Lourdes lies at an elevation of 420 m (1,380 ft) and sits on the river, the Gave de Pau. It has a population (excluding pilgrims) of around 15,000.
Prior to the apparitions of 1858 it was a quiet market town, frequented by mountaineers going to climb in the Pyrenees, visitors to the mountain spa towns, and pilgrims on their way to Compostela. Since 1858, the town has become world-renowned for the apparitions of the Virgin Mary to St Bernadette, and welcomes some 5 million pilgrims from all over the world each year.
The Grotto, site of the Apparitions, sits within the Domain, a large area owned and run by the Church. The river Gave runs through the Domain by the Grotto. Above the shrine sits the chapel which was built as Our Lady requested in the Apparitions and the Basilica, which was added later. She also requested that people should come in procession, and so every day in the pilgrimage season, people process twice a day, once for the Blessed Sacrament Procession, and every evening for a torchlight procession. Pilgrims can also bathe in the spring waters at the Baths, celebrate Mass in the many chapels, pray the Stations of the Cross, and join in a number of the large celebrations, including an International Mass every Sunday and Wednesday.
Outside of the Domain, there are other sites of interest to visit in Lourdes. These include the Parish Church where you can visit the font where Bernadette was Baptised.
The Cachot (or jail house) where she was living at the time of the apparitions, the hospice where she made her first Holy Communion, and other sites relevant to her life. You can also visit sites relevant to the town’s history, including the medieval fortified castle which dominates the town centre today.
Most pilgrims will balance their time in Lourdes with visits and excursions to a range of locations in the local area. Pilgrims can go to the village of Bartres, where Bernadette spent some of her childhood looking after sheep for a local family. They can also relax at the local Lourdes lake, with pedalos and a lovely jetty and cafe.
Further afield, the Pyrenees await discovery, including the Cirque de Gavarnie, a spectacular mountain amphitheatre with the highest waterfall in France, also the start of the river Gave which flows through Lourdes. Throughout the area visitors can enjoy breath-taking mountain views.
Marie-Bernard (more commonly called Bernadette) Soubirous was born on 7th January 1844. Her father Francois, was a miller and her mother Louise, was a laundress. Bernadette was the eldest of 9 children, only four of which survived infancy.
The family, living in extreme poverty, were a close group supporting each other with their love for one another and their strong religious beliefs. As a toddler Bernadette contracted cholera and suffered severe asthma throughout her life.
On 11 February 1858, whilst collecting firewood Bernadette had her first vision of Our Lady. She noticed a rose bush moving, as though blown by wind, in a natural cave by the river, however, no other bushes or trees were moving. Bernadette talked of a dazzling light and a white figure whom she later described as a small young lady. This was the first of 18 visions.
During these visions, The Blessed Virgin asked Bernadette pray for sinners and to tell the priests to build a chapel on the site. On the 9th appearance of the vision (Our Lady did not reveal her identity until the 16th vision) Bernadette was told to ‘drink at the fountain and wash herself’. At the place directed she dug up the soil from which water started to spring.
On the 12th appearance a local woman after dipping her paralyzed arm into the spring regained movement in the arm.
It was not until the 16th Apparition on 25 March that Our Lady revealed her name. Bernadette recounted; “She lifted up her eyes to heaven, joined her hands as though in prayer, that were held out and open towards the ground and said to me: Que soy era Immaculada Concepciou (I am the Immaculate Conception).” On hearing this, the young girl left and, running all the way, repeated continuously the words that she did not understand, to be able to tell them to the Parish Priest. He was troubled by these words. Bernadette was ignorant of the fact that this theological expression was assigned to the Blessed Virgin four years earlier, in 1854, when Pope Pius IX declared this a truth of the Catholic Faith (a dogma).
Bernadette received her final vision on 16th July 1858. She was never to return to the now famous Grotto of Massabielle again.
In later years Bernadette attended a hospice school run by the Sisters of Charity of Nevers and joined the sisters at the age of 22. She spent the rest of her life in the convent at Nevers, working for a time as an assistant in the infirmary.
Following a long illness Bernadette died at the age of 35 on 16 April 1879.
After being declared Venerable by Pope Pius X and declared Blessed by Pope Pius XI on 2 June 1925, Bernadette was Canonized a Saint by Pope Pius XI on 8 December 1933.
Healings were officially declared miraculous after extensive investigation by the Catholic Church. Given how many people visit Lourdes each year, this number if very small. However, it is the many hundreds of thousands of private signs given to individuals in answer to prayer that most Lourdes pilgrims experience – the strength to cope with an illness, the joy of new friendships and the comfort they bring, the grace to accept God’s will, the courage to face life or even approach death with confidence.
To learn more about Lourdes visit the official site of the Sanctuary of Lourdes, which also features a live webcam feed of the Grotto.