ABOUT 200 years ago, in a remote corner of France, in a rented stone-and-wood house that could be reached from the street by a narrow, cobbled, winding road, lived a grain miller, François Soubirous.
He attended to his water-powered mill to eke out a hardscrabble life. His house was by the fast-flowing Gave de Pau River, and a diverted part streams underneath, turning a turbine. It was linked to a pestle that effortlessly pounds the wheat into powdery flour.
François sold the product, although most of it was loaned to relatives, neighbors and friends.
It was under this trying circumstance that Bernadette Soubirous—the future saint—was born on February 11, 1858. Her birth was followed in succession by seven other siblings—five brothers and two sisters. Many of them died young, either from malnutrition or from fatal diseases, like cholera. The youngest brother, Pierre, died stillborn.
François’s borrowers, living at the foot of the Pyrenees Mountains, where there was not much source of income, were deadbeats.
“If they could not pay, he asked them to come back the following week or month, but they never did,” revealed our French guide, Suzanne, a thin woman, wearing a nun’s coif, well-informed if stern, patient and highly inspired. I imagined that she would give the same narration to visitors like us, Manila journalists, everyday of every week.
“Then gradually, the business went down and down, and they were only tenants here,” she added.
Suzanne told this tale to some members of the Manila-based journalists, who were in France, courtesy of four-star Philippine Airlines (PAL), to fetch its new A350-900XWB from its factory in Toulouse.
As a sidelight to the trip, PAL and Airbus took us journalists on a two-hour trip to Lourdes, France. This gave us the chance to view the countryside. Here and there were rolls of hay standing in freshly harvested fields of wheat, ready to be collected for fodder. There were wide patches of beaming sunflowers, signaling the start of summer.
“A few weeks from now, the whole countryside would be ablaze with the golden blossoms,” said Akila, the Airbus guide.
Less than an hour away from our destination, we passed by an airfield parked with planes from around the world. They were filled with pilgrims and tourists bound for the same destination.
Suzanne herded us into the Soubirous’s old house. In 1854, when Bernadette was 10 years old, her father was unable to pay the rent. “They were evicted, they were thrown out, and they went to a smaller, cheaper mill at the top of the town.”
When Bernadette was 14, when she was out gathering firewood with her sister Marie and a friend near a cavern, which the locals call grotto, she experienced her first vision.
The grotto is across the Gave de Paul River and is much closer then to the cavern than it is now.
“Bernadette was the only one who saw the Virgin Mary,” Suzanne volunteered, pointing to a niche where stands a small statue of the Virgin. “That’s approximately where [the Lady] appeared to Bernadette.”
On the ninth apparition, “our Lady asked them to go and drink and bath in the water, but they didn’t want to. Bernadette got inside the grotto, she scraped the soil on the ground, and the spring appeared.”
During the first few sightings, incredulous neighbors spread the word of the apparition that soon caught the tiny town in a frenzy. This reached the ear of the chief of police, the town mayor, the local doctor and the bishop.
The police interrogated Bernadette for apparently causing public scandal. Suzanne referred to her as the “sheriff” in charge of questioning Bernadette. During the next five months, Bernadette was taken many times to the police station and questioned on what she saw, who she saw in the grotto and what the Lady said to her.
“She was threatened with imprisonment. She was told ‘If you continue to go to the grotto, we’ll put you and your family in prison.’ She and her family were accused of causing disorder.”
“She stood by her words and soon, the ‘Lord town Mayor’ was brought into the new ballgame,” Suzanne added.
Expecting a windfall from the surge of tourists, the mayor broached the idea of making the town a spa center, “until the financial reality of financing such a harebrained idea set in and the project died a natural death.”
Suzanne showed us a photograph of the original house where Bernadette was born. Part of the house and most of the furnishings were knockoff.
“Remember, the apparition happened 300 years ago and many of the originals have been worn out,” she reminded us.
“About that time, her family was the poorest family in the town of Lourdes,” Suzanne narrated, “and the population at the time were following her down to the grotto.”
Bernadette, suffering her unexpected stardom, fled to a hospice at age 16, where she stayed until she was 22. “This was where she received her schooling because up until the apparition, she never went to school,” Suzanne revealed.
“She didn’t know how to write or speak French, our Lady spoke to her language. She spoke in her local dialect, patois, because that is the only language she spoke,” Suzanne explained.
At the hospice, she said Bernadette was shielded from the inquisitive crowd. “People came from everywhere to see her, and she didn’t like the big novelty, she wanted to be unnoticed, very discreet, very humble.”
“She took the [Holy] Communion between the 17th and 18th apparitions on the 3rd of June. It was something the Lady suggested to her because until then she hasn’t received Holy Communion.”
From February 11, 1858, until July 16, 1858, the Virgin Mary appeared before Bernadette 18 times and “during those months several messages, several requests from our Lady, some for the parish priest were relayed.”
“She said she didn’t know it was the Virgin Mary who was appearing [before her], until our Lady gave her identity on the 25th of March, the 16th apparition,” Suzanne said.
She added: “She made a promise to our Lady, who asked her to come to the grotto every day for two weeks. On that day she made a promise. And this is was he reply to the police officer. That she made a promise to the Lady. So she continued [visiting the grotto].”
The wall of their house was filled with huge photographs of Bernadette’s family tree, including the town elders that took part in the unraveling of her unbelievable story.
“This was the bishop at the time during the apparition. This was the parish priest, the person that Bernadette went to see often during the apparition,” Suzanne identified the images in the photos.
The town doctor was brought to check the miraculous healing quality of the water. “The local doctor was quite skeptical, he didn’t believe what was going on until the 17th apparition,” Suzanne said.
The doctor examined the first people who settled in Lourdes. “Apparently in one year, he examined about 100 people, and said they were healed from the water.”
At that time the town of Lourdes has a population of 4,000, which grew to today’s 15,000.
In 1858 there were two small hotels in the area, which became a popular accommodation. Suzanne said at the start of the pilgrimages the local people opened their houses to welcome the first visitors.
Out of the Soubirous house and into the heat of Gallic summer, Suzanne led us toward the grotto, directing us to the paved road, which was once bare earth. She said in the course of two centuries, the river changed its course three times.
“Gave de Pau is a mountain torrent, that overflowed on the 13th of June this year. The whole grotto area was flooded and the shrine was closed for 48 hours, the second time we had serious flooding.”
During our visit, wheelchair bound persons with disability made a long line, pushed from behind by their caretakers.
A total of 67 miraculous healings have been recognized at Lourdes since 1858. However, there have only been four miracles since 1978, the most recent was last year when an Italian woman was said to have been healed of acute rheumatism.
“Today, we have about 220 hotels here. Lourdes is the second-biggest town in the hotel industry after Paris,” Suzanne said.
The spot in the grotto, where Bernadette once summoned forth a spring of clear water, is now protected by plastic cover. Flowers and bouquets are neatly arranged since it is the spring that draws pilgrims for its miraculous cures.
Two cathedrals were built on top of another over the grotto, leaving a small patch where the apparition occurred.
Pilgrims fill their bottles with the holy water seeping through the rocks. Several faucets sunk into the side of the cave speed up the filling process since there are long queues most of the time. Eventually three more churches were built in the vicinity to accommodate the 6 million—once 9 million—pilgrims, to Lourdes every year.
An “Underground Basilica,” dug a hundred feet down to the water table, could seat 25,000 worshippers. This is the Basilica of Saint Pius X, part of the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes. It was completed in 1958 in anticipation of the enormous crowds expected in Lourdes for the centenary of the Apparitions.
In 1866, at age 22, Bernadette left her family to enter a convent. Her mother died of tuberculosis at 41, and the daughter traveled three days to see her for the last time.
“She lived the last 13 years of her life in the convent, refusing any financial help for her family,” Suzanne volunteered.