French Musical ‘Bernadette of Lourdes’ to Take the American Stage

‘Universal story’ will arrive in the U.S. this summer, coinciding with the Eucharistic Congress: ‘Everything started with this little 13-year-old girl, who was sick, uneducated, poor and had no prospects and who was, nevertheless, chosen. This is the story that we wanted to tell.’

‘Bernadette of Lourdes’ tells the saint’s story in a new way.
‘Bernadette of Lourdes’ tells the saint’s story in a new way. (photo: Courtesy photo)

ROME — On Feb. 22, a French musical ignited Cinema Adriano in Rome, with its debut screening and the unveiling of the Italian cast, setting the stage for its forthcoming performances in Rome for the Jubilee of 2025. 

Inspired by the official transcripts from St. Bernadette Soubirous’ interrogations by French authorities, the musical Bernadette of Lourdes tells the real story of an ordinary girl who saw something extraordinary. 

Between Feb. 11 and July 16, 1858, the Virgin Mary appeared to the 13-year-old shepherdess in the Massabielle grotto near her home. According to Bernadette, the Lady of her visions was a girl of 16 or 17 clothed in a white robe and a blue sash, with yellow roses covering her feet and a large rosary on her right arm. On March 25, she told the young, poor and uneducated girl: “I am the Immaculate Conception.” 

Since 1858, thousands of pilgrims have come to Lourdes every year, seeking a cure for their illnesses and asking for the intercession of Our Lady. 

Bringing together Catholic and non-Catholic producers and actors, Bernadette of Lourdes aims to go beyond religious beliefs to touch upon universal themes such as authenticity, truth and resilience, in order to make the show accessible for all. 


Keeping a Promise to Our Lady 

“To tell you the truth, I owe it all to my grandmother,” Roberto Ciurleo, co-producer of the musical, told the Register, “who had a great devotion to Lourdes and often went there.” 

While working on another musical, Robin Hood, a few miles from Lourdes, Ciurleo thought of his grandmother and told his associate Éléonore de Galard: ‘I’m going to leave the troupe and surprise my grandmother by going to pray for her in Lourdes.’” 

“When I announced this to the troupe,” Ciurleo joyously recalled, “they all said: ‘No, no, we are all coming with you.’” 

“We met up one evening in November 2010,” Éléonore de Galard recalled. “It was dark and raining. Lourdes was empty. We found ourselves in front of the grotto, and, despite the terrible weather conditions, we spent an absolutely extraordinary moment together.” 

“Even though there were no believers in our group except Roberto, and people who weren’t necessarily devoted to Lourdes,” de Galard admitted, “everyone left a bit shaken up [moved by the experience]. We all had dinner together and started to tell the story of Bernadette. We realized that there was a fantastic story to be told.” 

Although enthusiastic at the idea of a new musical, which one of the members of the troupe had described as being “almost like Les Misérables,” the producers opted to put the idea of a new production on hold until they had finished their work with Robin Hood.

“Éléonore de Galard then told me,” Ciurleo recalled, “‘Listen, if Robin Hood is a success, maybe we’ll owe it to this moment in front of the grotto, and we’ll have to give thanks.’” 

Robin Hood became a huge success, with “a million spectators in eight months,” Ciurleo shared, adding: “And so we kept our promise and came back.” 


A Different Story to Be Told 

Despite the producers’ fervent enthusiasm to make a musical about St. Bernadette after the success of their previous show, the production faced significant obstacles. The pandemic and subsequent lockdowns hindered progress, and skepticism from the public posed additional challenges. 

“It has been 10 years of challenges,” Ciurleo shared. “They didn’t want us in Lourdes. The sanctuary did not really want us there either, at first, nor did the town. A lot of people said that they had heard too much about the story already.” 

However, Ciurleo and de Galard realized that while most people knew about the saint Bernadette, few knew the story of the little girl Bernadette, whose visions sparked a state affair. Indeed, following reports of large crowds and miraculous healings in Lourdes, of which some were legitimate while others turned out to be hoaxes or short-term improvement, the concerned government officials decided to fence off the grotto. Penalties were issued for anyone who tried to get close to the area, and Lourdes became a national issue, as crowds continuted to gather near the grotto despite the sanctions. At the repeated request of Empress Eugenie, who wanted to bring back miraculous water for their ill son, French Emperor Napoleon III eventually intervened on Oct. 4, 1858, and ordered the grotto to reopen to the public. There was simply “a different story to be told,” the producers said. 

“In Lourdes,” de Galard explained, “the focus has almost always been on Our Lady, and we realized that Bernadette had been a little bit lost in the story. But everything started with this little 13-year-old girl, who was sick, uneducated, poor and had no prospects and who was, nevertheless, chosen. This is the story that we wanted to tell.” 

‘Bernadette of Lourdes’ musical 2
A scene from ‘Bernadette of Lourdes’ (Photo: Courtesy photo)

Despite “not being an evident bestseller,” Bernadette of Lourdes quickly became a huge success in France. The musical, Ciurleo explained, owes its success to the fact that, while deeply inspired by the apparitions of Our Lady to Bernadette Soubirous, it is not “a show by Catholics for Catholics,” nor “a show about a saint, but about a little girl.”

Underneath her sanctity, the producers argued, Bernadette was a girl who saw something extraordinary, a girl who believed in what she saw and a girl who stood up for what she believed in. 


A Musical for Everyone 

“I was at first not inspired at all to take on this project,” Serge Denoncourt, the musical’s director, told the Register, “and I had to repeatedly tell Roberto Ciurleo that I would not direct a show about a saint. It just wasn’t me.” 

After two years of fruitless efforts of trying to convince the Canadian director to work with him, Ciurleo decided to bring Denoncourt to Lourdes to show him the official transcripts from Bernadette’s interrogations with his own eyes, in the hope that it would change his mind. 

“The transcripts showed that the police chief was really trying to understand if Bernadette had seen the Virgin Mary or not,” Denoncourt added, explaining that he realized that the show wouldn’t seek to impose a religious narrative on anyone but rather would be aimed at recounting a young, ill and uneducated girl’s journey with authenticity alongside society’s quest for truth. “And that became interesting to me.” 

Further reflecting on the success of the musical in France, Éléonore de Galard concurred with the director: “We do not impose a vision of the Virgin Mary or anything similar on nonbelievers, yet we are respectful of the message.” 

“We have focused on human relationships in the musical,” de Galard continued, and revealed that the musical has received a lot of positive feedback from young girls who have reconciled with their fathers after watching the musical. “Because of that human aspect, everyone can resonate with the characters on a personal level.” 

“It is a universal story, and the success of the show lies in the sincerity of the young girl,” Ciurleo added. 

Although the French theaters have been filled with spectators from all possible religious backgrounds, Ciurleo explained that he believes the musical, because of its ability to touch the spectators’ heart and souls with a fundamentally Catholic message, can be “a gateway to the Church.” 


Learning From Bernadette Today 

Following its success in France, the musical is arriving in Italy for the Jubilee of 2025 — and also scheduled to arrive on the American stage, in Indianapolis in July 2024, when the National Eucharistic Congress takes place, and Boston in September 2025.

“Currently, the main challenge is to find the right production teams in each country, but mainly to find the right actors,” de Galard told the Register. For example, she added, “finding a Bernadette who wants to take on this role, which is a magnificent but difficult role to carry on one’s shoulders, is not easy.” 

“When I joined this production, I realized that the role they had given me was a really important role,” Gaia Di Fusco, 22, who will play Bernadette Soubirous in the Italian adaptation of the musical, told the Register. 

“Initially, before knowing this character, I was a little bit intimidated by her,” she admitted, “but after watching the French performances, I realized that Bernadette is a girl like any girl. What set her apart was that she got to see something special and had the courage to impose herself in a difficult society.” 

Regardless of their religious beliefs, producers and actors find parallels between St. Bernadette’s struggles and those of people today. In fact, they all argued, similarly to how people are today are often subject to rumors, disbelief and hostility, Bernadette's narrative remains profoundly relevant to any audience, regardless of their faith. 

“Bernadette teaches us to stay true to ourselves,” Ciurleo said, “and that when you tell the truth, you are right to stick to it and not lie.” 

“It also is a story about keeping one’s word,” Ciurleo continued, as Bernadette did with her promises to Our Lady that she would return to the grotto when asked to and to tell the priests to build a chapel on the sight of the apparitions. “Nowadays, we make promises, and two minutes later, we already forget about them.” 

“I think that Bernadette can also teach us a lot about courage and determination,” Di Fusco added, “because she was very courageous and determined in carrying forth her message in a society where no one believed her or what she was saying. Yet she did not let any judgments shake her. She held on to her belief to the end.” 

Bernadette musical crowd in Rome
Cinema Adriano in Rome was filled for the preview of the French musical on Feb. 22.(Photo: Daniel Ibáñez/EWTN)