It’s February 11, 2013 as I publish this column, and I’d like to begin with another trivia question for my readers. What historic event occurred in Catholicism exactly 155 years ago? Well, for those of you who already knew (or who cheated by looking at the article headline), it’s the anniversary of Our Lady of Lourdes.
Our Lady of Lourdes refers to one of the best known Marian apparitions of the Catholic Church. On February 11, 1858, Bernadette Soubirous, a 14 year old peasant girl from Lourdes, France, witnessed the first of these now famous apparitions. She told her mother that a beautiful "lady" had spoken to her in the cave of Massabielle (about a mile from town) while she was gathering firewood with her sister and a friend. The "lady" appeared to her on seventeen further occasions that year, ending on July 16, 1858.
The Martian appreciations are particularly famous because it was during this time that Bernadette asked the “beautiful lady” who she was. On March 25th, the figure replied, "Qué soï era immaculado councepcioũ " in her native language of Gascon Occitan (meaning “I am the Immaculate Conception" in English). This is a dogma about the Virgin Mary that is proclaimed by the Catholic Church.
However, the site is perhaps best known as the place where Lourdes water originates from. Lourdes water is water which flows from a local spring in the Grotto. The location of the spring was discovered by Bernadette herself in 1858, by digging in a spot where she was instructed to by Our Lady. Lourdes water still flows today at the same spot where it was discovered by Bernadette, and thousands of pilgrims have visited Lourdes to take water home with them. Many of the faithful pilgrims also drink at the spring and wash in the water. Lourdes authorities provide the water free of charge to any who ask for it. There have been many miracles associated with the water since that time.
Like all Marian apparitions, there were many naysayers claiming Our Lady of Lourdes was a hoax, including several prominent Catholic officials in France at the time. But Our Lady of Lourdes has been one of the few apparitions that survived intense scrutiny over the years, and has been universally proclaimed as genuine by the Vatican and the Catholic Church. All recent Popes visited the Marian shrine at Lourdes personally, including three visits by Pope John Paul II personally. Indeed, Our Lady of Lourdes has so many faithful believers that it has a unique distinction among Catholic Marian apparitions. Namely, the visions have also been proclaimed as true by many protestant Christians. For example, the Anglican Communion has officially recognized the apparition of Our Lady of Lourdes as genuine. In September 2008, Archbishop Rowan Williams of Canterbury, the leading Anglican authority in the world, made a pilgrimage to Lourdes and preached to his flock about its miracles. Anglicans have also built a Marian Shrine on the location; relatively close the Roman Catholic shrine.
Part of the reason why Our Lady of Lourdes has such universal support is the events that occurred there are remarkably similar to other Marian visions that attracted millions of followers, Catholic and non-Catholic alike. For example, Bernadette's vision at Lourdes is remarkably like the case of Saint Juan Diego's vision in 1531 in Mexico. Both Juan Diego and Bernadette Soubirous were simple peasants who reported miraculous visions of a lady on a hill. Both said that the lady asked them to tell the local priests to build a chapel at that site of the vision. Both visions had a reference to roses, and both led to very large churches being built at the sites. Bernadette, a simple French girl, had no knowledge of what had occurred in Mexico two centuries earlier.
Bernadette went on to become a nun. She was always a physically weak and frail person, and she died at the young age of 35 after a long-term illness, on April 16, 1879. Her body was laid to rest in the Saint Gildard Convent. The miracle at Lourdes continued to gain followers around the world, and The Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes became a worldwide Catholic celebration in 1907. The body of Bernadette was exhumed in 1909 and found to be “incorrupt” (preserved from decomposition which normally occurs in dead bodies) and this was seen as proof of yet another miracle. Two doctors examined the body and noted with amazement that although the crucifix in her hand and her rosary had both oxidized and begun to rust, her body had remained looking exactly as it did the day she was buried. She was canonized a saint by Pope Pius XI on December 8, 1933. In 1943, the events of Lourdes became the basis for the academy award winning film “The Song of Bernadette”, which won Oscars for Best Actress, Best Art Direction, Best Music, and Best Cinematography.
And yes, my faithful readers, if you’re wondering if any of this ties into Chicago, look around you. The legacy of what happened at Lourdes is alive and well around the Chicago area. On the north side, over in the Ravenwood neighborhood of Chicago, you can visit Our Lady of Lourdes Parish at 4641 N. Ashland Ave. The parish was established in 1892 and has had three different locations since its inception, but has always been dedicated to the miracle of Lourdes. The Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes has been a part of the parish since the beginning, and serves as a replica of the original Grotto in Lourdes, France. In 1992, parishioners at Our Lady of Lourdes opted to have the Grotto used for twenty-four hour Perpetual Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. People of all ages, races and backgrounds gather at every hour of the day, on every day of the year, for silent prayer and meditation. They visit to remember the namesake Grotto and healing waters of Lourdes, France.
Over on the other end of Chicago, you can visit St. Bernadette’s Catholic Church in the southwest suburbs of Cook County. It is located at 9343 S. Francisco Ave. in Evergreen Park, Illinois. St. Bernadette’s was established in 1947, when founding Pastor, Fr. Morgan O'Brien, purchased five acres of where the church currently sits, for $20,000. The first service was held in a nearby funeral home and the first baptism was across the street at Little Company of Mary Hospital. The church later established a grade school, St. Bernadette Catholic Academy, in 1949. Befitting its name, the parish features “Lourdes Hall", “Lourdes Library” (complete with a library stamp featuring St. Bernadette in the grotto with Our Lady of Lourdes) and a beautiful stained glass window in the back of the church showing St. Bernadette kneeling in prayer before the Virgin Mary.
So as we look back 155 years later, the miracle of Lourdes is still alive and well in the hearts of faithful Christians living in the 21st century. As you pause and reflect back on today, perhaps you could spend a moment to think about a place called Lourdes.