One hundred and fifty years ago, in 1858, the Virgin Mary appeared eighteen times in the grotto of Massabielle, not far from the town of Lourdes, to the fourteen-year-old Bernadette Soubirous, in the period from 11th February until the evening of 16th July. These brief notes on the chronicle of those days and some of the words and testimonies reported in those days by Bernadette herself recall the events.
Thursday: first appearance
Bernadette leaves the house with her sister Toinette and her friend Jeanne Baloum to collect some wood in the communal grounds near the river Gave. Unable to cross the river without getting his feet wet, he began to take off his stockings when, to quote his words, “I heard a noise as if there had been a breeze”. She turns around, but the poplars behind her don’t move. “Then,” he says, “I kept taking my shoes off.” A gust of wind again. This time she looks in the direction of the cave, which lights up, and in this light a white smiling figure appears to Bernadette. “He had a white dress, a white veil, a blue belt and a yellow rose on each foot. Even his rosary beads were yellow. I was surprised. I thought I was wrong. I wrinkled my eyes and looked again. I used to see the same lady all the time. I put my hand in my pocket and took the crown. I wanted to make the sign of the cross, but I couldn’t bring my hand to my forehead. It fell to me. Then I was so frightened, and my hand was shaking. But I didn’t leave. The lady took the crown she had on her arm and made the sign of the cross; I, too, tried to do it then and succeeded. As soon as I made the sign of the cross, the great fear that had taken me disappeared. I knelt down and recited my crown with the beautiful lady. The vision made the grains of his rosary beads flow, without moving his lips. At the end of the rosary he waved to me, but I didn’t dare. Then the pretty lady suddenly disappeared.”
On the way back Bernadette spoke to her sister and friend about what she had seen and made her promise not to reveal it to anyone, but Toinette confided in her parents who, in the evening, questioned Bernadette and forbade her to go to the cave again. After this first apparition, which took place around noon, all the others took place in the morning except the fourteenth and eighteenth which took place in the evening.
Sunday: second apparition
It’s the Sunday before Ash Wednesday. Bernadette says: “I went back to the cave for the second time the following Sunday. I remember it well because I felt driven by an inner force. My mother forbade me to go there. After the solemn mass, together with the other two companions, we went again to ask Mother to send me to the cave. She absolutely did not want to. He was afraid I’d fall in the water and not return in time for Vespers. I promised her I would. Then he let me go. Before I left I went to the parish with a small bottle to get some holy water. When we arrived at the place, we each took our crown and knelt down to pray the rosary. I had just finished the first ten of the rosary I saw the same lady appear. Immediately I began to throw holy water at her, telling her to stay, in case it came from God, or else to leave. And I hurried to throw water on her. She smiled at me and bowed her head.”
Bernadette is kidnapped in ecstasy, her companions can’t move her and run away scared to ask for help. The miller Nicolau, with his energy, will barely be able to detach it from there. Word’s starting to spread. The mother is worried and renews the ban on returning to the cave.
Thursday: third appearance
The rich Mrs Milhet, driven by curiosity, snatched her mother’s permission to take the girl back to Massabielle, and ordered Bernadette to ask the name of the figure appearing to her, putting paper, pen and inkwell in her hand: “Would you have the goodness to write your name?”. Bernadette thus heard for the first time the voice of that lady, who answered: “It is not necessary”. And with surprising kindness he asks Bernadette, “Would you have the goodness to come here for a fortnight?” Bernadette says: “I said yes. Furthermore, he added that he did not promise me happiness in this world but in the other. I went back to the cave for a fortnight. The vision appeared to me every day except one Monday and one Friday”.
Friday: Fourth apparition
The apparition lasts a quarter of an hour. Bernadette is holding the candle given to her by her godmother, Bernarde Castérot, with whom she arrived at the cave together with about ten people. The beautiful lady simply smiled at her in silence and Bernadette replied with gestures: “She waved with her hands and head,” said her friend Josèphe Barinque: “It was a pleasure to see her, as if all her life she had done nothing but learn to do those greetings. I didn’t know how to do anything but watch her.”
Saturday: fifth apparition
When Bernadette starts the rosary waiting for the white lady to appear to her, there are thirty people around her. Even on that day, February 20, the vision lasts a quarter of an hour. Throughout the meeting Bernadette’s eyelids “do not droop down, not even when she bows her head for greetings,” says Rosine Cazenave.
Sunday: sixth apparition
Also this time, first Sunday of Lent, no words, only gestures and smiles. In the afternoon, Bernadette is questioned by Commissioner Jacomet, convinced that the story is a set-up. It is here that he begins to use the term Aquerò – which in the dialect of Lourdes means That thing – to refer to what he sees: “So, Bernadette, do you go to Massabielle every day?” “Yes, sir.” “And do you see anything good in it?” “Yes, sir.” “So, Bernadette, you see the Holy Virgin?” “I’m not saying I saw the Holy Virgin.” “Ah, good. You didn’t see anything.” “Yes. I saw something.” “So, what did you see?” “Something white.” “Something or someone?” “Aquerò / That thing is shaped like a girl.” “And didn’t she say to you, I’m the Holy Virgin?” “Aquerò didn’t tell me.”
Tuesday: seventh appearance
In obedience to the intimidation of the commissioner, Bernadette’s father forbade her to return to the cave on Monday. She obeys at the moment, but in the afternoon an irresistible force drives her back to Massabielle. The apparition, however, does not occur. The next day, the parents withdrew the ban and this time the appearance lasted an hour, in front of a crowd of one hundred and fifty people. During the ecstasy, Elénoire Pérand, who a year later entered the nuns of Saint Vincent de Paul, pricked Bernadette with a pin. The girl has no reaction to the pain. Aquerò taught her a prayer only for her, which Bernadette would recite every day for the rest of her life, and confided to her three secrets, which Bernadette said were only about her.
Wednesday: eighth appearance
On this day the beautiful lady for the first time has a message for everyone: “Today Aquerò has spoken a new word: Penance! He added: “You will pray to God for the conversion of sinners”. And I said, “Yes.” He asked me if that bothered me. I said no. Then he begged me to climb on my knees to the bottom of the cave and kiss the earth as a sign of penance for sinners.
Thursday: ninth appearance
The origin of the water source located at the bottom of the grotto, which today feeds the pools and fountains of Lourdes, dates back to this day.
In front of five hundred people, Bernadette begins to walk on her knees up the slight slope that leads to the bottom of the cave, kissing the earth. Following Aquerò’s directions, he digs a small hole with his hands and after having thrown the water away three times because it was dirty the fourth time he manages to drink it.
Saturday: Tenth apparition
This time that thing just smiles. Bernadette returns to perform the gestures of two days earlier: she advances kissing the earth, climbs to the bottom of the cave and drinks the water that gushes out of the earth again.
Sunday: Eleventh apparition
An official sent to check the situation records the presence of 1,100 people during the apparition, which takes place in the same manner as the previous day. In the afternoon Antonie Clarens asked Bernadette about the “strange” exercises that Aquerò asked her to perform: “The vision ordered me to do it out of penance”, she replied, “first for me and then for the others”. Clarens question: “Have you been given any communication… or assigned any mission?” “No, not yet.” In the evening, some stonemasons from Lourdes went to the grotto and dug in the spot where Bernadette bent over to drink. From that moment on, the water starts gushing out abundant and clear.
Monday: Twelfth apparition
In front of 1,500 people, Bernadette repeats the same gestures of penance. Antoine Dézirat, a young priest, watched attentively: “Bernadette, while she was praying her rosary, barely moved her lips, but from her attitude, from her facial features, one could see that her soul had been kidnapped. The smile surpassed all expression… Only Bernadette saw the apparition, but everyone had the sensation of her presence… I thought I was in the anteroom of Paradise”. Later, Catherine Latapie, a young pregnant woman with a paralyzed hand, feels pushed towards the cave, plunges her hand into the spring water and suddenly heals from her illness. It will be the first miracle recognised by the Church and attributed to Our Lady of Lourdes.
Tuesday: thirteenth apparition
This is how Bernadette recalls the events of that day: “She told me to go and tell the priests to build a chapel there. I went to the vicar to tell him.”
The message is received coldly. Pastor Peyramale is uncertain. Bernadette insists on building “a chapel, even a very small one”. “Well,” replies Peyramale, “first say your name and make the rose garden in the grotto bloom, then we will make the chapel for you, which will not be very small. It’s gonna be huge.”
Wednesday: Fourteenth apparition
In the morning, Aquerò doesn’t appear. He will do so in the evening, at 9 p.m., explaining the reason for the “delay”: “You did not see me this morning, because there were people who had come to observe the demeanour you would have had before me, who were not worthy”. Bernadette asks Aquerò her name, but she doesn’t answer, just smiling.
Thursday: 15th appearance
It’s the last of the fortnight. The apparition is repeated in the presence of a huge crowd that is waiting for a clear sign for everyone, but is disappointed. At the end of the rosary prayed in the presence of Aquerò, Bernadette interrupted herself twice before completing one of those signs of the cross that amazed those present with their beauty and simplicity. Cousin Jeanne Védère asks her, “Why did you start doing it again three times?” “Aquerò hadn’t done it yet. I couldn’t get my hand up to my forehead.” “Why were you sometimes happy, sometimes sad?” “I am sad when Aquerò is sad, and I smile when he smiles.”
Thursday: sixteenth appearance
An inner strength pushes Bernadette to return to Massabielle. Aquerò is there again and Bernadette repeats the question the parish priest suggested to her: “Miss, would you have the goodness to tell me who you are, please?”. Aquerò continues to smile in silence, but Bernadette this time insists. Then, raising her eyes to the sky and joining her arms at chest height, she answered: “Que soy era Immaculada Councepciou / I am the Immaculate Conception”. Bernadette doesn’t understand the meaning of those words. All the way from the cave to the parish priest’s house he keeps repeating them aloud for fear of forgetting them. The parish priest remains stony. “A lady cannot bear that name! You’re wrong, you know what that means?” Bernadette simply repeats those syllables as she heard it. Peyramale knows that the girl, in her ignorance, cannot have invented a dogmatic definition. And the concussion begins to grow in him too.
Wednesday: seventeenth appearance
This apparition is linked to the so-called “miracle of the candle”. The flame of the candle that Bernadette holds in her hands during the vision for a quarter of an hour touches the palms of Bernadette’s hands without burning it. Dr Dozous, observing the phenomenon, abandons his scepticism and converts. On this occasion the Holy Virgin renews her request to have a chapel built in that place.
Friday: 18th apparition
At sunset, Bernadette is driven back to the cave. The Holy Virgin is there, like the first time, for a silent encounter, the last one here on earth. “What did she say to you?” her friends ask her, “Nothing.” All you need to do is see her. And he concludes, “I’ve never seen her so beautiful.”