The story of Bernadette
Stations of the cross
Our visit to Lourdes in May 1996
My views on religion
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This page is not a definitive page regarding Lourdes and the
story of Bernadette. It is more a collection of experiences and
thoughts by myself (Colin Titherington). Most of the pictures on
this page may be selected to view a larger image.
Below are some further links to sites covering Lourdes and the story of Bernadette.
Lourdes is a small town situated in the foothills of the Pyrenees. Although the town has just 17000 inhabitants, 5 million visitors go there each year. In the hotel trade, Lourdes is second only to Paris in importance. There are several narrow streets leading down to the Grotto. These are full of souvenir shops and although these at first seem tacky and out of character, they soon become an integral part of the visit to Lourdes. As in most French towns there are numerous cafes and bars which are open to all ages. The cafe we visited most was the Terrase, where part of the bar was outside virtuall overhanging the river Gave. Quite a number of the inhabitants of Lourdes are Basques.
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Bernadette Soubirous was born on Monday January 7th 1844, the
first child of Francois and Louise. She was baptised in the
parish church of Lourdes. When Bernadette was only a few months
old, her mother had an accident and could not nurse her. At this
time it was usual to breast feed babies for at least two years.
So Bernadette went to live with her foster mother in Bartres. She had six brothers and two sisters,
five of the brothers died before they were ten.
Her father was a miller. He ran the Boly Mill, but tended to give the product away to the poor instead of selling it, eventually the family were reduced to poverty and had to move into the cachot.
Bernadette nearly died of cholera when she was ten. When she was thirteen her parents sent her back to Bartres. Shortly after her fourteenth birhday, Bernadette returned to Lourdes and began to prepare for her First Holy Communion. Bernadette still could not read or write and didn't even speak French, only patois.
It was on February 11th 1858 that Bernadette and her two sisters were out gathering firewood. Bernadette was left behind as her sisters crossed a small stream. She heard a sound like a storm and looking across the stream she saw the apparition for the first time in a grotto at the foot of rock called Massabielle. She saw a lady dressed in white with a blue sash and a yellow rose on each foot. The lady did not speak, but made the sign of the cross. The vision disapeared suddenly.
The lady did not speak until the third time she appeared to Bernadette. She asked Bernadette if she would like to meet her there every day for a fortnight, Bernadette said she would. She told Bernadette to tell the priests to have a chapel built there. Then she told her to drink at the spring. Not seeing one, she went to drink from the stream. The lady told Bernadette that the stream wasn't there, but pointed to a pool of muddy water. Bernadette scraped at the muddy ground and eventually fresh water appeared. She drank some and the vision disappeared.
Bernadette returned every day for a fortnight and on every occasion but for two, the vision appeared. The lady insisted many times that the priests must build a chapel there, and that Bernadette must wash in the spring and that she must pray for sinners. During the fortnight the lady told Bernadette three secrets. Many times Bernadette asked the lady who she was, but she would only smile. Eventually the lady said "Que soy era Immaculada Conceptiou" - I am The Immaculate Conception. When asked by the priest if she knew what that meant, Bernadette did not. The phrase had only been applied to Mary four years before and would only be known amongst the clergy, so it was very improbable that an illiterate poor French girl would have heard it.
The above is the story of Bernadette Soubirous in mostly my
own words. However to read a more thorough (and probably more
accurate) version, follow the links at the top of this page.
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There are actually three Ways of the Cross in Lourdes, the High Stations, the Low Stations and one in the Basilica of St Pius X.
The High Stations are open every day of the year. Between
Easter and All Saints from 6 AM to 7 PM, the rest of the year
between 8 AM and 5 PM. Anyone wishing to join a priest who will
lead the making of the Way of the Cross, should meet at 9 AM by
the Statue of the Crowned Virgin.
This is by far the most impressive way to make the Way of the Cross. Nearly one mile in length (1600m.), the Way winds upwards, climbing very steeply up the Mount of Espelugues, called mount Calvary. The journey starts from the entrance which faces the upper basilica. There are 15 large stations all with larger than life bronze statues, depicting the various stages of Jesus' last journey. The Way of the Cross is walked to follow Jesus on his last journey and to stop on the way to think and pray. Although the High Stations follows a rough stony track, I have seen people walking it in bare feet to emulate the way Jesus had to. There are invariably different groups of different nationalities singing hymns between the stations and this adds to the feeling and atmosphere.
Three of the high Stations of the Cross at
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For anyone using a wheelchair or anyone with walking difficulty, the High Stations are not advisable. The Low Stations are much gentler to make and are situated across the River Gave between the meadow and the river. This Way is on level ground.
The third Way of the Cross is situated inside the underground
basilica (Basilica of St Pius X). This Way is also suitable for
wheelchairs although I think it is on a slight slope. The
stations start near the organ and proceed along the Eastern ramp.
The stations are wall mounted images made of a type of stained
glass unique to Lourdes.
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The Basilica from across the River Gave
The Basilica is an imposing building. It is built on and upto the rock known as Massabielle. The Basilica is actually three separate churches built at different times. When first seeing the basilica from across the River Gave, it would be easy to think the churches were built from the bottom upwards. The Crypt in the middle was actually the first built and the Rosary Basilica at the bottom was built last.
This church was opened in 1871. The Sanctuary is directly over
the place of the apparitions. The Basilica is built on the rock
of Massabielle and access is via a ramp on the Ave. Mgr. Theas,
across the road from the entrance to the High Stations of the
Cross. The tower is 70 metres high and the bells ring out every
15 minutes. On the hour the bells ring out the Ave Maria. The
walls of the church are hung with banners from pilgrims from all
over the world. In the side chapels, the story of Our Lady of
Lourdes is retold in the stained glass windows. Above the
entrance is a medallion of Pius IX who was the Pope at the time
of Bernadette and who proclaimed in 1854 that Our Lady was 'conceived
without original sin' in other words immaculate.
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The Crypt is under the Upper Basilica. It was blessed in 1866
on the day of Pentecost and the pilgrimage was started from that
day. Bernadette had completed her tasks of having a church built
and for the people to come in procession. Soon after she went to
Nevers to become a nun.
A view from across the River Gave distinctly showing the three levels
The lower of the three churches, the Rosary Basilica was built
at the beginning of this century. Inside there are 15 small
chapels decorated with mosaics which depict the story and journey
of the Rosary. In one chapel are mosaics representing the more
important people who took part in the history of the apparitions.
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The Handicapped Children's Pilgrimage Trust was formed in 1956
after a young doctor, Michael Strode, first took children with
disabilities on a pilgrimage holiday to Lourdes. At the same time
he revolutionised the way children with disabilities could
experience a trip to this famous international shrine in the
foothills of the French Pyrenees.
Not content with letting children stay in the usual hospitals and hospices, Dr. Michael wanted them to stay in hotels. As honoured guests they would be able to get as much out of their holiday as other children - trips to cafes, a donkey ride in the mountains and the warmth and affection of a holiday amongst caring friends.
Forty years later, HCPT and the Irish Trust (IHCPT: founded 1972) takes around 2000 children each year to Lourdes from the UK, Ireland and increasingly from other countries. The children have a wide range of special needs physical, mental, social or emotional. The young people are cared for by voluntary helpers, including doctors, nurses and chaplains, most of whom pay for themselves.
The total size of the Easter Pilgrimage is now about 5000; of whom 1000 come from the Irish trust. the largest pilgrimage from the UK and Ireland and probably the largest children's pilgrimage from any country. There is a smaller pilgrimage at Whitsun.
The holiday pilgrimage is naturally centered around the international shrine of Our Lady at Lourdes. It gives children and young people aged 7- 18, with many types of disability or special needs, the opportunity to experience a really stimulating and highly enjoyable group holiday with the reassurance of 'one to one' help
From HCPT grew the Hosanna House Trust. This was the response to a request from young adults with disabilities for an opportunity to experience a holiday similar to the children's pilgrimage. Today, Hosanna House, the Trust's residential centre in Bartres, just outside Lourdes, takes nearly 2000 pilgrims each year. They go in groups of 40 to 50. Many of them have disabilities or special needs. These guests stay for a week between Easter and Novenber.
Hosanna House at Bartres
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Aaron and myself near the source of the River
Gave at Gavarnie
The summit of the mountains is the border between France and Spain
The Cachot is situated in the rue des Petit Fossés. It was an
abandoned jail when the Soubirous family moved in after they were
ruined in business at the Boly Mill. It was whilst living here
that Bernadette saw the visions. The single room was dark and
cold. Louise and François hired themselves out daily, but hardly
raised enough income to feed the whole family.
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Bartres is situated 4km from Lourdes. it is a small village
with an interesting parish church dedicated to St John the
Baptist. Bernadette enjoyed coming to this church to pray. Twice
in her life, Bernadette went to live with her foster mother Marie
Lague at Bartres. The first time she was still a very young baby.
The second time she was thirteen years old. On her second stay,
she was a worker on the farm and a shepherdess for the sheep.
Today in the picturesque village the places to see are the church, a sheepfold on the hillside where Bernadette tended to the sheep and a farmhouse, although not the original farm where she stayed, it has been furnished with artifacts from the period and with some of the original furniture.
About a kilometre out of the village centre is Hosanna House which is a residential centre for young people with a disability and is owned and run by HCPT.
Back to The story of Bernadette | HCPT
Aaron our son had already been to Lourdes twice with HCPT both times at Easter in 1995 and 1996. The first time he went, we were so apprehensive about whether he would cope being away from us for the first time in his life. After his first day there, he never asked for us again. He returned home a different person. He was only 6 years old but he was more self assured and confident. The second time he went, we had no worries about him missing us.
Here is a picture of Aaron in Lourdes with some flowers for The
Whilst in Lourdes the second time, he told the helpers that he would like to become a Catholic and astounded them with the knowledge he had picked up regarding the Catholic faith and the stories regarding Bernadette, The Virgin Mary and Lourdes. On returning home he told us that he would like to take us to Lourdes some day. On many occasions we had thought of arranging a trip to Disney in Florida, but when we asked Aaron if he would like to go there, he always said he would rather go to Lourdes with us. When we told the group who had taken Aaron to Lourdes, they offered to arrange for us all to go out there in May. They also suggested that two of the helpers who had been to Lourdes many times should go with us to show us the ropes. We agreed and the trip was arranged. We had three weeks to arrange all the passports, time off work, currency etc. We let Scott, Aarons older brother in on the secret, but we did not tell Aaron.
We were flying out from Manchester Airport at 5am and had to check in by 4am. We therefore set our alarm for 2am to give us a decent chance of getting to the airport on time. The alarm never went off and at 3 am when we awoke it was a mad panic for the next two hours. Luckily there is not much traffic around at 3 am in the morning and neither are there many police patrol cars. We arrived at the airport just after 4am and made our way to the departures lounge, where we had arranged to meet Louise and Steve the two helpers.
Aaron had no idea where we were going - we had told him that
we were going for a day trip to Blackpool and that we had to go
to the airport first so I could meet somebody from work.
Steve and Louise here hiding behind a pillar and I was a little disapointed when Aaron didn't seem too surprised to see them. However when we went to the check in, he started to be a little suspicious and when we told him the truth he was quite taken back, but very happy. He could not beleive that we had managed to keep the trip a secret from him (especially his brother Scott).
Our flight out was uneventful, taking just under two hours, having a gin and tonic after breakfast and landing just as the town was awaking.
We were driven by coach from the airport to our hotel St.
George and after checking in were shown to our rooms.
St Georges hotel, Lourdes
My previous experiences of French hotels had led me to be quite apprehensive about what our rooms would be like. However, apart from a few anomalies such as the reading lights not working and the toilet being in a different closet to the bidet, the rooms were surprisingly pleasant. We unpacked and decided our first trip would be to the Grotto.
We set off walking and within a couple of blocks came across
the Hotel de Notre Dame where the group take over one whole floor
for the Easter week. The staff came out one by one although they
recognised the two helpers, looked at aaron with a puzzled look
then exploded with waving arms and excited French as they
recognised him. The manager came out and invited us all in for a
drink, which we accepted. Steve told me later that this was the
first time that the manager had ever bought any of their group a
drink. We agreed this must be our miracle for this pilgrimage.
After our social visit with the staff of Notre Dame, it was too
late to go down to the Grotto, so we returned to our hotel for
French food has a reputation for being the best in the world. However to your regular working/middle class British citizen (as you might loosely describe our party), plain British food is what you have been brought up on and all your stomach is used to. I had heard stories of frog spawn soup and many dishes in which the meat could not be identified. Being a very healthy eater, I was rather worried that the food would not be to my liking and that I would not be able to wait to return home to fish and chips and other British delicacies.
There is probably only one food I will not eat at home and that is crab. I will not eat veal neither for moral reasons. The starter arrived and it was crab sticks. My worst fears were coming true. However after the crab sticks, I ate every course of every meal and found them all delicious, even though we had many an arguement as to what the meat was each time. I am fairly sure I ate veal at one meal, although it could have been turkey or even pork.
After dinner, although by now we were becoming a little tired, we set off for the Grotto. The evening was lovely and mild and the first part of the walk was along the banks of the River Gave. After a couple of hundred metres we reached one of the main streets at the bottom of the town. From the quiet and tranquil banks of the river, we were suddenly surrounded by people in the narrow streets, mostly heading in the same direction. Here I had my first chance to notice the hundreds of shops. Nearly all are souvenir and gift shops, selling everything and anything connected with Lourdes and the Catholic Faith. The goods in the shops ranged from very tacky to very beautiful and expensive. Many shops sold water bottles in sizes ranging from a few millilitres to several litres. Also on sale were candles which had a paper holder on which were printed the words of Ave Maria in several languages. Steve bought our supply of candles. Louise bought some flowers for The Crowned Virgin
The closer to the Grotto we went, I noticed the candles and other items became more expensive! After the last of the shops, we crossed over the road along with the thousands of other pilgrims and entered the area of the Grotto.
We passed through the gateway and down the short incline and walked over to the statue of The Crowned Virgin. Steve, Louise and Aaron placed the flowers near the statue and prayers were said. By the Statue of The Crowned Virgin, I had my first sight of the Basilica. from this position, we could see the facade of the Basilica and the 'courtyard' in front of it where the daily processions culminate.
(to be continued)
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I was born in England and was christained in the Church of
England. I grew up attending sunday school at a Zion methodist
chapel. I was married in a methodist chapel. Until recently
religion was something that was there, but was not important to
me. I knew the more popular stories from the Old and New
Testaments and like most people, Church is where I went for
weddings, christenings and funerals.
Only in the last two or three years have I taken a more serious interest in matters relating to religion and aspects of life which are affected or influenced by it.
A couple of years ago I visited Egypt, and I was very apprehensive about being in an Islamic country. (Actually 20 percent of Egyptians are Christians and have been since before most of Europe). However the warmth of the Egyptian people and the way the Christians and Muslims live side by side in harmony had a great effect on me. I was shown round a Christian church by a Muslim girl tourguide. I visited the Mohammed Ali mosque in the centre of Cairo and felt a great feeling of peace as I laid on the rugs in the vast domed mosque.
A few memories stick in my mind. Once while we were sailing down the Nile on a felucca. At the call to prayer, all the workers in the fields stopped work and prayed to Allah wherever they were. It was quite an impressive sight. On another occasion, our group went to the Valley of the Kings (Tuthankamun etc). Most of the group went by donkey, but two of us were to go by taxi for differing reasons. As the donkeys were much slower than the taxi, we had to wait for a couple of hours in the house of the donkey owner. Little did we know that we were sat waiting in the donkey owners' fathers bedroom. He gave us quite a shock when he sat up in his bed. He, however was not at all surprised to find an Englishman and an elderly Canadian lady sat on the edge of his bed. He greeted us in stuttering English and then he got out his prayer mat and spent the next quarter hour up and down praying to Allah. There was no-one there for him to impress apart from two 'heathens'. He certainly impressed me though.
Two years later with my family, I went to Lourdes. Not being a Catholic, although I new the story of Bernadette vaguely, I did not go as most do for the pilgrimage. I went because my disabled son Aaron had wanted to take me there. Each night we were there, we witnessed and took part in the torchlight procession. To me the torchlight processions were the highlight of our visit. I was so impressed by the sound of Ave Maria being sung by the tens of thousands of people from so many different nationalities. As I said to Steve, who visits Lourdes as a helper at least twice a year, that in my Church of England and methodist background nothing like this was possible. I was filled with a great feeling of wonder and peace.
During the visit I sang Ave Maria several times, I learnt how to say Hail Mary, and learnt what the Rosary Beads are for. On the Sunday our small group of six had a private mass in a tiny chapel in The Crypt of the Upper Basilica. The priest, knowing that four of us were not Catholic, helped us by explaining the meaning of each part of the mass as he took it. Late one night Steve and myself walked down to the Grotto, it was well after midnight. There were people there, although not in the same vast numbers as earlier. The silence was peaceful and we both lit a candle. I said a prayer for the first time since I could remember.
They say that if you say three Hail Marys by the Statue of the Crowned Virgin, you will return to Lourdes. I said them quietly to myself.
Whether I become a Catholic or not only time will tell. For some reason I hope I do.
I have seen people in Egypt and in Lourdes who have faith. I never really understood what it meant before, now I am beginning to.
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