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Sunday, 22 July 2012

Saint Bernadette

Bernadeta Soubirous known to us as Saint Bernadette was born in Lourdes, France on January 7, 1844. Her parents were François Soubirous (1807–1871), a poor miller with no regular employment, and Louise (née Castérot) (1825–1866), a laundress. Bernadette was the eldest of five children who survived infancy.

All the family members sought what employment they could. Bernadette did farm work, notably sheep herding, for a family friend in nearby Bartres, and also waited tables in her Aunt Bernarde's tavern.

Bernadette Soubirous when a child.

She returned to Lourdes in January 1858 having just turned 14 to attend a free school run by the Sisters of Charity and Christian Instruction so she could finish learning the Catechism in order to receive her first Holy Communion.

On  February 11, 1858 she had the first of several visions of the Virgin Mary in a grotto. At the ninth visitation the Virgin Mary told Bernadette to drink from the spring that flowed under the rock. A crowd gathered and they witnessed Bernadette dig in the earth and drink from a muddy patch. In the next few days, a spring began to flow from the muddy patch first dug by Bernadette. An old stone mason with a blind eye bathed it in the spring's water and as others also followed her example it was soon reported to have healing properties. The grotto soon became a centre of pilgrimage. Many sick people who were dipped in the water of the spring were cured.

Bernadette followed the development of Lourdes as a pilgrimage shrine, but was not present for the consecration of the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception there in 1876.

By the time Bernadette received her visions, her family's financial and social status had declined to the point where they lived in a one-room basement, in the old Lourdes prison. They had previously been evicted from two mills and were housed there for free by her mother's cousin, Andre Sajoux.
By 1860 her father was set up in a new mill by the local bishop.

In 1866, Bernadette joined the mother house at Nevers. She spent the rest of her brief life there, working as an assistant in the infirmary and later as a sacristan, creating beautiful embroidery for altar cloths and vestments. She was kept as a novice for ten years by the ill-natured mother superior.

Bernadette Soubirous (in 1866)

As a nun at Nevers, Bernadette helped nurse wounded casualties of the Franco-Prussian war.

Bernadette was frail and asthmatic after a near-fatal attack of cholera in infancy and after joining the Sisters of Nevers she was often bedridden. She used snuff to help relieve the symptoms for which she was roundly criticised by another sister who told her St Vincent de Paul nearly wasn't canonised because of his snuff use. "Well" said Bernadette to her critic, "doesn't that mean that because you don't take snuff you will be canonised."

During a severe asthma attack, she asked for water from the Lourdes spring, and her symptoms subsided, never to return. However, Bernadette did not seek healing in this way when she later contracted tuberculous of the bone in the right knee.

Bernadette died at her convent of tuberculous. On April 16, 1879 the terminally ill Bernadette was heard to mumble “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for me, poor sinner, poor sinner.” A few seconds later she died.

Her body was buried and exhumed three separate times in the next 45 years in attempts to verify the incorruptibility of her corpse and therefore her sainthood.

Saint Bernadette's body is today remarkably intact and is on display at the chapel of the Convent of St Gildard at Nevers.

Saint Bernadette was canonized in 1933 by the Catholic Church and her feast day is celebrated on April 16th.

Bernadette's life was given a fictionalised treatment in Franz Werfel's 1942 novel, The Song of Bernadette. It was extremely popular, spending more than a year on the New York Times Best Seller list and 13 weeks in first place.

Werfel's novel was adapted into a 1943 film, also titled The Song of Bernadette. Jennifer Jones won the Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of the French saint.

Lourdes is now a major center where Catholic pilgrims from around the globe reaffirm their beliefs. Close to 5 million pilgrims visit the town every year. Within France, only Paris has more hotels than Lourdes.

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