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Lauren F. Winner

The Taciturn Virgin

How a teenager's vision resisted the disenchantment of nineteenth-century France.

Bernadette Soubirous might appear, at first blush, to be an unusual candidate for divine revelation. Small for her age (14, but she looked 11), Bernadette was among the poorest of the poor in the little French town of Lourdes, on the foothills of the Pyrenees. Her mother allowed her some modest indulgences: lice-ridden, malnourished, plagued by asthma, Bernadette alone among her siblings was treated to the luxury of stockings—she was particularly vulnerable to cold—and, because she could not digest the corn-mash bread that was the staple of the Pyrenean poor's diet, she occasionally was given a slice of wheat bread.

On February 11, 1858, while searching for wood with her sister and a friend near the river on the outskirts of Lourdes, Bernadette saw the first of 18 Marian apparitions that would catapult her and her hometown of Lourdes to international fame.

The white-clad female figure Bernadette saw in a grotto near the river was petite: Bernadette called her bien mignonnette, more little girl than lady. On the second day, Bernadette splashed the figure with holy water, a test the apparition, who calmly waited until Bernadette had run through almost an entire vial, passed with ease. Although by the fourth apparition sizable crowds were gathering at the Grotto, no one but Bernadette could see or hear the figure, whom Bernadette referred to as Aquero, patois for someone who was clearly not human but not definitely divine. On the day of the ninth apparition, the usually dignified visionary shocked the crowd: she clawed at the earth, and, uncovering a spring, gulped down mouthfuls of muddy water. At the thirteenth apparition, Aquero instructed Bernadette to tell "the priests" to come to the Grotto in a procession and to build a chapel there. On the Annunciation, March 25, Bernadette, encouraged by local authorities to determine the identity of the apparition, asked the white girl four times who she was. Finally, she replied "Que soy era Immaculada Councepciou," ...

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