St. Bernadette of Lourdes and the ’Great Noise Like the Sound of a Storm’

The feast of Our Lady of Lourdes is Feb. 11.

St. Bernadette Soubirous, c. 1858.
St. Bernadette Soubirous, c. 1858. (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

On Feb. 11, 1858, 14-year-old Bernadette Soubirous went with her sister and a friend to collect firewood by the Gave de Pau river near their hometown of Lourdes in the south of France.

Two of the girls took off their shoes and stockings and crossed the river, but Bernadette, who was in delicate health and suffered from asthma, was reluctant to enter the cold water. When the two girls left her alone, Bernadette decided she would cross. As she took off her shoes, she heard “a great noise like the sound of a storm.” Nearby was a grotto, or shallow cave, in which appeared “a girl in white, no taller than I, who greeted me with a slight bow of the head.” 

The beautiful Lady smiled at Bernadette and motioned her to come over. Instinctively Bernadette pulled her rosary out of her pocket, as the Lady took into her hands a rosary that hung from her arm. Bernadette knelt and prayed the Rosary, with the Lady following along on her own beads. The Lady prayed neither the Our Father nor Hail Mary — only the Glory Be at the end of each decade. At the end of the Rosary, the Lady disappeared.

Bernadette told her family about the apparition; they believed she had either imagined it or seen something demonic. However, she returned three days later and again saw the Lady. On her third visit, the Lady asked Bernadette to return 15 times at regular intervals. The Lady added, “I do not promise to make you happy in this world, but in the other.” The Lady asked Bernadette to bring a blessed candle with her, which she would leave burning at the grotto (a practice that continues at Lourdes today).

During the sixth apparition, the Lady urged Bernadette to pray and do penance for sinners. Larger and larger crowds began accompanying Bernadette to the grotto, although no one else saw the apparition. Many believed her story. Others did not. Initially, both the civil and Church authorities were highly skeptical of Bernadette, yet she steadfastly maintained her story.

During the ninth apparition, the Lady commanded Bernadette to drink from the fountain and bathe in it. This command puzzled her, as there was no fountain, so she began to dig and scratch in the gravel on the floor of the cave. As she did, water bubbled forth from the ground, and within a few days a stream of water was pouring forth. It has flowed ever since, at the rate of 32,000 gallons per week.

The Lady asked that a chapel be built at the site of the grotto, and invited the people to come there in procession. Bernadette repeatedly asked the Lady to identify herself, to which she finally responded, “I am the Immaculate Conception” — a dogma Pope Pius IX had solemnly defined only four years before.

After receiving her 18th and final apparition, Bernadette slipped into obscurity. She joined a convent in Nevers, France, and died in 1878 at age 34. She is today a canonized saint; her body is preserved incorrupt in Nevers. Ecclesiastical approval of pilgrimages to Lourdes was given in 1862. In recent decades, 3 million pilgrims have visited Lourdes each year. Thousands have claimed miraculous healings after bathing in the “healing waters” of Lourdes, some of which have been officially declared unexplainable by medical authorities.

The Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes is Feb. 11.