The Virgin used me as a broom to remove the dust. When the work is done, the broom is put behind the door again.
Marie Bernarde Soubirous was the daughter of François Soubirous (1807–1871), a miller, and Louise (née Casteròt; 1825–1866), a laundress. She was the eldest of nine children—Bernadette, Jean (born and died 1845), Toinette (1846–1892), Jean-Marie (1848–1851), Jean-Marie (1851–1919), Justin (1855–1865), Pierre (1859–1931), Jean (born and died 1864), and a baby named Louise who died soon after her birth (1866).
Bernadette was born on 7 January 1844 and baptized at the local parish church, St. Pierre's, on 9 January, her parents' wedding anniversary. Bernadette's godmother was Bernarde Casterot, her mother's sister, a moderately wealthy widow who owned a tavern. Hard times had fallen on France and the family lived in extreme poverty. Bernadette was a sickly child and possibly due to this only measured 4ft.7in. tall. She contracted cholera as a toddler and suffered severe asthma for the rest of her life. Bernadette attended the day school conducted by the Sisters of Charity and Christian Instruction from Nevers. Contrary to a belief popularized by Hollywood movies, St. Bernadette learned very little French, only studying French in school after age 13 due to being frequently ill and a poor learner. She could read and write very little due to her frequent illness. She spoke the language of Occitan, which was spoken by the local population of the Pyrenees region at that time and to a lesser degree today (which is similar to Catalan spoken in eastern Spain).
On 11 February 1858, Bernadette, then aged 14, was out gathering firewood with her sister Marie and a friend near the grotto of Massabielle (Tuta de Massavielha) when she experienced her first vision. While the other girls crossed the little stream in front of the grotto and walked on, Bernadette stayed behind, looking for a place to cross where she wouldn't get her stockings wet. She finally sat down to take her shoes off in order to cross the water and was lowering her stocking when she heard the sound of rushing wind, but nothing moved. A wild rose in a natural niche in the grotto, however, did move. From the niche, or rather the dark alcove behind it, "came a dazzling light, and a white figure". This was the first of 18 visions of what she referred to as aquero (pronounced [aˈk(e)ɾɔ]), Gascon Occitan for "that". In later testimony, she called it "a small young lady" (uo petito damizelo). Her sister and her friend stated that they had seen nothing.
After investigation, Church authorities confirmed the authenticity of the apparitions in 1862. In the 150 years since Bernadette dug up the spring, 69 cures have been verified by the Lourdes Medical Bureau as "inexplicable" — after what the Church claims are "extremely rigorous scientific and medical examinations" that failed to find any other explanation. The Lourdes Commission that examined Bernadette after the visions ran an intensive analysis on the water and found that, while it had a high mineral content, it contained nothing out of the ordinary that would account for the cures attributed to it. Bernadette said that it was faith and prayer that cured the sick.
Disliking the attention she was attracting, Bernadette went to the hospice school run by the Sisters of Charity of Nevers where she had learned to read and write. Although she considered joining the Carmelites, her health precluded her entering any of the strict contemplative orders. On 29 July 1866, with 42 other candidates, she took the religious habit of a postulant and joined the Sisters of Charity at their motherhouse at Nevers. Her Mistress of Novices was Sister Marie Therese Vauzou. The Mother Superior at the time gave her the name Marie-Bernarde in honor of her godmother who was named "Bernarde".
She later contracted tuberculosis of the bone in her right knee. She had followed the development of Lourdes as a pilgrimage shrine while she still lived at Lourdes, but was not present for the consecration of the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception there in 1876.
For several months prior to her death, she was unable to take an active part in convent life. She eventually died of her long-term illness at the age of 35 on 16 April 1879 (Easter Wednesday), while praying the holy rosary. On her deathbed, as she suffered from severe pain and in keeping with the Virgin Mary's admonition of "Penance, Penance, Penance," Bernadette proclaimed that "all this is good for Heaven!" Her final words were, "Blessed Mary, Mother of God, pray for me! A poor sinner, a poor sinner". Bernadette's body was laid to rest in the Saint Gildard Convent.
Bishop Gauthey of Nevers and the Church exhumed the body of Bernadette Soubirous on 22 September 1909, in the presence of representatives appointed by the postulators of the cause, two doctors and a sister of the community. They claimed that although the crucifix in her hand and her rosary had both oxidized, her body appeared incorrupt — preserved from decomposition. This was cited as one of the miracles to support her canonization. They washed and reclothed her body before burial in a new double casket.
The Church exhumed the corpse a second time on 3 April 1919. A Doctor who examined the body noted, "The body is practically mummified, covered with patches of mildew and quite a notable layer of salts, which appear to be calcium salts. ... The skin has disappeared in some places, but it is still present on most parts of the body."
In 1925, the church exhumed the body for a third time. They took relics, which were sent to Rome. A precise imprint of the face was molded so that the firm of Pierre Imans in Paris could make a wax mask based on the imprints and on some genuine photos to be placed on her body. This was Common practice for relics in France as it was feared that the blackish tinge to the face and the sunken eyes and nose would make an unpleasant impression on the public. Imprints of the hands were also taken for the presentation of the body and the making of wax casts. The remains were then placed in a gold and crystal reliquary in the Chapel of Saint Bernadette at the mother house in Nevers.
Three years later in 1928, Doctor Comte published a report on the exhumation of Blessed Bernadette in the second issue of the Bulletin de I'Association medicale de Notre-Dame de Lourdes.
On 8 December 1933, Pope Pius XI declared Bernadette Soubirous a Saint of the Catholic Church. Her feast-day was initially fixed for 18 February—the day her Lady promised to make her happy, not in this life, but in the next—but is now observed in most places on the date of her death, 16 April.
This period of almost daily visions came to be known as la Quinzaine sacrée, "holy fortnight." Initially, her parents, especially her mother, were embarrassed and tried to forbid her to go. The supposed apparition did not identify herself until the seventeenth vision. Although the townspeople who believed she was telling the truth assumed she saw the Virgin Mary, Bernadette never claimed it to be Mary, consistently using the word aquero. She described the lady as wearing a white veil, a blue girdle and with a yellow rose on each foot — compatible with "a description of any statue of the Virgin in a village church".
In the spring of 2015, the town of Lourdes lobbied for Bernadette's remains to be returned to Lourdes, a move opposed by the city of Nevers.
Her 16th claimed vision, which she stated went on for over an hour, was on 25 March. According to Bernadette's account, during that visitation, she again asked the woman for her name but the lady just smiled back. She repeated the question three more times and finally heard the lady say, in Gascon Occitan, "I am the Immaculate Conception" (Qué soï era immaculado councepcioũ, a phonetic transcription of Que soi era immaculada concepcion).