The saint of Lourdes ... the saint of penance ... the saint of poverty ... Our Lady's child visionary is also to many the saint of family. Born January 7, 1844 at a time of prosperity for her family, her parents and younger siblings lived in an environment of deep love and devotion for each other. However, hard times soon fell on agricultural France, and worse yet, a string of seemingly endless bad luck fell on the Soubirous family. Put to the test time and again, Bernadette and her family discovered the meaning of unconditional commitment.
In desperation, illness, and poverty, the oldest of the Soubirous children began having mysterious visions at the age of fourteen. The combination of sophisticated revelations and Bernadette's simplicity were a certain confirmation of these apparitions. The entire region was soon in an uproar over the events. The apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary spanned only six months, but no relief came to the Soubirous family. They came even closer together as they were plagued with continued misfortune through the time of the apparitions and beyond. The events at Lourdes only magnified the trials of Bernadette and her family, leading to persecution by many nonbelievers and authorities alike.
Within their home the Soubirous did find peace, however. Their commitment to each other and their faith held them together despite the unnerving events and their dire living conditions. Consolation also came as the Catholic Church confirmed the apparitions within only a few years, and construction began on the sanctuary at the Grotto of Massabielle before Bernadette even left for Nevers.
As for Bernadette, she individually experienced destitution and divine light simultaneously. We might find it difficult to resolve these two states in the same life circumstance under any conditions. By faith and grace, she was able to live with them together.
The Boly Mill was Bernadette's first home
Less than a year after Bernadette was born (November 1844), her mother Louise suffered a burn injury while pregnant with her second child. Bernadette was sent to a nurse at Bartrès, and returned eleven months later after the younger child died. There were eventually to be nine children born to Louise and François Soubirous, of which only four survived childhood. Three years later, François was blinded in the left eye in a milling accident at the Boly Mill, which was also the family's home.
Crops were poor and famine struck France. In 1854, with work sparse, the Soubirous were turned out from the Boly Mill. They wandered from one boarding house to another, turned out each time for failing to meet their bills. Bernadette was 11 years old and watching after the three younger children as her parents went out to find work each day. François was forced to become a day laborer earning less than the cost of hiring a horse. When a cholera epidemic swept through town, Bernadette was stricken. Almost to the point of death, she was to suffer with severe asthma for the rest of her life. To help her family survive, she worked for a time as a waitress in her aunt's inn.
Failing again to meet their meager rent in May 1856, the family was this time left homeless. A cousin had pity and allowed them to stay in an abandoned prison cell that was in a building he owned. "Le Cachot" (the lockup) was little more than 12 feet square. At this point the family was in utter poverty. With no food to eat, François was suspected of stealing two sacks of flour. Imprisoned for eight days, the charges were shortly dismissed, but he was left with a reputation as a thief.
Le Cachot was an old jail abandoned in 1824 for sanitary reasons
" The room was dark ... In the backyard was the privy which overflowed and made the place stink. We kept the dungheap there ... The Soubirous were destitute: two poor beds, one on the right as you entered, and the other on the same side nearer to the fireplace ... They had only a little trunk to put all their linen in ... My wife lent them some chemises: they were full of vermin ... She often gave them a bit of bread made of millet. Yet the little ones never asked for anything. They would rather have starved."
André Sajous, owner of Cachot, 1875
In the darkness of this destitution the Soubirous maintained the light of their faith. Evenings in the Cachot were spent in common prayer. They attended mass frequently, and on Sundays assisted services in the parish. Louise and François recited the rosary and taught the children to do the same. Bernadette owned rosary beads and carried them with her. Towards the end of 1857, she was again sent to her nurse in Bartrès to work as a farmhand. There would be food there and one less mouth to feed at the Cachot. However, there was no school or catechism to prepare for her first Communion.
Persistent and decisive, Bernadette persuaded her mistress and family to allow her to return to Lourdes. She could not remain away from the reading lessons which would earn her the ability to complete her catechism and finally receive her first Communion. In January, 1858, at almost 14 years of age, she returned to the misery of the Cachot and entered a pauper's school where she learned in the company of 7 yearolds. Only three weeks were to pass before a desperate search for firewood led Bernadette to her first encounter with "the Lady" ...
Photographs of St. Bernadette and Lourdes
St. Bernadette and Lourdes pages