Lourdes in the Hautes-Pyrenees is one of the most popular places to visit in France. Only Paris has more hotels. Visitors come from around the world to see the site where a miracle took place.
A day at Lourdes
The giant candles kept on arriving. The wheelchairs stacked up along the banks of the Gave river. Nuns and nurses kissed the ground. The queues for the baths lengthened.
A hunched-up old lady in a black shawl whispered to the wall, petitioning the rockface. “In your heart I place all my anguish and it is there that I gain strength and courage.”
Pushed towards the famous Massabeille grotto a frail hollow-cheeked man in a bath-chair, a rug over his knees, reading from a small book muttered “Mary you showed yourself to Bernadette in the crevice of the rock in the cold and grey of winter. You are the Immaculate Conception. Come to aid the sinners that we are. Guide us to the source of true life. Teach us to pray for all people.”
Some of the faithful walk the steep wooded 15-station “Way of the Cross” up on the hill of Espelugues, above the Sanctuaries. Others hold their hands under the stainless-steel taps and sluice their faces with holy water. Some are at prayer in the underground basilica. Some feed the ducks from the Bridge of Baths. Others sit in deep contemplation on benches and chairs, their eyes closed eyes listening to the outside Mass.
One of the most popular towns in France
Lourdes, also called Doors, in the Hautes-Pyrenees department, 175km west of Toulouse, has 15000 inhabitants but attracts 25000 visitors – every day. They come to see a marble statue in a rock ledge in a cave and to be welcomed by the out-stretched arms of the Basilica Rosarie. 66 masses are said each day in forty places of worship within the 51-hectare sacred complex. In France, only Paris has more hotels than Lourdes. Charter flights and trains bring in six million pilgrims each year.
“Everyone is welcome and expected here“said a young Irish priest. He was holding a two-metre high vigil candle. 750 tonnes of candles are burnt every year at Lourdes. There is a torchlight procession every night at 9pm from April to October. Thousands take part. “The candles represent God’s presence. The flickering flame His illuminating light. The white candles signify a divine pillar of cloud.”
He smiled. “They are a test of faith as they are very heavy”.
The birthplace of Bernadette Soubirous
“The disabled, diseased and marginalized are in the majority here” said an English pilgrim. He was carrying a 2-litre plastic can of complimentary cave water. “Pope John Paul 11 said Lourdes is the place where heaven and earth pursue a dialogue. Lourdes is a very special place. It has been blessed. Some come for adoration. Or consolation. Or confession. To call for intercession or renew their baptismal vows. Or remember the Beatitudes. Others just to observe. Hope and fraternity are palpable here. Kindness too. You find yourself in a sea of people devoted to the service of others.”
It’s said that on February 11, 1858, the Virgin Mary appeared to fourteen-year-old Bernadette Soubirous while she was collecting firewood. Seventeen apparitions of “Aquero” (the lady) followed until July 16th. Bernadette described her apparition as ‘uo petito damizelo’ (“a young girl”). At first, she mistook it for a demonic apparition thinking it a “revenant” or soul returning from purgatory. The apparition did not speak until the third appearance and in Occitan, the local patois. It suggested she used a lighted candle for protection. Thus the torchlight procession. The small figure in the flowing white robe and roses on her feet told Bernadette to build chapels and kiss the ground as penance. On her ninth visitation she showed the shepherd girl a miraculous spring.
Follow in the footsteps of a Saint
You can follow the “Jubilee Walk “and see Bernadette’s birthplace and “le cachot” (or dungeon) in the Rue Petits-Fosses where she lived in poverty after her father lost his mill business and cholera struck the town. You can also visit the church where she received her first Communion and the nearby village of Bartres where she tended sheep.
Lourdes doesn’t have a local monopoly of supernatural events. In Betharram near Lourdes some shepherds saw a vision of a ray of light which guided them to a statue of the Virgin Mary. In the early sixteenth century, a twelve-year-old shepherdess named Angleze de Sagazan claimed a vision near a spring at Garaison. Her story is strikingly similar to that of Bernadette. Pious but illiterate, she successfully convinced authorities that her vision was genuine. There are also several similarities between the apparition at La Salette near Grenade, predating Lourdes by eleven years.
A place of Miracles
Bernadette’s apparitions were not recognized until 1862. The statue of Notre Dame de Lourdes was installed in the Massabeille (meaning old rock) grotto two years later. Bernadette died in Nevers convent in 1879 and was canonized in 1933. Her body was exhumed three times and found to be “incorrupt”.
There have been over 7000 claimed “cures” but only 70 recognized by the Lourdes Medical Bureau, a group of theologians and doctors charged with investigating claims.
Meanwhile, as I stood watching, thousands continued to process. Three boy scouts carried a 1.5-metre-long candle. A voice intoned” Saloe, Regina; mater misericordia,vita, dulcedo et spes nostra, saloe”. Another beside me whispered “Ave Maria Gratia plena Dominus tecum Virgo serena”.
Then, as the processions of pilgrims moved another few yards: “O Mary our mother we come to this place where you who are sinless appeared full of grace.”
A teenage boy processing a handicapped girl told me “you learn a lot from coming to Lourdes. One hundred countries are represented here every day. It’s a transfiguring place. You can’t help being moved. Whatever your beliefs – you feel belief.“
By Kevin Piley, a former professional cricketer, now travel writer. He’s also the former chief staff writer of PUNCH magazine and has written for over 600 titles.