Although most people have heard about the story of Lourdes, not as many are familiar with St. Bernadette and her life after the apparitions. When questioned about it, many people recall that she later became a nun, but beyond that they don't remember much about her. Often the most difficult question to answer: Did Bernadette spend the remainder of her life in Lourdes or elsewhere?
The answer lies in a small city about 300 miles northeast of Lourdes, in the heart of France. Here, in Nevers, is the convent where Bernadette lived until her death in 1879. It is also where her beautiful, incorrupt body lies today in a glass casket. Each year, the site draws more than half-a-million pilgrims, many of them on their way to or returning from Lourdes.
The story of Bernadette, born Jan. 7, 1844 to François and Louise Soubirous, in Lourdes, is one that touches the hearts and souls of all. Things went well for Bernadette until she was 10 years old. First, an epidemic of cholera swept through the region, leaving her with a painful asthma condition that lasted the rest of her life. Two years later, poverty struck the family. François lost his job, and the family was forced to move into an abandoned prison cell. So horrible were the conditions of their new residence that the prisoners who had previously occupied the place had been moved out for sanitary reasons.
In 1857 Bernadette was sent to live with her “foster mother” in Bartres to help look after her children while minding the sheep and lambs. In January 1858 she rejoined her family in Lourdes. Less than a month later the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to Bernadette at the grotto of Massabielle.
Eighteen times the Blessed Mother visited Bernadette. On March 25, she revealed herself as the “Immaculate Conception.” As word of the appearances spread throughout Lourdes and the rest of the world, Church investigations began. On Jan. 18, 1862, the local bishop acknowledged the authenticity of the apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary at Massabielle.
The second part of Bernadette's life began when she left for the convent July 4, 1866. She joined the Sisters of Charity in Nevers, France. On July 8, the day after her arrival at St. Gildard convent, with all the sisters present, Bernadette gave her last account of the apparitions. Thereafter, she was never to speak of the grotto again unless ordered to by her superiors.
Twenty-two days after her arrival, Bernadette received her habit and the religious name Marie-Bernard. For the rest of her religious life she was to suffer from recurring bouts of sickness. She spent most of her time in the infirmary, either as a patient or as an assistant nurse.
What was Bernadette like? One of her religious sisters described her as deeply pious and possessing child-like simplicity, extraordinary eveness of temper, and profound humility. All her sisters recalled Bernadette's youthful charm, spontaneous disposition, and playful attitude.
Bernadette held the memories of the Blessed Virgin Mary close to her heart. When a friend asked if she had seen the Virgin Mary again since the 18th apparition, tears began to well up in Bernadette's eyes. Her friend knew the answer.
Bernadette never stopped longing for her heavenly mother. Once she told a friend to pray the rosary every night as she fell asleep. She likened it to little children falling asleep saying, “Mamma, Mamma.”
During the final years of her life, Bernadette battled illness almost every day. She received the anointing of the sick four times. Her superiors realized she was being led by Jesus to live a crucified life of prayer, suffering, silence, and sacrifice. The little child of Lourdes accepted her life with perfect resignation and submission.
On Sept. 22, 1878, Sister Marie-Bernard made her perpetual vows. From this time on, her life was an ascent up Calvary. During her last year of life she once disclosed, “I am afraid when I think of all the graces I have received, and of the very little use I have made of them.”
Suffering from asthma and tuberculosis, she spent the last twenty-four hours of her life in agony.
“I can only pray and suffer,” she said. The night before she died she confided, “I am ground like a grain of wheat.”
The last day came April 16, 1879. Her sufferings intensified, and she had to be moved to an armchair to make her breathing easier. Bernadette was too weak to hold the crucifix, so Mother Nathalie Portat fastened it to her habit. Bernadette slowly kissed each of the sacred wounds.
At about 3:00 p.m. she said in an agonizing voice, “My God! My God!” Slowly Mother Nathalie began praying the Hail Mary. When she got to “Holy Mary, Mother of God,” Sister Marie-Bernard joined her. Mother Nathalie let the dying sister proceed, “Mother of God, pray for me, a poor sinner, a poor sinner.”
After taking her final sips of water from a flask, Bernadette for the last time made the majestic sign of the cross that she had learned from the Blessed Virgin at Massabielle. As her strength gave out, she gently gave her soul back to God.
Almost 55 years later, Dec. 8, 1933, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, the Catholic Church canonized Bern-adette. During this time examiners had exhumed her body on three different occasions. Each time they found it incorrupt. In 1925 they ceremoniously transferred her body to the chapel of St. Gildard, where it now rests in a glass reliquary. Her body has remained intact ever since, and only a thin layer of wax has been added to her face and hands.
Today, when visitors look at St. Bernadette, they can see the same fingers that dug in the earth at Massabielle and the same eyes that saw the Virgin Mary.
The shrine of St. Bernadette is a favorite stop on many pilgrimage itineraries to France. Along with seeing the incorrupt body of the saint, visitors can also tour the shrine's museum, which is filled with artifacts and historical documents from Bernadette's life. Another favorite activity among pilgrims is to stroll through the convent gardens, following the same path that Bernadette often walked.
Her favorite statue of the Virgin Mary, Our Lady of the Waters, lies at the end of the garden. Self-directed tour pamphlets are available for this endeavor. When it's time to rest your feet, audiovisual presentations are offered in various languages. If you would like to pray outside, you can find a quiet place near the replica of the Lourdes grotto. An information booth is also located on the shrine grounds to have your questions answered. If you're looking to stock up on St. Bernadette souvenirs, there is a shrine gift shop to meet your needs. For overnight accommodations, it is possible to stay at St. Gildard. There are also more than 30 hotels to choose from in the city, ranging from one to four stars.
The shrine is open every day of the year; from 7:00 a.m. until 7:30 p.m. between April and October, and from 7:30 a.m. until 7.00 p.m. in the winter. Principal feasts include Feb. 18 (St. Bernadette), and Feb. 11 (Our Lady of Lourdes, anniversary of the first vision). Mass is celebrated daily in the chapel, and visitors may join the sisters in the recitation of evening prayers on Wednesdays and Sundays. Often, pilgrims accompanied by a priest can also request to celebrate Mass with their group while visiting the shrine. (It's important to contact the shrine beforehand to reserve a time slot.)
Located in a small city, the shrine of St. Bernadette is easily accessible by road and train. If you are traveling by car, Nevers is located off motorway N7 (about 130 miles south of Paris). By rail, trains depart regularly from Gare de Lyon train station in Paris to Nevers. The St. Gildard Convent is about a 10-minute walk from the train station.
Kevin Wright writes from Bellevue, Wash.