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No one believed the poor peasant girl: St. Bernadette

It’s easy to forget that God and Mary often choose the poor, the ignorant, and the downtrodden to spread the message of the Kingdom. So many times, saint stories get glamorized in Hollywood soft-focus and backlighting and gilt-edged holy card pictures.

But there’s nothing glamorous or glitzy about Bernadette Soubirous, the 14-year-old French peasant whose visions of the Blessed Mother in 1858 led to one of the most-visited Catholic shrines in the world – the healing springs at the grotto of Lourdes.

Bernadette was born Jan. 7, 1844, the oldest of two sisters and six brothers. Her father was unable to pay his bills, and the family had to move into a one-room living space in an abandoned jail. Bernadette nearly died of cholera when she was 10, and suffered from asthma and poor health her entire life.

One day, Bernadette was sent out to gather firewood with her sister and a friend. Left behind while the other girls crossed a stream, Bernadette heard the sound of rushing wind and went to investigate the noise. In a cave used as a dumping ground and shelter for pigs, she saw an apparition of a lady dressed in white with a blue sash and a yellow rose on each foot. The lady made the sign of the cross, then vanished. This was Feb. 11, 1858.

Bernadette’s sister and friend thought she had been dreaming, and her mother beat her for telling lies when she tried to tell her tale. But Bernadette insisted she was telling the truth, and returned to the grotto again and again.

The local priests and community officials did not believe that Bernadette was seeing visions and she was harassed and laughed at until she reported that the lady had identified herself as the “Immaculate Conception.” Since that title had been applied to Mary only four years earlier, it was unlikely that an illiterate peasant child would have known it, so the priests finally believed her. The church was built, and people began to come to the spring, where uncountable miraculous healings began to occur.

Bernadette retreated from the world by joining a convent of sisters of Nevers at Lourdes, where she was treated harshly by the sisters in charge “to keep her from being too proud.” She worked with the sick and the poor, even though she was chronically ill herself, and died at the age of 35. Her enshrined body, which has never decayed, can still be seen at the convent near the grotto of Lourdes.

Bernadette, whose feast day is April 16, is the patron of sick people, poor people, shepherds, and people ridiculed for their piety. She was canonized in 1933, on Dec. 8, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception.