Since the Blessed Virgin
Mary graced the grotto
of Lourdes with Her presence in 1858, it has been one of the
most popular of the worlds' Marian shrines. Many people have knelt
at the famous rock and prayed to Saint Bernadette, who saw the
Immaculate Virgin on eighteen occasions. And yet many people do
not know that the body of Saint Bernadette lies incorrupt in the
chapel of the Convent of Saint-Gildard at Nevers, and that this
convent is open to the public.
Today, the Convent
of Saint Gildard carries on the message of Lourdes, praying
for poor sinners and bringing God to mankind in the same way He
Himself chose - through His Immaculate Mother, Mary. Many pilgrims
visit the convent on their return from Lourdes, others come out
of curiosity, perhaps disbelieving that Bernadette's body is indeed
perfectly preserved. The air of reverence and silence follows
closely on the realisation that this is fact rather than fantasy.
Bernadette died on 16th April
1879. Her body was buried in the small chapel dedicated to St.Joseph,
within the convent grounds. In September of 1909, Bernadettes
body was exhumed, as part of the process leading to her eventual
canonisation. The hollowed-out tomb was extremely humid - her
habit was very damp, the rosary held in her hands was rusted and
her crucifix had turned green. Yet despite this, the body itself
was perfectly preserved. Two further exhumations (in April 1919
and April 1925) were carried out. At the third , the skin was
found to have discoloured slightly in places, due probably to
exposure to the air following the forty-six years of burial. Because
of this, the firm of Pierre Imans in Paris made light wax coverings
for the face and hands. By June of 1925, the Cateland workshop
in Lyon had finished the gilt and crystal reliquary which was
to be the final resting place of the saint; the light wax masks
were placed on the face and hands and the body was placed in the
shrine. The same month, Pope Pius XI beatified Bernadette - she
could now be called "Blessed" and her remains could
be publicly venerated.
In August, the shrine was
ceremonially placed in the main chapel of the convent, and the
long line of pilgrims began to visit the convent. In 1933 Bernadette
was declared a Saint - appropriately, this took place on December
8th, feast of the Immaculate Conception.
The Lady of Lourdes had kept
the promise She made to Bernadette in 1858 - "I do not promise
to make you happy in this world, but in the next".
The warm, dry weather makes
long walks in the grounds very pleasant. Its very easy to imagine
Bernadette herself walking here, especially as there have been
few changes since that time. Behind the convent, at the end of
an avenue of chestnut trees, is the tiny chapel dedicated to St.Joseph.
This was one of Bernadettes
favourite places for quiet prayer, as she had a fond love of the
Spouse of Mary. It was later to become her resting place during
the forty-six years of her burial. It is very plain and simple,
with a stained-glass window of Our Lady above the small altar.
Inset into the wall is the tombstone from Bernadettes original
At the bottom of the garden
is the statue of Our Lady of the Waters - this was Bernadettes
favourite statue; "It has something of the beauty I saw"
she used to say about it. It was placed here following the discovery
of a spring nearby, hence the name.
Upstairs in the convent is
the Sante Croix (Holy Cross) Infirmary. This is the room in which
Bernadette died in April 1879, having entered the "white
chapel" of her sick-bed the previous December.
It is now a chapel proper,
used by the Sisters themselves for quiet prayer. Although not
generally opened to members of the public, I was graciously allowed
to pray there quietly for a while. There is an inspirational atmosphere
in this room, stemming from the knowledge that this is where the
thirty-five year old sister spent the last months of her life
before once more seeing the heavenly smile of her Beautiful Lady.
Bernadette's long periods
of illness were never wasted on self-pity or bitterness - each
became for her an opportunity of self-knowledge and personal and
spiritual growth. For her, illness was not a burden but a special
gift from her loving God, whose supreme gift was the Cross.
It is almost one hundred
and sixteen years since Sister Marie-Bernarde died, but her presence
is everywhere in Saint-Gildards convent. And from June 1995, the
civil authorities in Nevers will stage a daily pageant in the
town (with a cast of four hundred) to celebrate her life and message.
The spirituality and holiness of this humble servant of God remain
a focus and an inspiration for many.