In the Footsteps of Bernadette: A Pilgrim at Lourdes

The experience of Lourdes will gently leave its mark on you in some way — forever.

Pilgrims in procession hold candles at Lourdes.
Pilgrims in procession hold candles at Lourdes. (photo: Ron St. Angelo photo)

Lourdes appears around a bend in the road as a small French village out of time. Nestled in the foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains in the Bordeaux region, it is a quiet, pastoral little town that belies its sacred role in the miraculous appearance of the Blessed Mother. 

Stepping out into the quiet of the early morning, you make your way down steep, narrow streets toward the basilica. As you get closer, more and more people begin to join the procession.  

Millions of pilgrims visit Lourdes each year, from every corner of the earth. Quiet conversations in a multitude of languages are heard all around. There are people of all ages and nationalities, many being pushed in wheelchairs with obvious ailments, others with less discernable needs perhaps seeking spiritual revitalization rather than miraculous cures.

As you approach the sacred grotto, it is as if being transported back in time to  Feb. 11, 1858: It looks today much like it did when Bernadette Soubirous received the apparition of the Blessed Virgin — the Lady, as young Bernadette called her.  

As the morning light illuminates the grotto, I imagined how a 14-year-old peasant girl must have felt to be chosen by the Mother of God.

Pilgrims to Lourdes visit the famous grotto and basilica.(Photo: Ron St. Angelo photos)

Here, the firstborn daughter of a miller received from the Blessed Mother several instructions, including exhortations that people should come in procession to the grotto, build a chapel, and drink and bathe in the waters. People began to report miraculous cures as a result of these practices, and there have been thousands of claims of healing over the years. These are submitted to Lourdes’ own Medical Bureau for investigation and 70 “unexplained healings” have been confirmed as miraculous, out of more than 7,000 candidate cases, according to Lourdes Sanctuary.

On Feb. 25, 1858, the Lady told Bernadette to drink the water of a spring that flowed under the rock where she appeared. As there seemed to be no spring, Bernadette dug in the ground. Nothing happened, but a day or so afterward, the water started to flow. Bernadette drank it and washed in it — and others did the same; and the water acquired a reputation for healing properties. The spring still flows at the rate of 32,000 gallons a day.  

When I went into the baths to receive the miraculous waters, I was instructed to do what Bernadette was told to do by the Blessed Mother: Drink, wash and hold the precious water. It was an experience I can only describe as a feeling of awe and spiritual transformation.

Lourdes, the sanctuary for healing, has been beckoning me to come for some time during my life as an artist. I heard people speak of profound spiritual experiences that resulted in improved well-being and symptomatic relief in the absence of any change in a medical condition. These incidents appeared to be intense and extraordinary. I use the word “transcendent” to describe the out-of-the-ordinary experiences of connection, understanding and wonder described by the pilgrims I spoke to this spring.  

One of the most common experiences was that of feeling physically close to God or the Virgin Mary. People felt that the Mary was with them, watching over them, and this closeness was a source of reassurance. For many, the grotto was central to their experience. As one person said, “It’s where Bernadette saw Mary, so it’s obviously a significant place to be.” 

During the Feb. 27 and March 2 appearances, the Lady told Bernadette that the priests should be told to build a chapel at the site and have people come there in processions. Word of this reached the French newspapers and the crowds accompanying Bernadette to the grotto swelled to thousands.

On the Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary on March 25, the Lady at last proclaimed her identity. Speaking to Bernadette in the local Lourdes patois, she said, “I am the Immaculate Conception.” The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception had been proclaimed only a few years before, in 1854. 

Bernadette saw her last apparition on July 16, the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. The instructions given to Bernadette were followed, and an extraordinary church now rises above the grotto partially carved from the very rock of the grotto.

Lourdes 2
Pilgrims find sanctuary at Lourdes.(Photo: Ron St. Angelo photos)

Lourdes is a beautiful place to find sanctuary, to help others and, of course, to pilgrimage. 

It can be said of Lourdes that there is a before-and-after aspect to each person’s encounter with this special place. Whether going with family, as a volunteer with your diocese, or indeed as a pilgrim on your own, the experience of Lourdes will gently leave its mark on you in some way — forever.  

Ron St. Angelo writes from Dallas, where he is the photographer for the Diocese of Dallas.                 

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