Magazine article History Today
St Bernadette's First Vision at Lourdes: February 11th, 1858
Lourdes in 1858 was an inconspicuous little French town on the Gave de Pau River at the foot of the Pyrenees, with around 4,000 inhabitants. One of them was a former miller named Francois Soubirous, who had fallen on hard times. He and his wife Louise had six children. The eldest was their daughter Marie-Bernarde, known as Bernadette. Desperately poor, the family lived squashed into one small room. Bernadette spent part of her childhood brought up by an aunt, had little in the way of schooling and was unable to read or write.
The story of exactly what happened and when has become confused over the years, but out collecting firewood one Thursday with her younger sister Toinette and a friend near a grotto called Massabielle by the River Gave, the fourteen-year old Bernadette saw 'a little lady' standing in a niche in the rock and holding a rosary. She smiled at Bernadette, made the sign of the Cross and then vanished. To Bernadette's surprise, the other two had seen nothing. On the way home she told them she had seen a little young lady in white with a blue sash and a yellow rose on each foot. They laughed at her.
Bernadette went back to the grotto seventeen more times and saw the Lady, though no one else ever did. Her story spread round the town like wildfire. The Lady was generally assumed to be the Virgin Mary and more and more townspeople began to go to the grotto with Bernadette, but there was considerable scepticism, from the parish priest among others.
On February 25th the Lady told Bernadette to drink the water of a spring that flowed under her rock. As there seemed to be no spring, Bernadette dug in the ground. Nothing happened, but a day or so afterwards the water started to flow. Bernadette drank it and washed in it and others did the same and the water acquired a reputation for healing properties. The spring is still flowing at the rate of 32,000 gallons a day, but analysis of the water has found nothing remarkable about it.
On February 27th and March 2nd the Lady told Bernadette that the priests should be told to build a chapel at the site and have people come there in processions. …