Marie Bernarde “Bernadette” Soubirous (1844 – 1879) was the sickly, illiterate daughter of a poor miller in southern France. When she was 14 years old she underwent a series of visions which convinced the Roman Catholic Church that she had been visited by the Virgin Mary.
In February, 1858 she and her sister were out gathering firewood when Bernadette was struck by the appearance of a bright light inside a grotto. Over the next few weeks, the apparitions continued with the figure of a woman wearing a white robe becoming clearer to Bernadette. She received instructions from the vision to drink the water of the local spring, now miraculously clear, and establish a channel there. In the sixteenth of eighteen sightings the figure identified herself (in the local Gascon dialect) as “the Immaculate Conception”.
Though many neighbours were convinced that mental illness lay at the root of these visions, a Church investigation pronounced them authentic. Visitors began to flock to the grotto in Lourdes and so many claimed miraculous healing that the site has become a major destination of pilgrims for the last century and a half. Five million visits are now made annually.
Bernadette joined the Sisters of Charity and lived as a nun until her death in 1879. She was canonized in 1933 and ten years later Jennifer Jones won the Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of the saint in The Song of Bernadette.