Our Lady appeared to the little girl Bernadette Soubirous in 1858. The visionary was a peasant who had only an elementary school education.
On the day of her first apparition she went to the grotto to look for firewood for cooking and heating. Bernadette was the eldest child in the family.
After her companions had finished picking wood under the grotto, she heard a great noise, prompting her to look around. But nothing was moving. The noise came again, and she noticed a rosebush at one of the rock openings.
“Almost at the same time there came out of the interior of the grotto a golden-colored cloud, and soon after a Lady, young and beautiful, exceedingly beautiful, the like of whom I have never seen,” she said, as recorded by a minor government official.
The Lady motioned to Bernadette to approach her. Fear left the little girl, and she rubbed her eyes, shut them and reopened them. The Lady continued to smile, making her understand that the vision was real.
“Without thinking of what I was doing I took out my rosary in my hands and went on my knees,” continued the peasant girl. “The Lady made a sign of approval with her head and herself took into her hands a rosary which hung on her left arm.”
The Lady said nothing as Bernadette prayed the rosary. She just passed the beads of the rosary between her fingers. She only said the Gloria at the end of each decade.
Bernadette returned home and cried during family prayer. Her mother asked her what was the matter, so the girl had to tell her what happened. The mother did not believe the story and forbade her from going back to the grotto. Due to much persistence, Bernadette was allowed to return.
The visionary described what she saw as follows:
“She has the appearance of a young girl of sixteen or seventeen. She is dressed in a white robe, girdled at the waist with a blue ribbon which flows down all around it. A yoke closes it in graceful pleats at the base of the neck; the sleeves are long and tight-fitting. She wears upon her head a veil which is also white; this veil gives just a glimpse of her hair and then falls down at the back below her waist. Her feet are bare but covered by the last folds of her robe except at the point where a yellow rose shines upon each of them. She holds on her right arm a rosary of white beads with a chain of gold shining like two roses on her feet.”
During the sixth apparition, the Lady told Bernadette, “Pray for sinners.” On the eight, she said, “Penitence, Penitence, Penitence.”
The following day, the apparition told the peasant girl, “Drink from the fountain and bathe in it.” This confused Bernadette, for she had not seen any fountain or spring in the grotto area. She got on her knees and scratched the loose gravel on the area where she stood.
Then she noticed that the ground was moist. A small pool formed. Then came bubbles. She scooped water with her hands and drank. Then she washed her face. The following day water overflowed down the rocks. Then the trickle became a full stream.
The Lady gave more orders. One was for her to kiss the ground on behalf of sinners. On the eleventh apparition, she told Bernadette to tell the clergy to build a chapel on the site. Then the Lady said that the people should come to the chapel in procession.
Bernadette relayed the message to the parish priest, who was skeptical of the apparitions. He told her that he didn’t deal with mysterious strangers. If she wanted a chapel she had to reveal her identity.
The Lady did reveal who she was: “I am the Immaculate Conception.” The title was significant because Pope Pius IX had declared Mary’s immaculate conception a dogma of faith only 4 years before.
Today the stream of water flowing in Lourdes has become a source of healings. The sick come to bathe in its waters, and some of these acts of faith result in documented cures. The chapel has become a large shrine, probably the most famous Marian shrine in the world.