The National Shrine of Lourdes is visited by 6 million pilgrims each year, ranking third among the most popular Marian shrines in the world.
Here is a summary of the history of Lourdes given by Bishop Perrier, bishop of Tarbes and Lourdes:
Between the dates of February 11th and July 16, 1858, a “beautiful lady” appeared eighteen times to a fourteen year-old girl of Lourdes (southwestern France) named Bernadette Soubirous. The happenings occurred at the Grotto of Massabielle, not far from the small town. Bernadette was always the sole person to see and hear Our Lady, although she was never alone at the Grotto: favorable observers and sceptics alike surrounded her and grew increasingly more numerous daily. Public officials, the clergy and the people became interested in the case immediately.
At the 16th apparition on March 25, 1858, the Feast of the Annunciation, Our Lady gave Bernadette her name:
"I am the Immaculate Conception.”
Bernadette was the eldest daughter of a family that progressively slipped into dire poverty and lost several young children. Bernadette herself suffered from acute asthma. She went neither to school nor to catechism and as a result didn’t make her First Holy Communion until age 14. Yet the family was tightly knit and deeply fervent. Bernadette knew "her" prayers by heart, often leading the evening prayer at home.
The initial apparitions were silent. Our Lady invited Bernadette to make the sign of the Cross and recite the Rosary. On February 18th, Mary asked Bernadette to do her the favor of coming back to the Grotto for two weeks. In late February, she asked for personal conversion and prayer for sinners. She even made a somewhat odd demand to Bernadette: “Go and drink from the fountain and wash your face in the water ...” No stream was visible when the demand was made, but with faith Bernadette ignored ridicule and started digging the ground with her bare hands until water gently streamed out… this is the famed water available everywhere around the shrine that pilgrims drink or bathe in, and which has already cured hundreds of people since 1858 and continues to have wonderful spiritual effects.
On March 2nd, Our Lady charged Bernadette with a mission:
“Go and tell the priests to have the faithful come here in procession and that they should have a chapel built.”
But it was not until the 16th apparition, on March 25th, that Our Lady gave her name: “I am the Immaculate Conception.” The last two apparitions were silent once again. Mary told Bernadette three secrets destined to her only that she never disclosed. During the eight years following the apparitions, Bernadette boarded, without becoming a full member of the community, with the Sisters of Charity of Nevers and Christian Instruction, who had a convent in Lourdes.
The authenticity of the apparitions of Lourdes was proclaimed by the Bishop of Tarbes in 1862.
The end of Bernadette’s Life
When Bernadette was twenty-two years old, she decided to become a nun and she entered the novitiate of the same congregation in Nevers. She became a nurse, devoting her life to nursing the sick and praying for sinners... She died three days after Easter 1879 at the age of 35. Bernadette was beatified in 1925 and canonized in 1933. Miraculous healings had begun at the time of the apparitions. Most have taken place at the water source. Bernadette always denied that the water or that she personally caused the miraculous healings; she felt that only faith and prayer obtained cures.
Since 1858, sixty-six healings have been reported as miracles, after complex procedures that have no equivalent elsewhere in the Catholic world. The authenticity of the apparitions of Lourdes was proclaimed by the bishop of Tarbes, Bishop Laurence, in 1862.
Popes have always shown a particular devotion to Our Lady of Lourdes
The apparitions of Lourdes occurred four years after the proclamation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception and popes have always shown a particular devotion to Our Lady of Lourdes. Today Lourdes still tops the list of popular Marian shrines.
Pope Leo XIII wrote an encyclical for the consecration of the Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary in 1901.
As for John XXIII, he consecrated “the Basilica of Saint Pius X” in Lourdes a few months before becoming pope.
Pope Saint John Paul II presided over the celebrations of Lourdes on August 15, 1983, and he came back again as a pilgrim in 2004, for the Feast of the Assumption (Aug. 15).
The year 2008 (from Dec. 8, 2007 to Dec. 8, 2008) was declared a Marian year in honor of Our Lady of Lourdes, for the occasion of the 150th Anniversary of the Apparitions, by decision of Pope Benedict XVI.