24-25 October 2019
The jagged peaks of the Pyrenees, just a few miles to the south, are covered in snow. The view, as our train approaches Lourdes, is spectacular. I expect cold.
As I step from the train, I get warm, almost balmy breezes. I think I am going to like this town.
Returning to France today, the first thing I open is my App “C’est la grève” to see if there are any strikes declared. Transportation has been disrupted over the last few months because it seems the French love to strike. This, the only country I’ve found that one downloads an App with which to keep informed about strikes.
Everyone is working so we are off. We transit from San Sebastián by Euskotren to Hendaye/Hendaia, then catch a train to Bayonne for a transfer on to Lourdes. Our arrival is in the early afternoon.
The principal reason to come to Lourdes is Saint Bernadette. Lourdes’ Bernadette Soubirous, who lived from 1844 to 1879, was the first child of a simple miller and his family living in Lourdes. She was ultimately recognized by Pope Pius XI as a saint of the Catholic Church in 1933. Why? Bernadette had experienced several Marian apparitions – occurrences when the Virgin Mary appears.
Marian apparitions often are reported to recur at the same site over an extended period of time. In the majority of Marian apparitions only one person or a few people report seeing the supernatural appearance. Other famous apparitions under this sobriquet occurred in Mexico City in 1531 with Our Lady of Guadalupe, and when Our Lady of Fátima appeared to shepherd children in Portugal in 1917.
In 1858, 14-year-old Bernadette Soubirous was gathering firewood near her home. She later told her mother that she had witnessed a vision of a “young lady” who asked for a chapel to be built at the nearby grotto of Massabielle. Mom punished Bernadette and few villagers took note of Bernadette’s claims in spite of the fact that over the next 5 months a total of 17 apparitions were reported by her, the 16th of which went on for over an hour. The lady who appeared identified herself as the Immaculate Conception, repeating her desire to have a chapel built at the grotto.
There was much skepticism and ridicule at first but finally after repeated appearances and never giving up, Soubirous’s claims were declared “worthy of belief.” In 1862, Pope Pius IX authorized the church to allow the adoration of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Lourdes. Since that time, the Marian shrine at Lourdes has become a major pilgrimage site attracting millions each year.
Bernadette was the eldest of nine children and contracted cholera as a small child, suffered from severe asthma, and was practically illiterate. In fact, she spoke little French as she was too sick to attend school for most of her young life. However, once she experienced her first apparition, she never relented on pursuing the local priest to build a chapel at the sites of her visions.
A first simple chapel was built at the grotto. Today, this area has developed into the immense Sanctuaries Notre-Dame de Lourdes containing churches, gardens, Stations of the Cross, monuments, grotto, baths, healing fountain springs, and museums. A little further into town is the Maison Paternelle de Sainte-Bernadette, her ancestral home which has been preserved and is open for visitors. There is even a large camp ground.
Overall, the large sanctuary complex is a major Catholic pilgrimage site. Lourdes, with a population of about 15,000, swells to hundreds of thousands, especially during holy days. One of the churches, the Basilica of St. Pius X, can accommodate over 25,000 people.
Disliking the attention she was attracting, Bernadette eventually went to a hospice care school in the city of Nevers, 430 miles north of Lourdes. There she learned to read, write and embroider and under the tutelage of the Sisters of Charity of Nevers she worked in the infirmary. In 1866, she became a postulant known as Sister Marie-Bernarde. Her poor health and its resultant pain led to an early death at the age of 35 in 1879. She was buried there at the convent in Nevers. On her deathbed, Bernadette proclaimed:
all this is good for Heaven!
Bishop Gauthey of Nevers and the Church has exhumed Bernadette’s body three times: 1909, 1919 and 1925. In 1919, a doctor who examined the body wrote: “The body is practically mummified, covered with patches of mildew and quite a notable layer of salts, which appear to be calcium salts. … The skin has disappeared in some places, but it is still present on most parts of the body.” In 1925, the church took relics and sent them to Rome. Facial imprints were made. Her remains were moved to a reliquary in the Chapel of Saint Bernadette in Nevers. Bernadette was declared blessed in 1925 and canonized in 1933 by Pope Pius XI.
In 2015, the town of Lourdes lobbied for Soubirous’ remains to be returned to Lourdes, a move opposed by the city of Nevers.
For those who look for other things to do in Lourdes, there is also a rather nice medieval Castle Fortress and Pyrenean Museum chronicling the culture and history of this area of the Pyrenees. Lourdes is a rather okay town to wander. The main street leading to the sanctuary park is lined with shops selling a plethora of “stuff.” Perhaps the best seller is the supplies of plastic jugs and bottles for the tourist and faithful to fill at the fountain. The rest of town is more charming.
However, after visiting the Sanctuary and its numerous sites, I find it most enticing to make my next pilgrimage to the Gare de Lourdes to board a departing train.