Virgin Mary Appears to Bernadette Soubirous

Appearances of the Virgin Mary before the French peasant girl Bernadette Soubirous represented the most famous Marian apparitions in the modern world. The events sparked sacred and secular controversies. Bernadette became the first saint to be widely photographed, and her story later became the subject of films and popular songs.

Summary of Event

On February 11, 1858, Bernadette Soubirous, a barely literate peasant girl living in the town of Lourdes in the Pyrenees, saw a vision of a young girl about her own age, fourteen, whom she perceived as divine. Soubirous suffered from asthma and had paused to rest in a wooded area where the poor often went to collect free wood. She later reported that she felt a breeze and looked in its direction, and there she saw the illuminated girl along the banks of the Gave de Pau, adjacent to Massabieille, a local religious shrine. Over the next five months, Soubirous experienced a total of eighteen visions of the Virgin Mary, whom she first called Aquero, or heavenly, for lack of a better name. On her third appearance, the Virgin asked Soubirous to return to the site for fifteen days. She was accompanied by various people from Lourdes, members of her own family, and eventually pilgrims, none of whom saw anything but Soubirous appearing to talk to an invisible person. Virgin Mary
Soubirous, Bernadette
Miracles;and Virgin Mary[Virgin Mary]
Christianity;and Virgin Mary[Virgin Mary]
Lourdes, France
[kw]Virgin Mary Appears to Bernadette Soubirous (Feb. 11-July 16, 1858)
[kw]Mary Appears to Bernadette Soubirous, Virgin (Feb. 11-July 16, 1858)
[kw]Appears to Bernadette Soubirous, Virgin Mary (Feb. 11-July 16, 1858)
[kw]Bernadette Soubirous, Virgin Mary Appears to (Feb. 11-July 16, 1858)
[kw]Soubirous, Virgin Mary Appears to Bernadette (Feb. 11-July 16, 1858)
Virgin Mary
Soubirous, Bernadette
Miracles;and Virgin Mary[Virgin Mary]
Christianity;and Virgin Mary[Virgin Mary]
Lourdes, France
[g]France;Feb. 11-July 16, 1858: Virgin Mary Appears to Bernadette Soubirous[3220]
[c]Religion and theology;Feb. 11-July 16, 1858: Virgin Mary Appears to Bernadette Soubirous[3220]
Lasserre, Henri
Cros, Léonard
Peyramale, Dominique

Soon, local clerics and the police grew concerned that the accumulation of people could become dangerous, and they questioned the authenticity of Soubirous’s story. She withstood the harsh questioning of Police Commissioner Dominique Jacomet, who threatened her with imprisonment if she did not withdraw her story and stop going to the site. Her parish priest, Dominique Peyramale, Peyramale, Dominique though initially skeptical, came to believe her. His endorsement, while it did not deter the police from blocking access to the site, did much to make her story credible in the eyes of the public.

Between February 11 and 25, the Virgin revealed her desire to have a shrine built on the riverbank site that would become the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes. On February 25, to the embarrassment of her family, Soubirous was seen to claw the ground and to drink the water that her digging uncovered. One week later, eight hundred people came to the location of the fountain, and some even claimed that the water had healed the sick. Then, Soubirous told Peyramale that the Virgin asked that a chapel be built to enclose the fountain and that a pilgrimage be organized to consecrate the site.

Initially, despite the claims of healing, there was no evidence of the miraculous cures that would later characterize the shrine. To test her again, Peyramale Peyramale, Dominique asked Soubirous to ask the Virgin to state her name and to make a nearby rosebush bloom. The Virgin did neither, and even after a long visit of forty-five minutes, Soubirous had no words for the faithful. Instead, she found herself credited with restoring the sight of a nearby blind girl whom she embraced in a gesture of goodwill. From that moment, Soubirous was surrounded by people who wanted to touch her to be cured of afflictions.

The most controversial moment of the apparitions occurred on March 25, 1858, when Soubirous pressed the Virgin to identify herself so that all would know she was from heaven. She replied, “I am the Immaculate Conception.” Roman Catholic Church;Immaculate Conception dogma
Immaculate Conception dogma After stating this, the Virgin did not return until April 7. Her last appearance was on July 16, 1858, when Soubirous and her followers had to assemble on the opposite bank of the Gave de Pau, because the shrine site had been cordoned off by the police on June 14. Over the next three weeks, the people would systematically tear down the shrine’s enclosures every time the police replaced them.

Late nineteenth century Currier & Ives print of pilgrims visiting the shrine erected at Lourdes after Bernadette Soubirous claimed to have seen the Virgin Mary there.

(Library of Congress)

The departure of the Virgin was almost as controversial as her first appearance. Soubirous, whose family feared alternately for her sanity and her safety, became a charity student at the convent and hospital of the Sisters of Nevers in 1860 at the age of eighteen. Eventually, she would become a nun in that order, and because she was poorly educated, she performed manual labor in the hospital for many years, working as the equivalent of an orderly. By October, 1875, Soubirous, who took the name Sister Marie-Bernard, was bedridden, her body consumed with tubercular Tuberculosis growths and tumors so painful she could not walk or kneel. On April 16, 1879, she died in the convent’s infirmary. Her final illness was reported as verification of the Virgin’s message that Soubirous would find peace in the next world, not in the earthly world.

In 1862, the Roman Catholic Church determined that the Lourdes apparitions Roman Catholic Church;and Lourdes apparitions[Lourdes apparitions] were truly the visits from the Virgin Mary, and in 1866, the shrine was constructed as a cathedral. It was managed by the Garaison Fathers, until their order was disbanded in 1903. In 1869, Henri Lasserre Lasserre, Henri published his account, Notre Dame de Lourdes (Our Lady of Lourdes, 1906), which codified the story of Soubirous and of Lourdes as a place of special merit among pilgrims to Marian shrines in the Pyrenees.

In 1872, the Assumptionist Fathers organized the first national pilgrimage to Lourdes. Also in the 1870’s, the importance of the shrine shifted from one associated with messages from the Virgin Mary to a place where miraculous cures occurred. People who were cured at Lourdes came under medical scrutiny, as doctors tried to determine if these so-called faith cures (a term coined in 1892 by Jean Martin Chacot Chacot, Jean Martin , a student of Lourdes’s cures) were real. To contradict Lasserre’s story, Léonard Cros Cros, Léonard , who interviewed Soubirous in 1864, was authorized by the Garaison Fathers in 1879 to write the “official history” of the shrine and the apparitions. His book grew to four volumes and was posthumously published in 1957. While there were other visionaries before, during, and after Soubirous’s experience, none was deemed authentic, and after July 16, 1858, Soubirous never saw her Aquero again.


Locally, the apparitions at Lourdes transformed a poor rural town in the Pyrenees into a place of international significance to persons of all faiths. Because of their uniqueness, the apparitions caused Soubirous and eventually the citizens of Lourdes to defy parental, familial, civil, legal, clerical, literary, and cultural authorities. Moreover, because the Virgin, Soubirous, and most of the pilgrims to the shrine were women, the apparitions and their aftermath increased the public prominence of women in a traditional French society in which men usually controlled the public sphere.

With Soubirous’s story romanticized in 1869 by Lasserre Lasserre, Henri , it has taken more modern archival and theoretical scholarship to recontextualize the significance of the apparitions in French cultural, political, medical, and theological history. The events of 1858 renewed faith in the Virgin while creating unwanted personal devotion to Soubirous, who when last seen in public in 1866 was mobbed by people who wanted to touch or to rip off a piece of her clothing, believing she could redeem or cure them. Physicians found themselves trying to verify apparent instances of healing that they observed in their patients after trips to Lourdes. Theologians were forced to separate what could have been hysteria from real matters of faith, while the novelist Émile Zola Zola, Émile pushed the boundaries of the acceptance of the Lourdes events in Lourdes (1894; English translation, 1894), in which he challenged the apparitions and the cures as well as the nature of the debates the apparitions caused.

Further Reading

  • Harris, Ruth. Lourdes: Body and Spirit in the Secular Age. New York: Viking Press, 1999. A social and cultural history of Lourdes with an emphasis on the critical reception of Soubirous’s apparitions.
  • Lasserre, Henri. Our Lady of Lourdes. New York: P. J. Kenedy, 1906. English translation of the French text that spread Soubirous’s story throughout first France then the world.
  • Ravier, Andre. Bernadette. London: Collins, 1978. An illustrated life of the woman who became Saint Bernadette of Lourdes; includes a helpful chronology of the apparitions.
  • Szabo, Jason. “Seeing Is Believing? The Form and Substance of French Medical Debates over Lourdes.” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 76 (2002): 199-230. Discusses how the “faith cure” challenged and disturbed the Parisian medical community during the nineteenth century.
  • Taylor, Therese. Bernadette of Lourdes: Her Life, Death, and Visions. London: Burns and Oates, 2003. Follows the life of Soubirous, with an emphasis on how the apparitions altered her life.
  • _______.“’So Many Extraordinary Things to Tell’: Letters from Lourdes, 1858.” Journal of Ecclesiastical History 46, no. 3 (July, 1995): 457-481. Analyzes letters by Adelaide Monlaur written between March 8, 1858, and April 9, 1859, to her cousin, giving her firsthand accounts of her reactions to the visions as a citizen of Lourdes.

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Émile Zola. Virgin Mary
Soubirous, Bernadette
Miracles;and Virgin Mary[Virgin Mary]
Christianity;and Virgin Mary[Virgin Mary]
Lourdes, France