The incorrupt body of St. Bernadette Soubirous
The Sleeping Saint of Nevers
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 grave.
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.Since the Apparitions, Lourdes had to deal with about 7000 cases of unexplained cures.
"To obey is to love!
To suffer in silence for Christ is joy!
Address [Chapelle du Couvent Saint-Gildard de Nevers]