Lourdes, France: Our Lady of Lourdes, Site of Healing and Hope
The story of Lourdes:
Lourdes, one of the most visited shrines in the world, holds a special place in the hearts of many.
We suggest you know the whole history of Lourdes and young Bernadette Soubirous’ apparitions of the Blessed Mother, in order to get the most out of your visit here.
On February 11th, 1858, Bernadette Soubirous, her sister Toinette, and a friend of theirs, Jeanne, went looking for wood on the meadows that led towards “the place where the canal rejoins the River Gave”. This was an area where driftwood sometimes washed up and they could get firewood.
Toinette and Jeanne crossed the icy water crying out with the cold, Bernadette hesitated to do this because of her chronic asthma. She remained behind near the Grotto….a dirty, hidden, damp and cold place. It was called the “pigs’ shelter” because that was where the pigs feeding in the area usually took shelter from the cold. Bernadette suddenly heard “a noise like a gust of wind”, but “none of the trees were moving”. Raising her head, she saw, in a hollow of the rock a small young lady, who looked at her and who smiled. This was the first apparition….but the lady did not speak or identify herself.
On February 14th, Bernadette had felt called to return to the grotto, and after convincing her mother that she would be safe, she set out for the grotto, taking a bottle of holy water with her to spray on the apparition if it was from the devil. The lady did appear to her, which was the second apparition. Bernadette threw some holy water on the apparition, but the lady only smiled and did not speak.
On February 18th the third apparition took place, and the Virgin Mary spoke for the first time, making three statements.
The first statement: A neighbor suggested she take a paper and pencil to write down the lady’s name (although Bernadette could barely read or write). Bernadette held out a sheet of paper and a pencil so that she might write down her name, but the Lady replied: “what I have to say to you does not have to be written down“. This was the first statement she made that day.)
The second statement of the Virgin Mary was: “Would you do me the kindness of coming here for 15 days?” Bernadette was overwhelmed. It was the first time that anyone had addressed her in a formal way. Bernadette described these words by saying that the Virgin looked at her “as one person looks at another person”.
The third statement of the Virgin was: “I do not promise to make you happy in this world but in the next.”
There were additional apparitions reported…we have not listed them all here…you can find the chronology here.
The ninth apparition was really the culmination of the apparitions here at Lourdes, the Lady asked Bernadette to scrape the ground at the back of this “pigs’ shelter”, saying to her : “Go to the spring, drink of it and wash yourself there“. She moved on her knees to the back of the Grotto, kissed the dirty disgusting ground and ate some bitter grass. She scraped the ground three times trying to drink the muddy water, then smeared mud on her face. Then she turned to the crowd with her hands apart. There was only a little muddy water to begin with for Bernadette to drink, then little by little it became clear running water. The miraculous spring was finally revealed, and has continued to flow ever since, providing water for the physical healing of some, and spiritual healing for millions.
Then, during the thirteenth apparition, Our Lady said: “Go, tell the priests to come here in procession and build a chapel here.” On March 25th, 1858, the day of the sixteenth apparition, Bernadette went to the Grotto, and at the order of the parish priest, Abbé‚ Peyramale, asked the Lady for her name. Three times Bernadette asked the question. On the fourth request, the Lady responded in dialect “Que soy era Immaculada Conceptiou”. (“I am the Immaculate Conception“).
With these words the Mother of God confirmed what Pope Pius IX had proclaimed as the dogma of the Immaculate Conception four years earlier in 1854. Bernadette, who had never heard of this title, didn’t understand the meaning of these words, but went to the priest to tell him the Lady’s name. He knew immediately that it was the Mother of God, and the Bishop of Tarbes, Monseigneur Laurence, confirmed this.
The Immaculate Conception is, as the Church teaches, “Mary, conceived without sin, thanks to the merits of the Cross of Christ”
We celebrate the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes on February 11.
About the Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes:
There is much to see here, but it is perhaps useful to see things in chronological order: first see where the two places where the Soubirous family lived just prior to…and during…the apparitions. Then the grotto, and move on to the other sites in Lourdes that were built after the apparitions.
Start with The Boly Mill, where Bernadette was born and where her family lived during more affluent times: her father was a miller and they had enjoyed relative prosperity during the early years of Bernadette’s life. Unfortunately for the Soubirous family, water mills were slowly being phased out as other power sources became available, and financial problems came upon the family. By 1854 they were destitute and the parents, with their four children, were evicted from the Boly Mill.
They moved to a succession of houses, each place less expensive and smaller than the previous one, until finally they were given free accommodation in a tiny one-room dwelling called Le Cachot. This had been a prison cell, very damp (certainly bad for Bernadette’s asthma) and unfit even for animals to live in. The Soubirous family was able to live here rent free, and even though in squalor, they were grateful for what they had and never lost their inner joy. It was while living here that Bernadette went to the Grotto in search of firewood where the Blessed Mother appeared to her.
The final stage of her parents life they lived in the Maison Paternelle, which belonged to Monsieur lacade, the Mayor of Lourdes. In 1863 Farther Peyramale rented it out to the Soubirous family, and then in 1867 the house was given to Bernadette’s father. In 1866 Bernadette’s mother died and her father died in 1871.
The Grotto: the grotto at Massabielle where St Bernadette’s visions took place is very simple and is much the same as when the apparitions took place. There are no added decorations here, just a plain stone altar and lectern for Mass to be celebrated. Above the main recess is the niche where the apparitions took place and Fabisch’s statue now stands. A large stand of candles next to the altar is kept burning throughout the year. During the pilgrimage season, 2 pilgrimage masses are usually celebrated each morning at the grotto.
The spring can be seen at the rear of the grotto, protected by a glass cover. When Mass is not being celebrated, you can walk through the grotto and touch the rocks directly under the statue (so many people have done so that the stones have become polished). Also at the rear is a metal box into which written prayers or petitions may be deposited (they are collected, offered in prayer daily and afterwards burnt).
Rows of benches allow visitors to sit and pray or contemplate. Pilgrims are asked to remain silent while in the vicinity to create an atmosphere of devotion. One of the spots where Bernadette prayed to the Virgin is marked by a special paving slab. Some of the rock walls around the grotto bear clear signs of deliberate alteration, presumably to improve access for pilgrims. It is therefore no longer clear what the original configuration of the grotto was.
From there you may wish to visit The Crypt, the first–and smallest–of the churches to be built here, and is today among the smallest. Saint Bernadette’s father actually worked on its construction and was present at its official opening, on Pentecost Sunday, 1866. You will notice enormous pillars inside, which actually help support the weight of the Upper Basilica.
Of course the Gothic Upper Basilica (The Basilica of the Immaculate Conception) dominates the area and was completed only 10 years later, in 1876. The Sanctuary is directly above the grotto and the walls are lined with many ex voto plaques testifying to cures. Above the entrance you will see. a mosaic of Pope Pius IX, who proclaimed the dogma of the Immaculate Conception.
And as you enter you will see a plaque showing the statement of the Bishop who approved the apparitions. It reads:”We judge : that Mary Immaculate, the Mother of God, really did appear to Bernadette Soubirous, on eighteen occasions from 11th February 1858 at the Grotto of Massabielle, near the town of Lourdes ; that these apparitions bear the characteristics of truth; that the faithful can believe them as true. We humbly submit our judgement to the judgement of the Sovereign Pontiff, who is responsible for governing the Universal Church”
The Rosary Basilica is the third of the churches to be completed. It was consecrated in 1901 and has a capacity of 1,500 worshippers. Its style is influenced by Byzantine architecture. The nave is open and circular, surmounted by a dome. The exterior of the dome is surmounted by a dramatic gilded crown and cross, which were a gift from the people of Ireland in 1924.
The exterior facade of the basilica was modified in 2007 to include a depiction of the Luminous Mysteries, which were added to the Rosary by Pope Saint John Paul II in 2002.
The Basilica of St. Pius X, called “the Underground Basilica”, is the largest of the churches here, and certainly not a favorite of many: In our opinion (and of many others) it more closely resembles a giant parking garage: a modern, concrete building almost completely underground. It can accommodate about 25,000 people and was built to hold the crowds expected for the centenary of the apparition in 1958. However, it is still a place of worship and its capacity makes it useful on special occasions such as the anniversary of the apparitions.
The parish church of the Sacred Heart (built between 1875 and 1903, replacing an earlier one), was the church attended by Bernadette Soubirous and was destroyed by fire in 1904. Here you will find more of the story of Bernadette Soubirous: the baptismal font where she was baptized on January 9, 1844 and the tomb of Monsignor Peyramale, parish priest of Lourdes at the time of the Apparitions.
The baths: For many pilgrims the highlight of their visit here is to take the “baths” at Lourdes in the miraculous spring water.
Be aware that this will take a lot of your time here (waiting in line) so if you are here for several days don’t leave it until the last day and then run out of time. Take the baths as soon as possible after arriving to avoid disappointment.
There are two feast days associated with Lourdes: The Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes on February 11 and the Feast of Saint Bernadette on April 16.
Your visit to Lourdes:
Lourdes is about healing and hope, and the blessing of the sick (in the afternoon) with the procession of the Blessed Sacrament is one of the most moving events one can witness. (most of the documented physical healings have taken place during this procession). Of course Mass at the Grotto is one of the highlights of a visit here.
Another memorable event is the nighttime procession when pilgrims from all over the world gather together with lit candles and follow the statue of their Mother and Queen while singing songs of devotion to her.
There are many tours to Lourdes offering stays for varying length of time, based on the itinerary. If you are traveling independently, there are free tours for “day pilgrims” offered daily during the busy times of the year. We suggest you contact the information center for days and times. The information center is right on the grounds of the shrine and easy to find. Normally these tours start in the early afternoon and you will see the guides with signs in various languages so that you can find them quite easily.
Every year since, for one weekend in May, Lourdes has become a place of prayer and healing for active-duty members and veterans representing more than 40 nations.
Just across the river from the grotto and the churches is the Accueil Notre Dame, a modern facility built in 1996 to house sick pilgrims during their time in Lourdes. Special arrangements can be made for those needing to stay here.
Typically, pilgrims arrive at the Accueil Notre Dame in specially adapted buses, either from Lourdes airport or train station, and will be welcomed in the transit lounge from where they are taken to their rooms.
Another accueil, the Accueil Marie St. Frai, is located a short distance outside the domain; it is similar in design and atmosphere to the Accueil Notre Dame.
Residents of the United Kingdom with serious health problems might want to check out Across, which offers special bus service for those with severe medical needs.
Note: Saint Bernadette went on to become a nun. Her body is incorrupt….but don’t expect to see it here: it is in the convent in Nevers, France, where she lived out her remaining years.
Traveling to Lourdes:
Lourdes is in Southeastern France, about 500 miles from Paris. If you are traveling by train, the high-speed TGV (from Montparnasse Station) gets there in about 5 hours. The train station is right downtown and close to the shrine.
If you are flying, you can fly from Paris to Toulouse, Pau or Lourdes. There are not as many flights directly to Lourdes and most of them do not fly from Charles de Gaulle airport (they fly from Orly Airport), so be sure to check before booking flights to allow enough time to change airports if necessary. Pau is closer to Lourdes than Toulouse but has fewer flights every day. Get plane, train & bus schedules, see fares & buy tickets here.
Can’t make it to Lourdes? There are several replicas of the Lourdes grotto around the world…here is a partial list.
A note for independent travelers traveling by car: There is a town south of Toulouse named Lourde (without the S on the end). This is not the shrine of Lourdes, so be careful when using your GPS device.
Address: 1 Avenue Mgr Théas, 65108 Lourdes
GPS coordinates: 43° 5′ 50.3736” N, 0° 3′ 26.7156” W
Tel: +33 (0)5 62 42 78 78 Fax: +33 (0)5 62 42 78 77
Click here for the official website of the Shrine of Lourdes
Photo credits: Stephen J. Binz, Catholic speaker, author and pilgrimage leader