In the Footsteps of Bernadette Soubirous

Bernadette Soubirous was born in Lourdes, France, in 1844. At 14, she had visions of the Virgin Mary. In 1866, she entered the novitiate in Nevers and spent the rest of her life in prayer and seclusion. She died willingly accepting her sufferings. Pope Pius XI authenticated her visions and canonized her.

In the Footsteps of Bernadette Soubirous

Life of Bernadette

Born: Lourdes, 1844 | Died: Nevers, 1879 | Canonized: 1933

Bernadette Soubirous was the eldest of nine children from a poor family. She suffered from frail health. Her father was a miller.

Between February 11 and July 16, 1858, at the age of 14, she had a series of visions of the Virgin Mary in the nearby Massabielle Grotto. During the visions, Mary identified herself as "the Immaculate Conception," among other messages and affirmations. She instructed Bernadette to build a chapel there. Bernadette transmitted Mary's messages faithfully but tried to escape public attention by entering a local boarding school run by the Sisters of Charity of Nevers.

Massabielle Grotto Bernadette Soubirous apparitions Virgin Mary Lourdes
Massabielle Grotto

In 1866, Bernadette was granted admission into the novitiate in the motherhouse at Nevers, where she completed her religious instruction and spent her remaining years in prayer and seclusion. Despite constant sickness and pain, she was known for her kindliness, holiness, and wit. She died willingly accepting her great sufferings in faithful fulfillment of Our Lady's request for penance.

Pope Pius XI authenticated her visions and the veneration of Mary as Our Lady of Lourdes. He also canonized Bernadette. The chapel of the St. Gildard convent in Nevers houses her incorrupt body.

Pilgrimage Route

To follow in Bernadette's footsteps in Lourdes, we can explore the following places.

Boly Mill

Boly Mill (Moulin de Boly) is the place where Bernadette was born on January 7, 1844, and lived with her parents for 10 years. She called it the "water mill of happiness.” You can see the room where she was born, the kitchen, and an old water-mill with grindstones that was fixed up in 2012.

Sacred Heart Parish

The current parish church, which conserves Bernadette’s baptismal font, was constructed between 1875 and 1903. Father Peyramale's tomb is located in the crypt. This church replaced the old Saint-Pierre church which Bernadette used to attend before it was destroyed by fire in 1904.

The Dungeon

The Soubirous family faced difficult times, with François (Bernadette's father) losing his job during the winter of 1857. As a result, they had to move to the Dungeon (Le Cachot), which was a cold and dark single room of 16m² that used to be a prison until 1824. The family lived there until the fall of 1858.

On February 11, 1858, Bernadette went to the Massabielle Grotto from the Dungeon to collect dry wood. It was there that she saw Our Lady 18 times.

Old Presbytery

On March 2, 1858, Bernadette went to the Presbytery to meet with Father Dominique Peyramale, the priest of Lourdes. She shared with him the words the Virgin had spoken to her, "I am the Immaculate Conception." Today, a plate commemorates this event and part of the wall and door that Bernadette used to enter the garden are still preserved.

The Hospice

The Sisters of Charity of Nevers established the old hospice adjacent to the current Hospital Centre of Lourdes in 1834. When Bernadette returned from Bartrès in 1858 at the age of 13, she was unable to read or write. Therefore, she attended the school for girls from the countryside created by the Sisters of Nevers.

On June 3, 1858, Bernadette received her first communion in the hospice's chapel.

Lacadé Mill

The Lacadé Mill (Maison Paternelle) became the home of Bernadette's parents after the 1858 apparitions. Inside, you can see the furniture, objects, and pictures that belonged to the Soubirous family. The house is still managed by Bernadette's descendants.

Nevers (1866–1879)

On July 7, 1866, Bernadette, along with the Superior from Lourdes and two other girls, entered the Mother House in Nevers, also known as "St. Gildard." The following day, in front of 300 Sisters, Bernadette recounted her apparition story for the last time while still wearing her Pyrenean attire. She then started her religious training and made her first commitment to religious life on October 30, 1867, along with 44 novices.

Gestures at the Sanctuary

What should we do at Lourdes? Pilgrims here perform three gestures:

  1. touching the rock,
  2. drinking and washing in the spring, and
  3. lighting a candle.

These actions are identical to the ones Bernadette performed during the apparitions.

Touch the Rock


  • Maintain silence.
  • Upon entering the Grotto, make the sign of the Cross.
  • Contemplate the spring.
  • Touch and/or kiss the rock.
  • Say your prayer intention to Our Lady.
  • When leaving the Grotto, bow in silence before the statue of Our Lady.

Prayer for pilgrims:

O Mary, Our Lady of Lourdes, you here, present in this Grotto and you hear the prayers of all your children. Some you comfort, others you help discover their vocation by giving them the strength to say ‘yes.’ Today, like Bernadette, I too am entering this holy place following this great crowd of people from every nation and every language. As the Mother of Jesus and Mother of the Church, you see each one as a unique individual. Cast your gaze upon me and let the light of your Son dwell in and soothe my heart.

Hail Mary …
Our Lady of Lourdes, pray for us!
Saint Bernadette, pray for us!
Pilgrims touching the rock of Massabielle Grotto Lourdes France
Pilgrims touching the rock of Massabielle Grotto

Mary appeared to Bernadette 18 times between February 18 and July 16, 1858, in this Grotto. During Bernadette's time, the Grotto was dirty, hidden, and cold. Pigs used to seek refuge there. Our Lady's white attire, symbolizing her purity, stood out in this obscurity.

During the 3rd apparition, the Lady invited Bernadette:

Will you do me the honour of coming here for 15 days?

In the 13th apparition, Mary requested a **chapel to be constructed** on the rock (where the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception stands today):

Go and tell the priests that people are to come here in procession and to build a chapel here.

Last, in the 16th apparition, Mary revealed her name:

I am the Immaculate Conception.

Four years earlier, in 1854, Pope Pius IX declared the Immaculate Conception a dogma. Since news did not travel fast, at the time of the apparition in 1858, the dogma of the Immaculate Conception was known mainly to theologians and ecclesiastics. Bernadette could not have made it up. If she knew it as Mary’s name, somebody must have told her: Our Lady herself.


As we pass inside the Grotto where Our Lady appeared, we notice that the rock is smooth, polished by the loving caress of billions of pilgrims.

The rock has a strong biblical resonance. It is a metaphor for God:

The Lord is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer, my God, my rock in whom I take refuge (Psalm 18:2).

Jesus also built his Church on Peter, the rock:

And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church (Matthew 16:18).

Drink and Wash


  • Recite the Creed.
  • Drink from the palm of your hand.
  • Puts water on your face.

On February 25, 1858, in the ninth apparition, 300 people were present. Mary told Bernadette:

Go to the spring, drink and wash yourself there.

Bernadette said:

I found only a little muddy water. On the fourth try I was able to drink. She also made me eat some of the herbs that were near the spring, then the vision disappeared, and I left.

The crowd asked Bernadette:

Do you realise that doing these things makes us think that you are mad?

Bernadette replied:

It’s for sinners.

The water from the spring at the base of the Grotto has led to healings and still flows today. It healed Bernadette from a serious chest inflammation on April 28, 1858.

The water that flows from Massabielle Grotto is not holy water, but rather ordinary water. It represents faith and baptism. People who have been healed by drinking or applying the water were not cured because of its special properties, but because they had faith.

Light a Candle


  • Light and place a candle in the Chapels of Light.

Prayer for pilgrims:

Jesus, “Light from light, true God from true God." Bernadette told us: “I saw a small young lady enveloped in light who looked at me and smiled”. This light of your Immaculate Mother is the reflection of your Light, You the conqueror of evil, sin and death! You, the Risen Christ! Today I place my candle in this burner. Today or later it will burn in your presence. May it illuminate my joy, my gratitude, my thanksgiving, your forgiveness and your immense mercy. May it clear my doubts, extinguish my pain, my hurt, my suffering, my lost cause! It also symbolises my most secret thoughts, wishes and desires. May the storms of life not extinguish the flame of love! May I become like Him burning with love for You and for my brothers and sisters! You, who live and reign for ever and ever. Amen.

Hail Mary …
Our Lady of Lourdes, pray for us!
Saint Bernadette, pray for us!
Candles lighted by pilgrims at Lourdes France
Candles lighted by pilgrims at Lourdes

Every pilgrim in Lourdes carries a candle in the procession. Near the Grotto, over 700 tons of candles burn each year for you and those who cannot come. There are several reasons why people bring and light candles at Lourdes.

  1. From the fourth apparition onwards, on arriving at the grotto, Bernadette would light a candle and hold it in her left hand for as long as Our Lady was visible to her.
  2. Candles remind us of our baptism, through which we became children of God. A candle lit by the priest on the day of our baptism also symbolizes our duty to be "the light of the world" (Matthew 5:14).
  3. Candles represent the light of faith guiding us until the day of the resurrection.
  4. We light candles so that our prayers can continue even after we leave the Sanctuary.