(Essentials of European Literature)

In Lourdes the Soubirous family had fallen into pitiful poverty. Francois Soubirous, having lost the mill whose products provided a livelihood for his family, was reduced to taking odd jobs that he could beg from the prosperous citizens of the little French village. His wife Louise helped out by taking in washing. Their combined earnings, scant and irregular, were insufficient for the care of the children. The family lived in the Cachot, a dank, musty building that had been abandoned as a jail because of its unhealthy conditions.

The oldest Soubirous child, Bernadette, was weak and suffered from asthma. She was considered, both by her schoolmates and her teacher, Sister Marie Therese, to be the most ignorant and stupid of all the children. Her ignorance extended even to religion. Although fourteen years old and the daughter of Catholic parents, she did not understand the meaning of the Holy Trinity. It was clear that little could be expected from the daughter of the poor and uneducated Soubirous family.

One day the children were sent out to gather firewood near the Grotto of Massabielle. Close to the grotto ran a small stream into which the offal of the town was emptied. Carcasses of dead beasts were swept along by the current, and earlier that day Francois Soubirous had dumped there a cartload of amputated limbs and filthy bandages from the contagion ward of the local hospital. It was rumored that the spot had once been the scene of pagan religious ceremonies.

Slower than the rest, Bernadette became separated from the other children and went to the cave alone. Suddenly, to her great astonishment, a strange light shone at the mouth of the grotto. She was unable to believe her eyes when a beautiful lady appeared before her. Dressed in blue, her face shining with brilliant light, her bare feet twined with roses, the lady smiled at the frightened child. Bernadette threw herself on her knees and prayed.

When the other children came upon her, they found her kneeling on the ground. After making the others promise to keep her secret, Bernadette told of her vision. The children nevertheless revealed her secret, and soon the whole town was laughing at stupid Bernadette. The next day she returned to the grotto and saw the lady once more. The vision told her to return each day for fifteen days.

When she returned again and again to the grotto, the townspeople were aroused. To the local intellectuals and the atheists, Bernadette’s vision was an example of ignorant superstition. To government officials, it was a plot of the Church against the state. To the Church, it was a dangerous event that could lead to disaster for Catholics....

(The entire section is 1094 words.)