French local history: Lourdes

What turned a quiet quarry town into a pilgrims’ hotspot: The Connexion reveals how five words changed the history of Lourdes

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In the early 19th century, Lourdes was a small, quiet town set around its chateau high on a rocky spur in the Pyrénées.

Its inhabitants worked in nearby marble quarries.

Tourists came to the region from far and wide, but Lourdes was just a stop on the way to the fashionable thermal spas.

Victor Hugo passed by on route to Cauterets in 1843 and the town only merited the briefest of notes in his diary: “Lourdes. Arrivée magique.”

Fourteen years later, a mystical apparition and the coming of the railway changed the fortunes of the town.

Today, Lourdes has the highest number of hotel rooms in France after Paris, to house the two million visitors who come each year.

Bernadette Soubirous was fourteen in 1858, when she saw her first apparition. She was uneducated, could not read or write and was the oldest of four children in a poor family.

Her father, a miller, had lost his job and their home when he was badly injured, and he was then sent to prison, accused of stealing.

On February 11 that year, Bernadette, her sister Toinette and a friend, Jeanne Abadie, walked to a cave. While the other two girls were looking for firewood, Bernadette heard a noise and when she looked up she saw a lady, surrounded by light, who looked at her and smiled.

This first apparition was followed by 17 others, up to July 16, 1858.

She told people what she had seen, but the elite of the town and the clergy did not believe her.

She was questioned several times by police, but never changed her story.

She had no idea who the vision might be, but eventually asked her name.

Head of Archives for Lourdes, Jean-François Labourie said her answer to this question finally convinced the Church and made the sightings so special: “The words were: ‘I am the Immaculate Conception’.

“This was a new religious dogma, only pronounced by Pope Pius IX four years earlier, and the young Bernadette in all likelihood had not heard the words before, or understood them.

“The questioning continued, however, and the apparition was not authenticated by the church until 1862.

“The Pope was particularly interested, because it seemed to him that the vision showed he had divine approval for his new dogma.”

Word spread rapidly and almost immediately the site attracted pilgrims: “Crucial to this was the growing railway network which could bring people, not just from France, but from all over Europe. Up to this day there has always been a special SNCF pilgrimage service.

“This differentiates Lourdes from medieval sites like Rocamadour and Santiago de Compostela, where pilgrims traditionally travel on foot.”

Initially, visitors went to the Grotto of the Apparitions.

Gradually, several structures were built; the Crypt in 1866, the 13th century gothic style Basilica of our Lady of the Immaculate Conception in 1876, the byzantine style Basilica of our Lady of the Rosary in 1901 and the underground Basilica of St Pius X for the centenary of the Apparitions in 1958.

As well as the shrines you can also visit the house Bernadette lived in when she saw the apparitions.

It shows the modest type of dwelling quarry workers lived in, before the transformation of the town, when visitors were rare.