It’s 1909, and it’s been 30 years since the death of Bernadette Soubirous – a simple but pious girl from a small town in France. Doctors are preparing to perform the first exhumation of her body. And in normal circumstances, they may expect to find some degree of natural decomposition. However, Bernadette was no ordinary person.
As a teenager in Lourdes, Bernadette became notorious for apparently experiencing visions of the Virgin Mary. Wanting to escape the attention, however, she lived out the rest of her days humbly at a Catholic convent in Nevers, France. But Bernadette’s life was blighted by ill health. And as a result, she passed away at the young age of 35 after a long battle with tuberculous.
So, when experts came to dig up Bernadette’s body in 1909, they were searching for evidence that might explain the supposed divine encounters that had brought her fame as a young woman. And as they carefully lifted the stone off her tomb and cracked open her coffin, they were met by an eerie sight. You see, three decades after Bernadette’s death, her body remained mysteriously intact.
Saint Bernadette entered the world as Marie Bernarde Soubirous on January 7, 1844. She was born in the French town of Lourdes near the Pyrenees mountains along with eight brothers and sisters. Bernadette’s father, François, worked at a mill, while her mother, Louise, washed clothes. And it’s safe to say that the family suffered some financial hardship.
However, on top of the poverty that Bernadette experienced, she was also blighted by illness. And it’s believed that this could be the reason that she never grew beyond 4 feet and 7 inches in height. As a small child, Bernadette fell sick with cholera, and she would suffer from breathing problems for the remainder of her existence.
What’s more, Bernadette’s schooling was affected as a result of her frail heath. Her reading and writing skills were poor, for instance, and she only had a limited grasp of formal French. Instead, Bernadette spoke Occitan – a tongue native to the Pyrenees region in which she lived.
At some point in Bernadette’s childhood, her family’s fortunes fell so significantly that the 11 of them were forced to live together in a single underground room. And while they lived there rent free thanks to a relative of Louise’s, the conditions weren’t ideal. The makeshift home had once operated as a jail cell, after all, and was aptly nicknamed “the dungeon.”
In order to feed their many children, Bernadette’s parents worked all kinds of jobs. And for some time, Bernadette herself helped out her former wet nurse Marie Lagues in the nearby village of Bartrès. She was contracted to care for a flock of sheep – but she was never paid for her work.
Throughout Bernadette’s struggles, however, she maintained a strong sense of faith. When she was chastized for failing to memorize her religious studies, for instance, she reportedly responded by saying, “At least she would always know how to love the good God.” And her pious nature didn’t go unnoticed by local clergymen.
In fact, a priest called Abbe Arder from the commune of Bartres appeared quite taken with Bernadette – despite his limited contact with her. “She seems to me like a flower surrounded in divine perfume,” Arder apparently mused. On another occasion, meanwhile, he reportedly said of the young girl, “Look at this small child. When the Blessed Virgin wants to appear on earth, she chooses children like her.” But no one could have imagined just how apt the clergyman’s description of Bernadette would turn out to be.
You see, in February 1858 Bernadette was out collecting firewood with her sister Toinette and a friend called Jeanne. It’s said that the girls were searching in a small cave at the bottom of a hill in Lourdes that’s known as Massabielle – or “old rock.” Cattle would shelter inside said grotto, and in front of it ran a little stream.
The story goes that Toinette and Jeanne crossed the river away from the grotto and continued on their way. Bernadette, however, was apparently reluctant to do the same for fear of getting cold and searched for a dryer route. And in the end, she decided that she’d need to take off her shoes and stockings in order to traverse the water.
After Bernadette sat down to remove her footwear, she supposedly heard a noise which sounded like a gust of wind. And yet almost everything stayed eerily still. The only thing that moved with the apparent breeze was a wild rose inside the grotto. Then, without warning, a figure appeared from the darkness of the cave.
Later, Bernadette would describe the figure as a beautiful young woman who was bathed in a sparkling light. The vision reportedly stretched her arms out towards Bernadette, too, as if inviting her to approach. And apparently, it was then that she noticed the lady was carrying a rosary.
According to the 1941 book by Franz Werfel, The Song of Bernadette, the teenaged girl at first felt frightened by the vision. But something compelled her to stay, and she found herself strangely enthralled by the figure. Then, Bernadette was moved to take out her own rosary and pray. And when she stopped after around 15 minutes, it’s said that the apparition suddenly vanished.
Afterwards, Bernadette told her sister Toinette about her strange encounter with the mysterious being. The teen asked her sibling to keep the vision a secret, but apparently, Toinette told their parents. And soon word of the apparition in the cave spread throughout Lourdes.
However, little did Bernadette know that this so-called vision would not be her last. She would reportedly experience 18 of them in fact between the spring and summer of 1858. And the second is said to have taken place on February 14, when Bernadette visited the cave again after church. This time, according to accounts, the young girl went with her sister Marie and a number of acquaintances.
The story goes that as soon as Bernadette arrived at the cave, she dropped to her knees, claiming that the figure had appeared once more. And while it’s been reported that she fell into a trance-like state, the other girls were apparently unaffected. Accounts claim that when one of them sprayed holy water into the darkness and another smashed a stone on the ground, the being vanished.
According to historian Therese Taylor, Bernadette returned to the grotto once again on February 18. And on this occasion, the strange figure apparently instructed the teen to visit the cave daily for two weeks. This period would come to be referred to as “la Quinzaine sacrée” – or the “holy fortnight” – and it would define the rest of Bernadette’s life.
On one of these visits to the grotto, it’s said that the figure asked Bernadette to drink from a spring and clean herself in its water. But there was no spring around. And so, the story goes that Bernadette dug into the soil and uncovered a bubbling brook. She took a drink from it, starting a tradition that would make Lourdes one of the most important Catholic pilgrimage sites in the world.
Before long, the spring that Bernadette is said to have uncovered was producing thousands of gallons of water each day. And it has continued to do so even during periods of little rainfall. Today, the spring is redirected into a reservoir that provides water for pilgrims to drink and bathe in – just as it’s believed Bernadette did all those years ago.
However, the discovery of the spring wasn’t the last vision that Bernadette claimed to have experienced. During the seventh reported apparition, in fact, she was given an important task. Apparently, the lady wanted the local clergymen to construct a chapel by the grotto – an order which Bernadette subsequently passed onto her family.
Prior to this, Bernadette’s parents had reportedly been embarrassed about their daughter’s tales and had even tried to prevent her from going to the cave. Some locals believed the teen, however, and were seemingly convinced that she’d seen the Virgin Mary. But Bernadette herself hadn’t yet confirmed this theory.
Apparently, however, Bernadette did provide a thorough description of the apparition. According to Taylor’s 2003 biography, Bernadette of Lourdes: Her Life, Death and Visions, the teen described the figure as a “a small young lady.” She also claimed that she donned a blue belt and a white shawl over her head. What’s more, Bernadette also recalled seeing a yellow flower on each of the lady’s feet, echoing many religious depictions of the Virgin Mary.
But Bernadette wouldn’t receive any firm indication of who the being was until one of her final visions. She claimed that during this hour-long encounter, she asked the figure for her name. And apparently, the lady revealed, “I am the Immaculate Conception.” This was the last time that Bernadette would claim that the Virgin Mary had spoken to her.
Following Bernadette’s visions, she was questioned by religious officials and government authorities. But she always stuck to her story. And in 1862 the church actually declared the teen’s apparitions to be real. What’s more, the spring that Bernadette uncovered has led to nearly 70 miraculous healings, according to the Lourdes Medical Bureau.
In the same year of Bernadette’s alleged visions, the mayor of Lourdes had requested that the water from the grotto be tested. An expert had found that the spring – despite its high mineral content – contained nothing that could have accounted for the verified cures. But according to Bernadette, the secret ingredients behind the miracles were simply belief and prayer. She reportedly said, “The water will have no virtue without faith.”
Meanwhile, Bernadette’s calls for the construction of a church at the cave led to a number of places of worship being built in Lourdes. The area surrounding the grotto itself became known as the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes. And today the holy site attracts almost 5 million pilgrims from across the globe each year.
But while Lourdes thrived as a pilgrimage site following the visions, Bernadette herself was eager to escape the notoriety that they had brought her. As a result, she traveled over 400 miles from her hometown to live at a religious institute run by the Sisters of Charity of Nevers. And it was here that Bernadette finally became literate.
In 1866 Bernadette became a novice nun. And she lived out the rest of her days in Nevers in seclusion and prayer. According to reports, Bernadette was admired by those around her for her piousness, kindness and humor – which was apparently relentless even in the face of constant illness and pain.
Eventually, Bernadette succumbed to her long battle with tuberculosis in April 1879. And while she had been in immense pain, she had apparently continued to pray right up until her death. It’s said that Bernadette’s last words were, “Blessed Mary, Mother of God, pray for me! A poor sinner, a poor sinner.”
Bernadette’s body was interred at the Saint Gildard Convent in Lurcy-le-Bourg – a commune that’s not far from Nevers. However, the church dug up her body in 1909. And shockingly, despite the fact that Bernadette had been dead for 30 years, her remains were remarkably preserved. Yes, even though the cross that lay in the coffin had rusted, the corpse was practically free from signs of decomposition.
According to Roman Catholicism, God allows for the remains of religiously significant individuals to avoid decomposition. A corpse that somehow resists this natural decay is referred to as incorrupt. And Catholics believe that this is an indicator that the owner of the body is a saint.
Given Bernadette’s alleged divine visions, there may have been cause to suspect that she was deserving of this holy title. And this perhaps explains why her coffin was reopened. The inspection was carried out by physicians Dr. David and Dr. Jourdan, who later testified that there had been no smell nor any visual indications of decay.
In fact, a document that was signed by both doctors following their examination describes in great detail how Bernadette’s remains lacked the expected signs of decomposition. It comments on the body’s “perfectly preserved” hands and fingernails, for instance, as well as its intact facial features. What’s more, the sisters who had prepared Bernadette’s body for burial three decades prior claimed that she looked the same as she had done then.
In order to be considered officially incorruptible, a body must be well-preserved in freshness and color and appear almost living. There should be no signs of normal decomposition or odor, either, nor any obvious explanation as to how this might be the case. And when it came to Bernadette, her remains certainly seemed to fit the bill.
However, this wasn’t the last time that Bernadette’s remains were disturbed. Following the first exhumation, after which her body was washed and redressed before being reburied, the coffin was opened again in 1919. And just as before, there was apparently a distinct lack of odor. This time, though, the corpse’s skin had undergone some discoloration – although it’s likely that this had been caused by people touching it back in 1909. What’s more, the skin had dried out, and there was some evidence of mold.
At this point, Dr. Comte – one of the experts performing the examination – removed a few parts of Bernadette’s body in order to send them to Rome in anticipation of her being made a saint. Then, in 1925, Bernadette’s remains were exhumed for a third and final time. The corpse was subsequently transferred to a new resting place in Nevers’ Chapel of St. Bernadette.
Since then, Bernadette’s body has been displayed in a glass coffin. Wax molds are now placed over the face and hands in order to disguise the blackish color of the skin. These coverings were created especially by a Parisian company using an impression of Bernadette’s face and photographs from when she was alive in order to achieve a likeness.
After being declared blessed in 1925, Bernadette was officially made a saint by Pope Pius XI on December 8, 1933. Her resting place in Nevers, meanwhile, continues to be a significant pilgrimage destination as does the town of Lourdes. And even 140 years after Bernadette’s death, there is still no explanation as to why her body has remained so mysteriously unchanged – except, of course, for divine intervention.