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When Mother Vauzou announced to her novices that Bernadette would soon be entering the Convent of St. Gildard, she did not hide her joy at seeing "the eyes which had perceived Our Lady." We taste some of this delight when we see Bernadette in her shrine. her eyes are closed, but she is there! Intact, that face upon which was reflected the marvelous light of the virginal mystery, the Immaculate Conception. Intact, those lips which conversed with the Virgin Mary. Intact, those hands which guided by the hands of Aquero, painfully scratched the soil of Massabielle and opened for us the miraculous spring of penance. Intact and present, this heart so tender and so strong which beats for the love of Jesus and His Mother, and on their account for all the sinners in the world. Intact, as if she had just gone to sleep, and awaits only the angel's call to rise to her feet. God did not want her to escape totally from our human wretchedness, nor leave her brothers and sisters for whom she gave her life. She is still among us A. Ravier, S.J.
Bernadette in death 1879
After thirty years undisturbed in the tomb, Sister Marie Bernard's body was exhumed for examination. The cause for sainthood had begun. When the stone was lifted from the vault, the coffin was immediately seen. It was carried to the room prepared for it and placed on two trestles covered with a cloth. On one side was a table covered with a white cloth. The remains of Bernadette were to be placed on this table. The wooden coffin was unscrewed and the lead coffin cut open to reveal the body in a state of perfect preservation. There was not the slightest trace of an unpleasant smell. The Sisters who had buried her thirty years earlier noted only that her hands had fallen slightly to the left. The words of the surgeon and the doctor, who were under oath, speak for themselves:
"The coffin was opened in the presence of the Bishop of Nevers, the mayor of the town, his principal deputy, several canons and ourselves. We noticed no smell. The body was clothed in the habit of Bernadette's order. The habit was damp. Only the face, hands and forearms were uncovered."
"The head was tilted to the left. The face was dull white. The skin clung to the muscles and the muscles adhered to the bones. The eye sockets were covered by the eyelids. The brows were flat on the skin and stuck to the arches above the eyes. The lashes of the right eyelid were stuck to the skin. The nose was dilated and shrunken. The mouth was open slightly and it could be seen that the teeth were still in place. The hands, which were crossed on her breast, were perfectly preserved, as were the nails. The hands still held a rusting rosary. The veins on the forearms stood out."
"Like the hands, the feet were wizened and the toenails were still intact (one of them was torn off when the corpse was washed). When the habits had been removed and the veil lifted from the head, the whole of the shriveled body could be seen, rigid and taut in every limb. It was found that the hair, which had been cut short, was stuck to the head and still attached to the skull, that the ears were in a state of perfect preservation, that the left side of the body was slightly higher than the right from the hip up. The stomach had caved in and was taut like the rest of the body. It sounded like cardboard when struck. The left knee was not as large as the right. The ribs protruded as did the muscles in the limbs."
"So rigid was the body that it could be rolled over and back for washing. The lower parts of the body had turned slightly black. This seems to have been the result of the carbon of which quite large quantities were found in the coffin."
In witness of which we have duly drawn up this present statement in which all is truthfully recorded. Nevers, September 22, 1909, Drs. Ch. David, A. Jourdan.
The nuns washed the body, and placed it in a new coffin that was lined with zinc and padded with white silk. In the few hours in which it had been exposed to the air, the body had started turning black. The double coffin was closed, soldered, screwed down and sealed with seven seals. The workmen again returned Bernadette's body to the vault. It was 5.30 p.m. by the time the examination had been completed.
"When the coffin was opened the body appeared to be absolutely intact and odorless." (Dr. Talon was more specific: "There was no smell of putrefaction and none of those present experienced any discomfort.") The body is practically mummified, covered with patches of mildew and quite a notable layer of salts, which appear to be calcium salts. The skeleton is complete, and it was possible to carry the body to a table without any trouble. The skin has disappeared in some places, but it is still present on most parts of the body. Some of the veins are still visible."
At 5 p.m. that evening the body was reburied in the chapel of SaintJoseph in the presence of the Bishop, Mother Forestier and the police commissioner. Here are some passages from Doctor Comte's report :
"At the request of the Bishop of Nevers I detached and removed the rear section of the fifth and sixth right ribs as relics; I noted that there was a resistant, hard mass in the thorax, which was the liver covered by the diaphragm. I also took a piece of the diaphragm and the liver beneath it as relics, and can affirm that this organ was in a remarkable state of preservation. I also removed the two patella bones to which the skin clung and which were covered with more clinging calcium matter. Finally, I removed the muscle fragments right and left from the outsides of the thighs. These muscles were also in a very good state of preservation and did not seem to have putrefied at all."
"From this examination I conclude that the body of the Venerable Bernadette is intact, the skeleton is complete, the muscles have atrophied, but are well preserved; only the skin, which has shriveled, seems to have suffered from the effects of the damp in the coffin. It has taken on a grayish tinge and is covered with patches of mildew and quite a large number of crystals and calcium salts, but the body does not seem to have putrefied, nor has any decomposition of the cadaver set in, although this would be expected and normal after such a long period in a vault hollowed out of the earth."
Nevers, April 3, 1919, Dr. Comte
In 1925, the third and final exhumation of the body was conducted. This was the occasion during which relics of the sacred body of Bernadette would be taken. Doctor Comte was again asked to conduct the procedure. Once the surgical part was over, he had the body swathed in bandages leaving only the face and hands free. Bernadette's body was then put back into the coffin, but left uncovered. At this point, a precise imprint of the face was molded so that the firm of Pierre Imans in Paris could make a light wax mask based on the imprints and on some genuine photos. This was common practice for relics in France, as it was feared that although the body was mummified, the blackish tinge to the face and the sunken eyes and nose would make an unpleasant impression on the public. Imprints of the hands were also taken for the presentation of the body. Three years later in 1928, Doctor Comte published a report on the exhumation of the Blessed Bernadette in the second issue of the Bulletin de I'Association medicale de NotreDame de Lourdes.
"I would have liked to open the left side of the thorax to take the ribs as relics and then remove the heart which I am certain must have survived. However, as the trunk was slightly supported on the left arm, it would have been rather difficult to try and get at the heart without doing too much noticeable damage. As the Mother Superior had expressed a desire for the Saint's heart to be kept together with the whole body, and as Monsignor the Bishop did not insist, I gave up the idea of opening the left-hand side of the thorax and contented myself with removing the two right ribs which were more accessible."
"What struck me during this examination, of course, was the state of perfect preservation of the skeleton, the fibrous tissues of the muscles (still supple and firm), of the ligaments, and of the skin, and above all the totally unexpected state of the liver after 46 years. One would have thought that this organ, which is basically soft and inclined to crumble, would have decomposed very rapidly or would have hardened to a chalky consistency. Yet, when it was cut it was soft and almost normal in consistency. I pointed this out to those present, remarking that this did not seem to be a natural phenomenon."
A crystal coffin was made for Saint Bernadette's body. She was placed in a chapel in the Church of St. Gildard at the convent in Nevers where she lived for thirteen years. She has remained undisturbed and on view in this chapel since August 3, 1925. The Sisters of Charity and Christian Instruction at Nevers are not secretive about the body of St. Bernadette. They welcome visitors, and encourage learning about the life example and messages of their sister saint.