On 11th February 1858, a girl called Bernadette Soubirous from Lourdes (a town in the foothills of the French Pyrenees) went with her sister and a friend to collect firewood.
When she reached an outcrop of rock called Massabielle, Bernadette heard a gust of wind and noticed that a wild rosebush in a niche in the grotto was moving. A gentle light brightened the dark recess and there stood a beautiful girl, dressed in white with a blue sash and a yellow rose on each foot. She was smiling, with her arms spread in welcome. Bernadette prayed the rosary, but when the apparition beckoned her closer she did not dare approach.
On the 14th February, Bernadette witnessed the apparition again. The mysterious girl said to her: ‘I do not promise to make you happy in this world, but in the other’, and then asked: ‘Would you be kind enough to come here every day for fifteen days?’ As a result, Bernadette visited Massabielle every day for a fortnight, despite intimidating interviews from the civil authorities and scepticism from the Church.
On 24th February, the apparition spoke again: ‘Penance! Penance! Penance! Pray to God for sinners.’ She asked Bernadette to kiss the ground for the conversion of sinners. As the fortnight continued, the apparition renewed her requests for prayer and penance. On 2nd and 3rd March other requests were made: ‘Go and tell the priests that people are to come here in procession and to build a chapel here.’
On 25th March, the Feast of the Annunciation, Bernadette again visited the grotto and witnessed the apparition once more. Bernadette asked the girl who she was and received the reply: ‘I am the Immaculate Conception’. Bernadette kept repeating these words on her way to tell the parish priest. She didn’t understand what they meant, but the parish priest did. Pope Pius IX had pronounced the dogma of the Immaculate Conception four years earlier.
There were two more apparitions – one in April and one in July. As early as the month of this last apparition in 1858, the local bishop had set up a commission to study the apparitions and some reported cures. In January 1862, the commission’s findings prompted the bishop to declare: ‘We judge that Mary Immaculate, Mother of God, really did appear to Bernadette Soubirous …’
Bernadette entered the convent of Nevers in July, 1866 and was eventually professed as Sister Marie-Bernard. She died on the 16th April, 1879 and was canonised by Pope Pius XI on the 8th December, 1933.