The Soubirous family lived in the far north of the little town of Lourdes, in the Lapaca district. A large stream flowed there, and on this stream there were seven mills; one of them known as the Boly Mill, and this had been the residence of the Soubirous. Francois Soubirous leased the mill from relatives of his wife, Louise. In many ways, it was the trade of the miller that had brought the couple together.
They had married on the parish church on 9th January 1843. By 1855, the family income had decreased drastically – trade was not good at the mill, and the Soubirous were not the best of business people; often filled with pity for the poor of the local people, they would tell their customers to pay when they were able to, and they never refused credit. And of course there was the family to raise, which further drained their resources. No longer being able to pay for the rent of the mill, the Soubirous were forced to quit their dwellings, give up the millers trade and take on whatever work they could find for themselves. Francois Soubirous recalled that another relative owned a building in the Rue des Petits Fossés – this building was the former Lourdes jail. The old jail was locally known as “the Cachot”. The Soubirous were allowed to remain there rent-free. Each evening, the family gathered around the old fireplace for family prayers. This concluded with the recitation of the Rosary – often led by one of the Soubirous girls. The marriage of Francois Soubirous and Louise Casterot produced six children.
The eldest of these was Bernadette. She was born on 7th January 1844, and was baptized the next day by Abbé Forgues in the old parish church, being given the name of Marie Bernarde. Because of her small stature, she was always referred to by the diminutive form of the name, Bernadette. Six months later, Louise was expecting a child; because of this, Bernadette was entrusted to the care of a woman in near-by Bartres, Marie Aravant, who had just lost a baby boy. She stayed there for 15 months. From her birth, Bernadette was a weak child, suffering even then from the asthma which would cause her so much suffering that later, in the convent, she would beg the nurses to tear open her chest so that she might breathe. Because of her delicate constitution, her parents would attempt to give her little bits of food not available to the other children, such as white bread instead of black. Invariably, the young girl would share these treats with her siblings – often missing out herself on the luxurious feast. When she was ten, Bernadette was again separated from her beloved family; the winter of 1855 was exceptionally cold and there was little work for the poor miller.
Louise’s sister, Bernarde, offered to take Bernadette for a while to relieve the pressure on the family and to minimize the effects of the cold on Bernadette health. She stayed with her aunt Bernarde for seven months, until the weather improved sufficiently and there was more work available for Francois, enabling him to feed his family properly. Bernadette left Lourdes one more time – in the summer of 1857, she returned to stay with Marie Aravant for a few months, working as a shepherdess. There was a great affection between the two. Bernadette celebrated her fourteenth birthday in Bartres, but there still had been no mention of her making her first Holy Communion; Marie Aravant tried to teach Bernadette about the Faith – but described her as being thick-headed. Marie asked the priest for advice – he said Bernadette should return to Lourdes to begin her Catechism classes. And so, in the early days of 1858, Bernadette returned to the Rue des Petits Fossés.
On the 11th of February 1858 Bernadette together with her sister and a friend were sent in search of firewood; their search took them along woodland paths past the savvy mill and the canal and down to the bank of the river Gave, opposite the Grotto of Massabielle. While the two other girls hurriedly crossed the stream Bernadette hesitated, fearful of the cold water and her mother’s warnings about her asthma. Suddenly there was a sound of wind and looking up Bernadette saw, in a niche high up in the rock, the figure of a lady dressed in white and holding a rosary. The Lady, as Bernadette later called her, appeared to Bernadette a total of eighteen times. On the 18th of February the Lady said: “Will you do me the favor of coming here fortnight?” The Lady added “I do not promise to make you in this world, but in the next.” During those fifteen days the Lady said to Bernadette: “You will pray for the sinners, you will kiss the ground for sinners”, “Penance, Penance, Penance!” “Go and tell the priests to have a chapel built here” “Go and drink at the fountain and wash yourself in it” “I wish the people to come here in procession”. On the 25th of March the Lady said: “I am the Immaculate Conception”, or in the patois in which she spoke to Bernadette, “Que soy era Immaculada Concepioouo”. The last apparition took place on Friday, 16th July, 1858, and on certain subsequent days – to the number of 18 times in all – in the Grotto of Massabielle, near the town of Lourdes; that this apparition bears every mark of truth that the faithful are justified in believing it as certain.
Bernadette herself joined the Sister of Nevers in 1866 as Sister Marie-Bernard. She spent nearly 13 years in Nevers which were years of trial and much suffering. In November 1878 Bernadette to the infirmary at the convent worn out by asthma as tuberculosis had now invaded her lungs. She died on 16th April 1876, at the age of 35. Her last words were: “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for me … poor sinner … poor sinner”. Pope Pius XI canonized her in 1933 and her incorrupt body lies at Nevers. Her feast day is 18th February. Even during the apparitions cures were reported at the Grotto and they have continued ever since. Many have been declared miraculous but the greatest miracles at Lourdes have been conversion of sinners and the strength and joy in their faith, which so many pilgrims have received.