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Bernadette Soubirous had just reached Massabieille, a rocky area outside the village of Lourdes, France, when a terrible wind almost took her to the ground. She was with her sister, Toinette, and neighbor, Jeanne Abadie, gathering firewood for the family's next meal.

Before her eyes, in the niche of a rock grotto, stood a Beautiful Lady radiating like the sun's reflection through the clearest of crystals. She was dressed in an exquisite ivory robe, held to her waist by a deep sapphire sash. Pearl rosary beads draped from her delicate hands anchored in prayer. Framing the woman's devout face was a long ivory mantle trimmed in gold that flowed to her feet, on which rested two golden roses. Bernadette, mesmerized by the Lady's beauty and grace, could barely reach for her rosary. Not a word was spoken between the two on this day, February 11, 1858, the first of eighteen apparitions.

"Penance," the Lady said repeatedly to Bernadette in the apparitions that followed. "Pray to God for the conversion of sinners." As a gesture of penance, the Lady instructed Bernadette to drink and bathe from a certain place near the rock grotto. Seeing no water, Bernadette began to scrape up and drink the mud there. "I am doing this for sinners," she said to those in the surrounding crowd who accused her of being mad.

Although the young visionary did attract believers, many ridiculed her among those, her mother. Bernadette half expected this response since the Lady had told her exactly one week after her first apparition, "I do not promise to make you happy in this world but in the next." Indeed, Bernadette did suffer humiliation and scorn from those closest to her.

The Lady issued Bernadette a second request: to have a chapel built on the site of her visits. The shy fourteen-year-old would have to approach the intimidating parish priest, the Abbe Peyramale, and convince him of the Lady's request; as with her mad act of drinking mud, Bernadette faced contempt. The abbe demanded that she ask the Lady to identify herself, and if the young girl came back without an answer, he'd dismiss her visions as hallucinations.

Bernadette received her desired answer on the Feast of the Annunciation, March 25,1858. "I am the Immaculate Conception,"' said the Beautiful Lady to the young girl. Ecstatic that she had an answer for the stubborn abbe, Bernadette started for the rectory. Although she, poor and uneducated, did not understand the words of the Lady, Bernadette repeated her message to the abbe, who anxiously awaited some madeup nonsense. Upon hearing the words Immaculate Conception he was convinced that the Mother of God had, indeed, been appearing to the young girl; he knew that the Church had just issued the doctrine regarding the Immaculate Conception, declaring that the Blessed Virgin was free of original sin from her conception.

The once scorned Bernadette was, at last, vindicated in her lifetime. A small chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Lourdes was erected in 1866, two years after Bernadette joined the Sisters of Nevers. And the mudhole she had previously scraped, once the subject of much ridicule, now daily gushes forth 32,000 gallons of water that has healed and renewed thousands of believers. Lourdes has become the most popular healing and pilgrimage site in the world.

The apparitions at Lourdes were confirmed by the Church on January 18, 1862. Close to sixteen years later, in 1879, Bernadette Soubirous passed on, but her body, placed in the Sisters' chapel, has never decomposed. Bernadette was canonized December 8,1933.'

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