MONDAY, FEBRUARY 11: An event witnessed by a peasant just 155 years ago has sparked the production of millions of statues worldwide, during the first Marian apparition of Our Lady of Lourdes. On this date in 1858, a 14-year-old Bernadette Soubirous was collecting firewood and bones with her sister when she removed her shoes and stockings to wade through water near a grotto. Suddenly, Bernadette peered into a niche in the grotto to see a “dazzling light, and a white figure.” From February until July, Bernadette would see 17 more apparitions in this spot.
Born into a working class family, Bernadette spent long childhood hours at her father’s mill and suffered from asthma. It was during a cold day’s work that Bernadette experienced her first Marian apparition, and three days later, Bernadette returned to the grotto with holy water to “test” it; when the apparition welcomed the holy water, Bernadette deemed her blessed. (Wikipedia has details.) Bernadette’s state of ecstasy scared those around her, yet she continued returning to the grotto to pray and dig for a spring—all directed by the apparition. Word of the miraculous spring spread through Lourdes, and soon, pilgrims were flocking there for healing and cures. Investigations, medical tests and conflicts arose, but Bernadette continued to visit the grotto.
Various medical investigations have taken place at the Lourdes grotto since pilgrims first started flocking there, and because of this, many Lourdes cures deemed “officially miraculous.” (Pray a Nine Day Novena to Our Lady of Lourdes.)
Still, Catholics are not required to believe the accuracy of the apparitions at Lourdes, as they were private revelations and not public revelations. All recent popes have shown faith by visiting the Lourdes shrine, however, and Pope Benedict XVI commemorated its 150th anniversary in 2008.