, and still suffering from asthma and other ailments. She died on 16 April 1879 at the age of thirty-five, and was buried in the convent grounds. In 1908, her casket was exhumed and her body found to be incorrupt and fresh as it was when it was buried thirty years earlier. In 1916 she was given the title of Venerable by Pope Pius X, and in 1925 was beatified. On the feast of the Immaculate Conception, 8 December 1933, Bernadette was canonised to the joy of many people. Today, her body is on display in the convent chapel in Nevers, and her feast day is celebrated on April 16th.