French watering resort famous for miracle cures. In 1858 the Virgin Mary reportedly appeared in a grotto to the peasant girl Bernadette Soubirous (1844-1879), later canonized as St. Bernadette in 1933. A marble tablet at Lourdes records the apparition:
Dates of the Eighteen apparitions and words of the Blessed Virgin in the year of grace 1858. In the hollow of the rock where her statue is now seen the Blessed Virgin appeared to Bernadette Soubirous Eighteen times: the 11th and the 14th of February; Each day, with two exceptions, from February 18th till March 25th, April 7th, July 16th. The Blessed Virgin said to the child on February 18th, "Will you do me the favour of coming here daily for a fortnight? I do not promise to make you happy In this world, but in the next; I want many people to come. The Virgin said to her during the fortnight: "You will pray for sinners; you will kiss the earth for sinners. Penitence! penitence! penitence! Go, and tell the priests to cause a chapel to be built; I want people to come thither in procession. Go and drink of the fountain and wash yourself in it. Go and eat of the grass which is there." On March 25th The Virgin said: "I Am the Immaculate Conception."
Bernadette alone saw the apparition, and there was no coinciding objective event that would make it veridical. There was, however, a later incident of a supernormal character in the life of Bernadette, for which evidence is available in the testimony of Dr. Dozous. His advocacy is largely responsible for the credence bestowed on Bernadette and the fame of Lourdes. His testimony was quoted in Dr. Boissarie's book Lourdes, which gives a summary of the miraculous cures, published in the Annales des Lourdes from 1868 until 1891. While praying in ecstasy, the girl held her interlaced fingers over the flame of a lighted taper. The point of the flame came out between the fingers without causing her any harm.
In the story of the apparition, there was no promise of miraculous cures. Bernadette was an invalid child subject to fits, and nobody would have paid attention to her visions but for the grotto in the rocks to which she was conducted by the white angel, and the water of which made her feel lighter and stronger. The quarryman Bourriette was the first to conceive the idea that the water of the spring in the grotto uncovered by Bernadette's bare hands might benefit his eyes, which had been injured by an explosion. He was healed, and the rumor soon spread that the Virgin Mary was effecting miraculous cures.
Due to the newly acquired and unwanted fame, Bernadette moved in with the Sisters of Charity in order to keep away from the growing crowds that came to the site and in 1866, she joined the order. She received only relative peace; many people came to interview her and the nuns envied her. Their attitude only changed at the end of her life when it was discovered that tuberculosis, from which she would die, entered her bone and caused intense pain. Bernadette believed the pain was to be her suffering.
Following her death on April 16, 1879, Bernadette's body did not decompose. It has remained on display at the convent at Nevers. In 1933, the Roman Catholic Church canonized her.
A. T. Myers and F. W. H. Myers wrote an analysis of Lourdes from a psychic research perspective, which appeared in the Proceedings of the SPR in 1893. They concluded:
"Many forms of psycho-therapeutics produce, by obscure but natural agencies, for which at present we have no better terms than suggestion and self-suggestion, effects to which no definite limit can yet be assigned. Thus far Lourdes offers the best list of cures; but this superiority is not more than can be explained by the greater number of patients treated there than elsewhere, and their greater confidence in the treatment. There is no real evidence, either that the apparition of the Virgin was itself more than a subjective hallucination, or that it has any more than a merely subjective connection with the cures."
The Roman Catholic Church was also cautious in assessing claimed cures at Lourdes, and a Medical Bureau was established and reorganized after World War II in 1947. It claimed cures must meet strict criteria.
In the first place, the sick are expected to bring with them a diagnosis from their own doctors and are given an examination upon arrival in Lourdes. If a cure is claimed, the patient must return to Lourdes a year later for examination, and if the cure appears permanent and inexplicable by normal explanations, the case is then put to a higher medical tribunal in Paris. Even then, it is submitted to members of an ecclesiastical tribunal before being pronounced miraculous, or, in some cases, a genuine cure but still non-miraculous.
In the past decades since the Roman Catholic Church granted its favorable opinion of Lourdes, the shrine has been a source of political contention. The Church was disestablished in France in 1905 and the following year the shrine property was nationalized by the government. Pilgrimages to the shrine continued, but only in 1940 was it returned fully to church control. In the meantime, the reported healings have been the subject of constant debate. In the twentieth century, the shrine has been the subject of many books, most recounting the story of Bernadette and the miraculous occurrences that began with the apparitions and the first healings. Others focus more on the healings and have attempted to place the shrine into the larger context of spiritual and paranormal healings worldwide.
Lourdes is now one of the most famous pilgrim sites, and the whole area is well organized for great annual pilgrimages. In 1876 a huge basilica was constructed above the rock, and in the cave where Bernadette had her vision a marble statue of the Virgin was placed. The grotto is festooned with crutches from disabled pilgrims who did not need assistance after their visits.
Of course not all pilgrims who visit the shrine come in expectation of a cure. Thousands come as an act of piety.
(See also Fatima ; Garabandal ; Guadalupe Apparitions ; healing, psychic ; healing by faith ; and Medjugorje )
Delaney, John J. A Woman Clothed with the Sun: Eight Great Appearances of Our Lady in Modern Times. Garden City, N.Y.: Hanover House, 1959.
Estrade, J. B. The Appearances of the Blessed Virgin Mary at the Grotto of Lourdes: Personal Souvenirs of an Eyewitness. London: Art & Book Co., 1912.
Keselman, Thomas A. Miracles and Prophecies in Nineteenth-Century France. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1983.
Marchand, A. The Facts of Lourdes and the Medical Bureau. London: Burns Oates & Wasbourne, 1924.
Markham, Patrick. Lourdes: A Modern Pilgrimage. Garden City, N.Y.: Image Books, 1982.
Myer, A. T., and F. W. H. Myers. "Mind-Cure, Faith-Cure, and the Miracles of Lourdes." Proceedings of the Society for Psychic Research 9, no. 24 (1893).
Neame, Alan. The Happening at Lourdes. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1968.
Trochu, Francis. Saint Bernadette Soubirous, 1844-1879. London: Longmans, 1957.
West, Donald J. Eleven Lourdes Miracles. New York: Helix Press, 1957.
The healing Grotto of Bernadette at Lourdes, France, was constructed on the site where 14-year-old Bernadette Soubrious (1844–1879) claimed to have conversed with Mother Mary in 1858. Since the time that the miracle occurred to the young miller's daughter, pilgrims have journeyed to Lourdes to seek healing from the waters of the natural spring that appeared in the grotto next to the Gave de Pau River. Consistently, for decades, an average of 200,000 people visited the shrine each year. The celebration of the 100th anniversary of Lourdes in 1958 brought more than two million persons into the small community in southern France. In the 1990s, annual attendance rose to more than five million per year.
On February 11, 1858, Bernadette Soubrious and her two sisters were gathering firewood outside Lourdes when she fell behind the younger girls. That was the first time that Bernadette saw the apparition of a lady dressed in white with a blue sash and a yellow rose on each foot standing in a grotto next to the river. The lady did not speak, but made the sign of the cross before she disappeared.
Bernadette returned to the grotto a second time, but it was not until the lady's third appearance that she spoke and asked Bernadette if she would like to meet her every day for two weeks. Bernadette enthusiastically agreed, and word of her visitations soon spread throughout the entire village. Crowds gathered to observe the girl and hear what messages she would relay from the lady. The apparition insisted again and again that priests must build a chapel in the grotto and that Bernadette was to drink from the spring there. Since there was no spring in sight, Bernadette began to scrape at the muddy ground until a spring bubbled forth with waters that were immediately believed to contain curative powers. Water from that same spring is still piped to a bathing house where pilgrims gather to receive its healing blessings.
Upset by the disturbances that she was causing in the town, the local police and civil authorities interrogated Bernadette, but they could not dissuade her from continuing her meetings by the grotto. The local parish priest, Father Peyramale, also did his best to convince Bernadette that she was only imagining the visions. Then, on March 25, after her sixteenth visit, the lady revealed her name to Bernadette, who, when questioned by the skeptical priest, relayed the lady's identity as "The Immaculate Conception." Because that title had been applied to Mother Mary by Catholic theologians only four years before and was only known to the clergy, Father Peyramale thought it highly unlikely that a teenaged girl who could not read or write and spoke only a crude, provincial form of French would know the phrase used to define the doctrine that declared Mary free from the taint of original sin.
With the official endorsement of the clergy, the grotto at the edge of the river would soon support a healing chapel and begin to attract pilgrims from great distances. After 1866, when a railway line was completed to Lourdes, many thousands of those afflicted with various illnesses began to arrive in the little French town. In that same year, 22-year-old Bernadette Soubrious left for a convent in Nevers, hundreds of miles to the north. She died there in 1879.
Since the 1860s, thousands of pilgrims have left their crutches and canes at the shrine. Thousands more claim to have been cured of advanced cancers. On May 3, 1948, the Bishop of Nice acted at the request of the Lourdes Medical Commission and declared Rose Martin's healing to be a miraculous cure. When Rose Martin arrived at Lourdes in 1947, her total weight was a scant 70 pounds. She had undergone surgery for cancer of the uterus in February 1947, and the cancer had continued to spread despite several subsequent operations. Doctors could prescribe only morphine to enable the suffering woman to endure the pain of her affliction.
On July 3, 1947, after three baths in the waters of the shrine, Rose Martin returned to her hotel. Her appetite had suddenly returned. The awful pain had disappeared. Several of her medical complications had vanished. In 1948, Madame Martin was examined by the medical bureau at Lourdes and declared to be totally free of cancer. In the interim she had gained 34 pounds. She had become the picture of health and vitality. More than 20 leading French doctors and surgeons confirmed the unusual healing. Annual checkups and subsequent physical examinations revealed that she remained free of the disease.
Dr. Alexis Carrel (1873–1944), an American surgeon who won the Nobel Prize in 1912 in physiology and medicine for his extensive work in suturing blood vessels, transplanting organs, and inventing the mechanical heart, witnessed a miracle healing firsthand when he visited Lourdes in the 1940s. Only an hour before a young woman named Marie Bailly had been carried to the waters of Lourdes, Carrel had examined her and saw that she was dying of tuberculosis, a disease that had afflicted her for years. As he observed her, Carrel saw her pain-wracked body suddenly surge forward as if filled with a powerful force. Her paleness was replaced with a rosy hue, and as the surgeon and his colleagues watched in astonishment, they saw her swollen abdomen transformed from a misshapen lump and flattened to a smooth stomach. Her pulse calmed, her respiration returned to normal, and she asked for the first food she had been able to consume in almost a week. Marie Bailly was found to be cured of her terminal illness.
Although there are thousands of cures and healings claimed by men and women who have immersed themselves in the cold spring waters of the shrine, the Lourdes Medical Bureau has established certain criteria that must be met before they will certify a cure as miraculous:
- The affliction must be a serious disease. If it is not classified as incurable, it must be diagnosed as extremely difficult to cure.
- There must be no improvement in the patient's condition prior to the visit to the Lourdes shrine.
- Medication that may have been used must have been judged ineffective.
- The cure must be totally complete.
- The cure must be unquestionably definitive and free of all doubt.
Such stringent requirements set by members of the medical profession in order to qualify as a miraculous healing do little to deter the five million visitors each year who travel to the small town in the foothills of the Pyrenees in search of their own miracle.
Carrel, Alexis. Voyage to Lourdes. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1950.
Cranston, Ruth. The Miracle of Lourdes. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1955.
Harpur, James. The Atlas of Sacred Places. Old Say-brook, Conn.: Konecky & Konecky, 1994.
Lourdes, France. [Online] http://www.lourdes-france.com/bonjour.htm. 2 May 2002.
Our Lady of Lourdes. [Online] http://www.catholic.org/mary/lourdes1.html. 2 May 2002.
Town on the Gave de Pau River, at the foot of the Pyrenees, southwest France. Since 1912 the See of Tarbes (founded c. 500, perhaps in the 4th century) has been known as the Diocese of Tarbes and Lourdes.
Lourdes was an obscure village until the Blessed Virgin appeared there to the 14-year-old St. Bernadette soubirous 18 times between February 11 and July 16, 1858. It has since become the location of one of the most popular Marian shrines in the world. Bernadette's visits to the grotto of Massabielle on the riverside were accompanied by crowds that reached 20,000 on March 4; only Bernadette, however, saw the visions. After calling for penance on the 24th, the Lady directed Bernadette to drink and wash at a spring which came forth as soon as Bernadette dug (February 25). The water, which now flows at the rate of 32,000 gallons a day, is used for the bath at Lourdes (which is changed twice daily) and is prized as a sacramental by pilgrims. On February 27 and March 2 Bernadette was instructed to have a chapel built and to have people come there in processions. On March 25 the Lady told Bernadette, in the dialect of Lourdes, "I am the Immaculate Conception." The dogma of the immaculate conception had been defined by Pope Pius IX, December 8, 1854. The final apparition occurred on the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. Bernadette, who entered the Sisters of Charity and Christian Instruction at Nevers (1865), died in 1879; she was beatified in 1925 and canonized in 1933.
There was a period of opposition; the grotto and spring were barricaded by the mayor from June to October 1858 "for hygienic reasons." In 1861 the shrine became the property of the See of Tarbes, and in 1862 Bishop Laurence confirmed the apparitions and approved the public cult of Our Lady of Lourdes. Apart from the cures associated with the spring (whose water is chemically the same as Lourdes drinking water), reasons for the approval were the good spiritual effects resulting from the devotion, the evident ecstasy of Bernadette, and the accuracy and veracity of her testimony. In 1862 a marble statue was carved and a Gothic church (in place of a chapel) was begun. In 1871 the first Mass was celebrated in the church, and in 1872 (after the Franco-Prussian War) pilgrims flocked to Lourdes from all parts of France. The church was made a minor basilica and was consecrated by Abp. Guibert of Paris in 1876 in the presence of 100,000 pilgrims, while the statue was crowned by the papal nuncio to France. The increase in the number of pilgrims necessitated another church, the Rosary Basilica with 15 chapels (1883–1901), which became a minor basilica in 1926. Leo XIII, who built a Lourdes grotto in the Vatican gardens, approved an Office and a Mass of Lourdes for the province of Auch (1891), and Pius X extended the feast (February 11) for the whole church (1907). The crypt below the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception and the underground Church of Pope St. Pius X were consecrated by Cardinal Roncalli (later Pope John XXIII) in 1958, a centenary year which attracted six million pilgrims. Two annual pilgrimages, the French national pilgrimage led by the Assumptionists and the Rosary pilgrimage under the Dominicans, date from the 1870s.
Development of the Sanctuary . Each year millions of pilgrims visit Lourdes. They come from every continent, every social background and age-group. The sick are particularly prominent. The first cure at Lourdes was reported in 1858, and in 1861 the first commission pronounced 15 of 100 cures miraculous. Of 5,000 reported cures by the end of 1959, 58 were declared miraculous by the Church, but a number of cures are believed not to have been reported. The cures of organic illnesses include the healing of cancers, tuberculosis, and blindness; cases of neurasthemia or nervous disorders are not considered significant. As many cures derive from the processions and the individual blessings of the sick as from the baths and from private prayers at the grotto. Reported cures are first examined at Lourdes by a medical bureau of physicians (since 1882), and valid cases are asked to return a year later. The medical bureau then forwards its conclusions to the International Medical Commission of Lourdes (in Paris) for confirmation. Approved cases then go to a canonical commission in the diocese of the person cured. The bishop of this see pronounces on the miraculous nature of the cure. The sanctuary publishes a monthly magazine translated from the French into four languages that reports news and current events in Lourdes.
Bibliography: r. p. cros, Histoire de Notre Dame de Lourdes d'après les documents et les témoins, 3 v. (Paris 1925–27). d. c. sharkey, After Bernadette (Milwaukee 1945). b. lebbe, The Soul of Bernadette (Tralee 1946). p. miest, Les 54 miracles de Lourdes au jugement du droit canon, 1858–1958 (Paris 1958). g. siegmund, De miraculis atque sanationibus Lourdensibus (Rome 1960). r. laurentin, Lourdes: Histoire authentique des apparitions de Lourdes, 6 v. (Paris 1961–66). r. harris, Lourdes: Body and Spirit in the Secular Age (New York 1999). r. laurentin, v. messori, and m. j. furiÓ, Lourdes: crónica de un misterio (Barcelona 1997).
[t. f. casey/eds.]