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What happened in Lourdes?

Bernadette was born to François and Louise Soubirous in the Boly Mill on 7 January 1844, the eldest of nine children. She was baptised Marie Bernarde in the parish church, St Pierre’s, on 9 January 1844. The original church was demolished in 1905, but the baptismal font in which she was baptised was taken to the present church which was built in 1875. Apart from a period spent in the countryside at Bartres, where she was sent to be wet-nursed, she lived in the mill until she was ten. Life there was happy and reasonably comfortable. 

Bernadette had been a sickly child, having contracted cholera as a toddler and suffering with severe asthma throughout her short life. When Bernadette was ten her father was blinded in one eye in an accident and the family fortunes went downhill rapidly. They had to leave the Boly Mill and moved from place to place as they couldn’t pay their bills. Eventually, in 1856, a relative offered them lodging in le Cachot (‘the dungeon’), an abandoned prison. In 1857, Bernadette returned to Bartres, where she had been wet-nursed as a baby, to work on the farm and look after the sheep, but returned to her family in Lourdes in January 1858 to prepare for her First Holy Communion. It was from here that she set out with her sister Toinette and friend, Jeanne Abadie, to the foot of the rock known as Massabielle on 11th February 1858 to look for firewood. 

It was at the Grotto in the rock of Massabielle that Bernadette received the eighteen apparitions of the lady that she initially called ‘aquero’ (that one). Soon after the apparitions, miracles began to be associated with Lourdes, and the crowds began to flock to the village for healing and out of interest about what was happening there. Bernadette withdrew to the hospital run by the Sisters of Charity of Nevers. It was here that she discovered her vocation and entered the order in 1866. She went to live in the convent at Nevers where she died, aged 35, on 16th April 1879. 

On 2nd June 1925, Pope Pius XI declared her Blessed, and, on 8th December 1933, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, he solemnly read out the declaration of her canonisation. The feast day of Our Lady of Lourdes is 11th February. The feast day of Saint Bernadette is 16th April.

The Eighteen Apparitions

We go to Lourdes because this is where Mary, the mother of Jesus, came to St Bernadette on eighteen occasions in 1858, and asked her to bring people to this place in procession. The following are descriptions of what happened at each of these apparitions.


11 February 1858 

Bernadette was out with her sister, Toinette and a school friend, Jeanne Abadie. They were collecting firewood when Bernadette sat down to take off her shoes and stockings prior to crossing the river near the grotto at the foot of the rock known as Massabielle. She heard what sounded like a gust of wind but, looking towards the meadow, could see that the trees were quite still. The sound came again and, on looking up towards a niche just above the grotto, she saw a lady in a white dress with a blue girdle and a yellow rose on each foot. She carried a rosary, the chain of which was the same colour as the roses and the beads were white. The ‘lady’ signalled for Bernadette to approach but she was fearful. Bernadette took her own rosary out of her pocket but was unable to make the sign of the cross. When the lady made the sign of the cross Bernadette’s fear began to disappear and she was able to pray. While Bernadette prayed the lady slipped the beads of her rosary through her fingers but her lips did not move. 


14 February 1858 

Bernadette felt interiorly impelled to go to the grotto again. She took the precaution of taking some holy water from the parish church and was accompanied, as before, by Toinette and Jeanne. At the grotto they all knelt down and began to say the rosary. The lady appeared at the beginning of the second decade. Bernadette sprinkled some of the holy water over the apparition and told her that if she came from God, she was to stay, but if not, then she must go. The vision started to smile and bow and the more Bernadette sprinkled the holy water, the more the lady smiled and bowed. When the rosary was finished the vision had disappeared.


18 February 1858

This time Bernadette was accompanied by two women who had also advised her to take some paper and ink to ask the lady to write down any message that she wanted to give. Bernadette did this but the vision smiled and said that it was not necessary to write down what she had to say. She asked Bernadette if she would be gracious enough to come to the Grotto for a fortnight. Bernadette told her that she would. She also told Bernadette that she did not promise to make her happy in this world but in the next.


19 February 1858 

This time Bernadette came with a lighted candle from which came the custom of carrying lighted candles to the grotto. Eight people were present on this occasion including Bernadette’s mother and two of her aunts. The lady asked Bernadette to leave her candle there (at the grotto) to which Bernadette replied that it wasn’t her candle but that she would ask permission to do so. 


20 February 1858 

Thirty people were with Bernadette on this day. She later reported that the lady had taught her a prayer (which she said every day of her life but didn’t ever write down or repeat to anyone). The news of the apparitions was now spreading to other towns and many people were assuming that the apparition was that of the Blessed Virgin Mary. 


21 February 1858 

Over 100 people came to the sixth apparition and Bernadette was later questioned by the police commissioner, Dominique Jacomet. 


23 February 1858 

There were about 150 people with Bernadette this time. Bernadette later said that the lady had told her a secret which was for her alone. She didn’t ever reveal this secret to anyone. 


24 February 1858 

About 250 people were present when Bernadette received the message, ‘Penance! Penance! Penance! Pray to God for sinners. Kiss the ground as an act of penance for sinners!’ 


25 February 1858 

The lady told Bernadette to go and drink at the fountain and wash herself. Since she could see no fountain, Bernadette went to the Gave (the river) but the lady said it was not there and pointed under the rock. Bernadette found a small amount of muddy water. However, she obeyed the vision and scratched at the ground. At the fourth attempt she had something she was able to drink. The lady also made her eat some of the grass growing in the same place. A day later the spring began to flow.


27 February 1858 

The news was spreading. About 800 people came to the tenth apparition. 


28 February 1858 

The crowd had increased to about 1,000 people. Bernadette was questioned again after this apparition, this time by Judge Ribes. 


1 March 1858 

Almost 1,500 people came to the twelfth apparition. Catherine Latapie reported that after bathing her paralyzed arm in the spring it was instantly cured. This is the first known healing miracle of Lourdes. 


2 March 1858 

The lady commanded Bernadette to ask the priests to build a chapel and to have people come in procession. Accompanied by her two aunts, Bernadette went to the parish priest, Abbé Peyramale, to pass on the message. 

Abbé Peyramale didn’t really believe in the apparitions and said that the request for a chapel and processions could not be complied with unless he knew the lady’s name. He called Bernadette a liar and forbade her to go to the Grotto. Bernadette was determined and approached him again with one of his own friends. 

The parish clergy thoroughly questioned her but couldn’t decide how to handle the matter. After consulting the Bishop of Tarbes, Abbé Peyramale was instructed to stay away from the grotto. 


3 March 1858 

The vision repeated her request for a chapel to be built. Bernadette asked for the vision’s name but said later that, in response to the question, the lady had merely bowed a little and smiled. 


4 March 1858 

Over 9,000 people watched Bernadette ask the vision who she was but the lady only smiled again at the question.


25 March 1858 

This time, when asked who she was, the lady stopped smiling. With her arms down she raised her eyes to heaven and then, folding her hands over her breast she said, ‘Que soy Immaculada Concepcion.’ (‘I am the Immaculate Conception’). 


7 April 1858 

On this occasion, whilst deep in prayer, the flame of Bernadette’s candle was touching her hand for about fifteen minutes. However, she felt no pain and there were no burn marks on her skin. After coming out of the ecstasy of deep prayer the town physician, Romaine Dozous, who had been watching the phenomenon, experimented with bringing the candle flame close to Bernadette’s hand but she drew it back quickly in pain. 


16 July 1858 

By now the grotto had been barricaded in by the local government and Bernadette knelt outside the fence by the riverbank. She later said, ‘I thought I was at the Grotto, at the same distance as I was the other times. All I saw was Our Lady... She was more beautiful than ever’.

What we do on our Pilgrimage

During our pilgrimage, we do as Our Lady entrusted to Bernadette Soubirous on 2nd March 1858: “Go tell the priests to build a chapel here and that people should come in procession.”

A week together on the diocesan pilgrimage combines traditional devotions and Lourdes activities. In 2023 our timetable was as follows:

Day 1 

Way of the Cross (Lower and High Stations)
Chaplains on the pilgrimage lead small groups on the Stations of the Cross on the lower Way of the Cross around the beautiful marble statues accessible to all, and up the steep hill on the High Stations of the Cross, with the life size bronze statues of the passion story bringing a focus to the devotion.

Opening Mass
We celebrate our opening Mass together giving thanks for our journey to Lourdes and asking for God’s blessing the week ahead.

Day 2

International Mass in St Pie X Basilica
We attend the Sunday international Mass in the dramatic Underground Basilica with other pilgrims gathered in Lourdes during the week. The Mass is celebrated in different languages with lots of cultures coming together in worship.

Reds Family Mass
We have an alternative shorter Mass for our young families to attend, with the readings and music aimed at the smaller children on our pilgrimage. 

Torchlight Procession
This is a very popular feature of Lourdes during which a statue of the Blessed Virgin is processed all around the domain in front of the Rosary Basilica whilst the Rosary is said. It takes place each evening but on one evening our pilgrimage leads the procession. 

Most people, even those watching, like to have lighted candles for this procession. After the statue has once again reached the steps of the Basilica everybody gathers in the main square and the Salve Regina is sung followed by the greeting of peace. 

Day 3

Mass at the Cathedral of the Trees at Cite St Pierre
The pilgrimage makes the short journey to Cite St Pierre, a special village for pilgrims who are unable to afford to stay in the hotels. Here we celebrate Mass outdoors with a raised terrace for the pilgrims to sit in the trees. This is a beautiful setting for us to give thanks for God’s creation.

Day 4

Mass with Anointing of the Sick
The sick are a central part of our pilgrimage and at this Mass we offer Mass particularly for them and the priests anoint all those who are sick or frail with the Sacrament of the Sick to give them comfort and strength in their suffering.

Penitential Service
We gather together for a time of reflection and prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, with the opportunity for individual confession with the many chaplains who are on our pilgrimage.

Day 5

Mass at the Grotto
We gather for Mass at the grotto, the place where St Bernadette witnessed the apparitions of Mary, and the central focus of the pilgrimage. Often we join other English speaking pilgrimages for this Mass. It is a great privilege for us to celebrate this Mass each year on our pilgrimage.

Blessed Sacrament Procession
This beautiful and joyful procession takes place at 17:00 each day leading through the sanctuary and ending in the St Pius X Underground Basilica with a time of prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, finishing with Benediction. Each year the Diocese of Westminster take the lead on one evening for this procession.

Day 6

Closing Mass and closing of the pilgrimage
We give thanks for our pilgrimage together and end the pilgrimage by lighting our large diocesan candle, leaving our petitions and prayers with Our Lady. 

And in our spare time:
Our week also includes time in prayer and leaving our petitions at the grotto, praying the rosary, lighting our own candles, and taking part in the water gesture at the old baths. There are also lighter moments to our pilgrimage with lots of time for shopping, relaxing in the cafes and coming together for our pilgrimage party with a sing-along and live performances.

Tour of the Relics of St Bernadette

In September and October 2022, the relics of St Bernadette journeyed on pilgrimage to England, Scotland, and Wales for the very first time. This very special once in a lifetime event provided an opportunity for people of all ages and backgrounds to experience the special gifts and charisms of Lourdes, in a church or cathedral near them. Travelling on pilgrimage to Lourdes and visiting the Grotto where Our Lady appeared to Bernadette, provides an important, spiritually enriching opportunity to continue this journey.