One of the best known of all saints, Bernadette Soubirous is associated with at least two extraordinary events: the apparitions at Lourdes and the incorrupt state of her body decades after her death. Her feast day is April 16.
Bernadette was born on January 7, 1844 to a very poor French Catholic family. In childhood, she suffered from asthma. Because of academic difficulties, she had to delay her First Communion until she was 14.
As a young child, she had digestive ailments was was considered frail. Her infirmities almost caused her to be excluded from religious life.
Apparition at Lourdes
As the young woman was picking up firewood near the River Gave on February 11, 1858, she experienced her first vision of the Virgin Mary. Roman Catholics speak of the visions as a whole as the Apparition at Lourdes.
Local officials, including the priest, were skeptical of what Bernadette related. On March 25, the Blessed Virgin appeared for the final time. She referred to herself as the “Immaculate Conception,” a term with which Bernadette would have been unfamiliar.
Bernadette relayed that the Blessed Virgin told her to pray for sinners, do penance, and have a chapel built at the spot of the apparition in Mary’s honor. When the teenager began to dig in the mud, per a message from Mary, onlookers questioned her mental faculties. However, a spring of water began to flow and grew over time.
Bernadette went to live with the Sisters of Nevers, who operated a school at Lourdes. She entered the order at 22 and spent the remainder of her life in the convent, only a short way from Lourdes. Within the order, she was known as Sister Marie-Bernard.
Life as a Religious
Bernadette had health problems throughout her religious life. Three times, she received what used to be called the last rites of the Church.
Asthma continued to plague her, and she developed tuberculosis. She suffered greatly from a tubercular tumor on her right knee. On April 16, 1879, her pain escalated. She passed away in mid-afternoon and was buried within the confines of her convert.
Officials first exhumed the body of St. Bernadette 30 years after she died. In 1909, they opened the coffin and found that the remains had no odor and were amazingly preserved. The rosary she still grasped in her hands had rusted.
The second exhumation occurred at the end of the process for sainthood on April 3, 1919, when Bernadette had already been declared Venerable. Her face had a slight discoloration linked to the washing the nuns had performed a decade earlier when the remains were first exhumed.
The remains of St. Bernadette Soubirous rest in a gold and glass coffin in the Chapel of Saint Bernadette at the order’s motherhouse in Nevers. Lourdes, which became a major Roman Catholic shrine, is for the faithful a source of healing water and perhaps some miracles.