Strong, Brave Bear: Saint Bernadette Soubirous

Given that I love all things Saints, I collect various items such as Saints cards and statues.  The item that started my Saint collecting hobby was my statue of Saint Bernadette.

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I have had this statue since I was a baby.  I became anemic shortly after I was born, so along with being given iron drops, my feisty and faith-filled Grandma Joanie handed my mother the Saint Bernadette statue and said, “Put this above her crib and ask Bernadette to pray for her.”  My mother did just that and asked Saint Bernadette, who suffered from poor health her whole life, to pray for my health as a baby.
As I was preparing to write this bio on Bernadette, a blood vessel broke in my left eye, so like my mother and grandmother had, I asked Saint Bernadette to pray for the healing of my eye.
The red spot in my eye disappeared by the time I started writing this piece.
I like to think that this post is my way of repaying the holy girl who has prayed for me in the past and in the present.
This is the story of Saint Bernadette Soubirous!

On January 7th, 1844, a baby girl was born to a miller named François Soubirous and his wife Louise.  Gazing into the eyes of their first child, they gave her the name Marie-Bernarde.  She was known by her nickname “Bernadette,” which means “strong, brave bear.”  The troubled early years that awaited her would require her to be strong and brave.
After enjoying years of comfort and prosperity, a series of misfortunes had befallen the Soubirous family.  Francois and Louise had eight more children after Bernadette; four of whom died shortly after entering the world.  Enduring the pain of losing brothers and sisters was just one of many crosses the young girl had to bear.  Then, like Jean Valjean, Francois Soubirous was arrested on suspicion of stealing a single wood plank.  He was later released without being charged, but his initial arrest was a huge blow to the Soubirous family’s social reputation and their bank account.  By 1858, the financial situation of the Soubirous family was so desperate that they had to live in an old jail called le cachot, or “the dungeon.”
To call Bernadette sickly would be an understatement.   As a toddler, she was hit with cholera and barely survived.  Due to the dampness of le cachot, she suffered from asthma her entire life.  To add insult to injury, at the age of 14, she was studying basic catechism in a room full of seven-year olds.

February 11th, 1858 started off like any other day.  Bernadette, her sister Marie and a friend of theirs were collecting firewood.  I think I’ll let Bernadette tell us what she saw:

I came back towards the grotto and started taking off my stockings. I had hardly taken off the first stocking when I heard a sound like a gust of wind. Then I turned my head towards the meadow. I saw the trees quite still: I went on taking off my stockings. I heard the same sound again. As I raised my head to look at the grotto, I saw a Lady dressed in white, wearing a white dress, a blue girdle and a yellow rose on each foot, the same color as the chain of her rosary; the beads of the rosary were white.”

Like any teenager would, Bernadette went home and told her friends, who in turn talked to her parents about what she had said.  Francois and Louise were understandingly disturbed and forbade Bernadette from going back to the grotto.  Bernadette respected their wishes and stayed away from the grotto.  However, she felt compelled to return to the place where she had seen what she called “Aquero,” which means “that” in Occitan, the language of her region.
After Sunday Mass on February 14th, Bernadette, Marie and a few other girls headed back to the grotto, where Bernadette saw Aquero again.  She knelt to the ground immediately and fell into a trance.  Clutching a bottle of holy water in her hands, she thrust holy water in Aquero’s direction.  ‘If it’s a demon, it’ll flee,’ she thought.
Aquero simply smiled.
Bernadette returned home with her sister with the resolve to visit the grotto once more.
On February 18th, seven days later, Bernadette ventured to the grotto.  She had to know.  She had to see for herself whether this mysterious figure was true or nothing more than a figment of her imagination.   Standing in front of the grotto, her focused eyes waited for the Lady.   Within minutes, Aquero was there.  The peasant girl stared in awe of the shimmering woman.  It was then that the Lady spoke.  She requested that Bernadette return to the grotto every day for a fortnight.

“She could not promise to make me happy in this world, only in the next.”

From there, rumors of Bernadette’s vision made way through the small town.  It started when her sister spread word to her friends, who then passed it on to their parents; think of it as the 18th century version of the telephone game.  Before she knew it, Bernadette had become a controversial figure in Lourdes.  In one corner, she had her supporters who swore, “This child is a visionary!  A prophet!”  In another corner were her detractors who declared, “She is mentally ill!  She must be sent away!”  That an impoverished girl who couldn’t even spell her own name had been visited by a messenger from God was an outrageous notion.   To put this into perspective, imagine if Bernadette was a teenage girl living today in our social media age.  You know that little corner of your newsfeed where it says “TRENDING“?  If the Lourdes apparitions were happening now, you would see “Bernadette Soubirous” right underneath “TRENDING” every single day.
Before she knew it, her name and story had made it to the ears of county government officials…

February 21st, 1858
“Come in, Ms. Soubirous,”
Bernadette’s trembling hand twisted the knob.  Pushing open the door, she saw Commissioner Dominique Jacomet.  Tall and well-dressed, the professional man of the law stared down at the simple girl, who stood cloaked in an array of patched fabric.  Shaken but resolute, Bernadette sat across from Jacomet, ready for the questions that were sure to come her way.
JACOMET: (Prepares notes) “Did you see something Ugly?”
BERNADETTE: (Shakes head) “Oh, no! I saw a beautiful young girl with a rosary on her arm.”
JACOMET: (Raises eyebrow) “Well, now, Bernadette, you saw the Blessed Virgin?”
BERNADETTE: (Looks with confusion) “I never said I saw the Blessed Virgin.”
JACOMET: (Smiles) (Points at BERNADETTE) “Ah, well!  You say nothing!”
BERNADETTE(Knuckles tighten) (Gives insistent nod) “Yes, I saw something.”
JACOMET: “Well, what did you see?”
BERNADETTE: “Something white.”
JACOMET: “Was it some thing, or some one?”
BERNADETTE: “Aquero has the form of a young girl.”
JACOMET: “And Aquero did not say “I am the Blessed Virgin”?”
BERNADETTE: “Aquero did not say that to me.”
JACOMET: “All right then, this this girl, she wears clothes?”
BERNADETTE: “A white dress, with a blue sash, a white veil on her head and a yellow rose on each foot… and rosary beads in her hands.”
JACOMET: “Is she Beautiful?”
BERNADETTE: “Oh, yes sir, very beautiful.”
JACOMET: “As beautiful as who? Madame Pailhasson?”
BERNADETTE: (Chuckles sweetly) “They don’t even come close.”
JACOMET: “How old is she?”
BERNADETTE: “Young.” (Pauses) “But sir, I saw Aquero a number of times. I can’t still be mistaken.  I can’t explain it, but I’m sure I saw something.”
JACOMET: (Rises from his chair) “Listen, Bernadette, everybody’s laughing at you. Everyone says you are mistaken, that you’re crazy.  For your own good, you must not go back to that grotto!”
BERNADETTE: (Locks eyes with JACOMET)“I promised to go for fifteen days.”

It had been during the third apparition when Aquero said in Bernadette’s native Occitan, “Boulet aoue ra gracia de bié aci penden quinze dias?”  In English, this translates to, “Would you have the goodness to come here for fifteen days?” Even when confronted by Jacomet, Bernadette stood by her promise.
The apparitions that started on February 11th continued until July 16th in 1858.  Bernadette never missed a day.  With each day, the grotto became the place to be.  People gathered to watch Bernadette’s interactions with the mystery Lady.  During one of her encounters, Bernadette was asked by Aquero to go drink at the fountain and wash herself.  There was just one problem: There was no fountain, only a Gave (a hollow corner).  Bernadette began to dig, muddying her hands until she finally came across water.  A few days later, the spring began to flow from the Gave.
Aquero’s next task for Bernadette was to go to the priests and tell them to go in procession to the grotto and build a chapel there.
Bernadette turned to Father Dominique Peyramale, who dismissed her and ordered her to not return to the grotto.  She remained persistent and began pestering other priests about Aquero’s request.  With a grudging respect for the girl’s determination, Father Peyramale spoke with her again.  “No chapel is being built until we know the woman’s name,” he explained sharply.
Any time Bernadette would ask Aquero for her name, the Lady would respond with a smile.  It wasn’t until March 25th when Bernadette pressed Aquero with a little more force for her name.
Aquero stopped smiling.  Lowering her arms, her radiant eyes raised to Heaven.  She folded her arms over her breasts and spoke.
Bernadette’s eyes widened.  A gasp escaped her lips.  Within her racing heart, she felt the light of clarity.  Rising to her feet, she stood struck by the realization that she was a part of something greater, a grand plan that surpassed her finite understanding.
Holding her rosary close to her heart, Bernadette turned to the crowd, “I am the Immaculate Conception.”  That is what Aquero, the Blessed Virgin Mary, had said to her.
Shaken by this revelation, Father Peyramale, now a believer in Bernadette’s experience, made a trip to visit the bishop, who forbade him from going to the grotto.

The final apparition occurred on July 16th.  The Virgin Mary greeted Bernadette with a motherly gaze.

“All I saw was Our Lady.  She was more beautiful than ever.”

Bernadette disliked all the attention she had garnered, so she attended a hospice school run by the Sisters of Charity of Nevers.  It was here that she finally learned how to write and read (even how to spell her own name!)  Discovering that her true vocation was the religious life, Bernadette set her sights on the Carmelites, but her poor health made her ineligible for stricter orders.  On July 29, 1866, Bernadette was one of 42 women to take the religious habit of postulant and join the Sisters of Charity.  The Mother Superior bestowed upon her the name, “Sister Marie-Bernarde.”
Bernadette’s remaining years were spent as an infirmary assistant, then later a sacristan.  Sadly, she had to endure ridicule from other sisters who were skeptical about her apparitions.  She was given harsher discipline, for the Mother Superior wanted to prevent her from becoming prideful.  Having been obedient to the Virgin Mary, Bernadette held up her head and did exactly as she was told.
Bernadette’s health was struck by tuberculosis in the bone of her right knee.  She did as much work as she could until the tuberculosis made her unable to go on any longer.   On April 16, 1879, 35-year old Bernadette Soubirous lay on her deathbed, suffering terribly from the pain.  With her last breath, Bernadette prayed aloud her final words:

“Blessed Mary, Mother of God, pray for me!  A poor sinner, a poor sinner!”

Have you been researching someone’s life and the more you learn, the more you come to love them?  As Saint Lucy and Saint Agnes are my sisters, so too is Bernadette.  I am in awe of her humility and bravery to stand alone in her convictions, which is a rarity in modern society.  She never caved to the pressure to change her story or stay away from the grotto.   It is no coincidence, it was part of God’s plan, that her name means “strong, brave bear.”

Saint Bernadette Soubirous, pray for us.

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