Between February 11th and July 16th, 1858, a beautiful young woman appeared eighteen times to a 14 year-old girl, Bernadette Soubirous.
The occurrence took place in a grotto called Massabielle, not far from Lourdes. Bernadette herself is the only person to have seen and heard the Virgin, although she was never alone at the grotto: favorable or skeptical observers stood near her and as time went by they became very numerous indeed. The authorities, the clergy and the public became immediately interested in the events.
Bernadette was the eldest child of a family that had the misfortune of sinking gradually into poverty and that was devastated by several infant deaths. Bernadette was asthmatic and she attended neither school nor proper catechism classes. She was unable to make her first Holy Communion. But her family was very close and deeply religious. Bernadette knew her prayers by heart.
The first apparitions took place in silence. The Lady invited Bernadette to make the sign of the cross and recite her rosary. On February 18th, the Lady asked if Bernadette would be kind enough to come to the grotto for fifteen days.
At the end of February, the Lady asked for the conversion of sinners and told Bernadette to pray for sinners. "Drink from the fountain and wash your face in the water."
On March 2nd, the Lady gave Bernadette a mission: "Tell the priests to have the people come here in procession and to build a chapel."
It was only on the 16th apparition, on March 25th, the Feast of the Annunciation, that the Lady told Bernadette her name: "I am the Immaculate Conception."
The last two apparitions were also in silence. Mary entrusted Bernadette with three secrets that she never told anyone.
During the eight years which followed the apparitions, Bernadette was a boarder without becoming a nun with the Sisters of Charity and Christian Instruction of Nevers in Lourdes.
Miraculous cures abounded, but Bernadette said that: "...only faith and prayer obtain miracles."
In 1866 she entered the noviciate in Nevers. She remained in Nevers for nearly thirteen years, working as a nurse. She died at the age of 33, on the Wednesday after Easter 1879. She was beatified in 1925 and canonized in 1933.
Miraculous cures began at the time of the apparitions. The majority were related to the spring water. Bernadette always refused to call this water miraculous or that the cures be attributed to herself personally. For her, only faith and prayer obtain miracles. Since 1858, 66 cures have been declared miraculous, after complex procedures which do not have their equivalent anywhere in the Catholic world.
The apparitions were recognized authentic by the bishop of Tarbes, Bishop Laurence in 1862.
Since the apparitions of Lourdes took place four years after the proclamation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, all the popes have expressed a private individual attachment to Lourdes.
In the list of Marian shrines, Lourdes is always at the top. Pope Leo XII wrote an encyclical for the dedication of the Basilica Our Lady of the Rosary in 1901. Jean XXIII consecrated the Basilica Saint Pius X a few months before becoming pope.
Saint John Paul II came to preside over the celebrations of August 15, 1993 and he returned again as a pilgrim for the Feast of the Assumption on August 15, 2004.