In this scholarly biography, Thérèse Taylor places Bernadette in the context of her time. She explains who Bernadette was, and how she lived and died, but takes no position on whether or not her visions were genuine. It sympathetically examines how Bernadette coped with the fame her experience thrust upon her.
360 pp. Burns and Oates: A Continuum imprint. To purchase this book online, go to www.continuumbooks.com
List of Plates
PART I – LOURDES: THE MAKING OF A SHRINE
PART II – NEVERS: THE AFTERLIFE OF A VISIONARY
8. ‘Dedication to perfection’: life, work and death among the Soeurs de Nevers
9. ‘I have come here to hide myself’: life in the novitiate, 1866-1867
10. ‘Watching over the sentiments of my heart’: religious life at St Gildard
11. Silence of the self: Bernadette as a Sister of Nevers
12 Atrocious sufferings: the deathbed, 1875-1879
I first heard the story of Saint Bernadette when I was in primary school. I was a boarder at St Mary’s Catholic School, Warracknabeal, a small town in the west of the Australian state of Victoria. This would have been in the mid-1960s.
The visitor’s information page for this town explains that: ‘Warracknabeal is a delightful country town … residents enjoy an inland desert climate of mild winters and hot summers.’
That is how I remember it, with some accent on the hot summers. Under the harsh and bright sunlight, we lived in European-style buildings, and the Sisters of Mercy wore their traditional habit derived from the traditions of nineteenth-century Ireland. People still chanted liturgical prayers in Latin, although we pupils did not learn to do that. Newer forms of worship were being phased in.
The school offered a good education, and we owed a great deal to the idealism and dedication of generations of Catholics who had built up these amenities during earlier decades when their communities were isolated and money very scarce. The Sisters worked to provide their pupils with the necessities of life, and also spiritual values and charity for one another. However imperfectly it was lived out, the Catholic Church promoted an ethos of community and scholarship.
Along with our lessons, we learnt of a world beyond the wheat fields, and a religious history of saints, sufferings, visions, miracles and triumphs over adversity. This cultural heritage tied us to other nations, and centuries across time. I liked the stories of the saints, and listened with awe to accounts of the travels of St Francis Xavier, the charity of St Martin de Porres, and the visions of St Bernadette.
Catholic history was extremely mythic. It was full of symbolism and dramatic events. However it was not entirely removed from the ordinary study of the humanities, and when Sister Giovanni read us the story of St Martin de Porres, she explained what is meant by the term ‘half caste’, and how racial difference impacts people’s lives in colonial societies. We had not, in fact, learnt that in relation to Australian history – people in my generation tended not to discuss the story of indigenous Australians.
Neither did we learn much of the history of France, and for a long time, the only French historical characters I knew of were Napoleon, Joan of Arc and Saint Bernadette. Bernadette was especially easy to remember. She was the little shepherd girl who saw visions of the Virgin Mary, who caused a miraculous spring to flow from the ground, and she then became a nun and died young. The stories of this saint were particularly traditional and associated with the rosary, and grottos which were a pious decoration for gardens.
Saint Bernadette was like a holy card come to life. However, from the very first time I heard it, it seemed to me that there was some other side to the story.
What was it like to become a famous visionary? The quotations from Bernadette expressed her unwillingness to play for fame, her withdrawal from pilgrims’ questions. This was because she was humble, apparently. But what if, aside from being humble, she disliked it? There was so much in her life for other people, so little for herself. Or so it seemed to me.
This sense of an untold tale, of an event which has been cast into the shadows by a grand structure, is a link between childish musings and sophisticated scholarship.
Cultural theorists, historians and other scholars have given particular attention to the way that the figure of the young woman is used to promote everything from nationalist myths to car advertisements. At the University of Sydney, where I researched by PhD thesis in the early 1990s, I had the benefit of hearing of the research of scholars in the fields of Fine Arts and Philosophy. Their insights were of inestimable value for my own work on Saint Bernadette, and helped me to understand how visual images reflect actuality and dreams, tangible flesh and controlling ideologies – all at the same time. Bernadette was a person both real and imagined.
My doctoral thesis was on the visions at Lourdes, and gave a detailed study of the years 1858-1866. Like any thesis, it was a monograph, leaning heavily on primary sources, and making each point with reference to the works of other scholars. A dull tome, in some ways, but of course I was proud of it. Having finished the thesis in 1995 I was all the more convinced that a scholarly biography of Saint Bernadette was needed.
This biography, which I wrote from 1995 to 2002, was a lengthy task of which I never tired. Readers of this book might be relieved to know that publishers do set limits to the length of texts – if they had not done so, this book which you are holding might be three times the size that it is. I felt that I could have gone on forever, telling people of the history of the Pyrenees, of the vicissitudes of the Soubirous family, of the paths trod by Bernadette in her journey from being a penniless child servant to being a refined and esteemed Sister of Nevers.
The Pyrenees region of France is fascinating in itself. Centuries of history show it to be a marginal territory, with an abundance of folklore, extremists, heretics and ghosts. From the time of the Albigensian crusade until today, the barren heights and secretive valleys of the Pyrenees have produced endless speculations about the divine. It is truly holy ground. In our own time, a series of popular novels, and speculative ultra-histories such as Holy Blood and Holy Grail, fixed on Pyrenean churches and villages which preserved myths of a counter-Christianity, with lost gospels and sacred descendants (1). One would be very surprised to find any of these stories confirmed as an objective truth. But one is not surprised at all that the Pyrenees continues to be the site of so many waking dreams.
Among the advantages of having written on Bernadette is that I have been brought into contact with other researchers working on gender, religion and life writing. In particular, Elizabeth West’s life of Mary Potter, the foundress of the Little Company of Mary (2), and Mary O’Connell’s forthcoming history of Eileen O’Connor, the founder of Our Lady’s Home in Sydney, have begun as theses which I supervised. I have learnt a great deal from my students, and when reading recent books in the wider field of religious studies, such as The Women of Karbala: Ritual Performance and Symbolic Discourses in Modern Shi’i Islam, I am reminded of how much there is to record and explain (3). Studies of representations of women, such as Nadia Valman’s The Jewess in Nineteenth-Century British Literary Culture, also elucidate the production of ideal figures and imagery, which make women the markers of cultural exchanges between religious and ethnic groups (4). All of these texts touch on notions of virtue, of sacrifice, and of women’s role in enacting both holiness and cultural stereotypes. These themes are also explored in this biography.
I often thought it strange that, until my own work was published, there was no historical biography of Bernadette. As early as 1892 Emile Zola had written that: ‘A life of Bernadette, made by a mind like mine, and fully documented, would be the most interesting story in the world. But a history, not a novel (5). After saying this, Zola went on to write a novel.
Although Bernadette Soubirous escaped the attention of historians, Saint Bernadette of Lourdes is the subject of a vast devotional literature. There are numerous hagiographic works, and many of them are well-researched and beautifully written. There are also document collections which have been assembled by the Catholic Church. Lourdes scholarship is indebted to Père Laurentin for his edited collections of primary sources, and to Père André Ravier for his collections of her letters. These volumes appeared during the 1960s and 1970s. The clerical scholarship has been scrupulously accurate, non-sentimental and aware of historical context.
Even before the Lourdes documents were edited and printed, several lives of Saint Bernadette appeared which met high standards of religious scholarship. Père Trouchu’s Sainte Bernadette de Lourdes appeared in 1956, and has stood the test of time. This is a masterpiece of religious biography, explaining how Bernadette lived and why she became a saint. The major and minor themes of her life are set out effortlessly, although not all would agree with the writer’s serene view of Bernadette’s life as an unbroken spiritual ascent. Insights into the sadness and difficulties of Bernadette’s life were more clearly expressed in Père Petitot’s 1935 work, Histoire exacte des apparitions de N.D. de Lourdes à Bernadette (6).
Despite the value of these writings, and many other books about Bernadette, the need for a scholarly biography is evident. The purpose of the religious writers is to assess the reality of the apparitions at Lourdes, to persuade the reader of their significance, and to relate the life of Bernadette in terms that make her a figure of spiritual inspiration. The purpose of this book is to put her within the context of her time. I do not assert the reality of the visions, and can offer no new information which would help the reader to make up their own minds about this. Indisputably, various claims were made, by Bernadette and those around her, and a narrative evolved from them. A chain of events were then set off which made her one of the most famous women in France.
Bernadette is remarkable for her contact with the significant themes of nineteenth-century France. She was one of the few peasant women who became a public figure, and she did so at a time when the peasantry were ideological and artistic symbols in an industrializing society. Bernadette lived during the era when Millet exhibited in Paris salons, when rural resorts were professionalized into a tourist industry, and when the pre-modern past was enlisted into the political discourse of both the left and the right. She was also a display of youth, purity and virginity in a society which had become obsessed with categorizing women in these terms – or their opposites. In a sense, she was a living myth.
As a work of history, this biography is obliged to attempt to provide a rational answer to a difficult question. Why did Bernadette attain such a special status? Why is she uniquely celebrated’? After all, it is not uncommon for Catholic women and girls to claim to see visions. Bernadette was not even the only visionary in Lourdes, much less in France. My account gives an explanation which depends upon contingent factors – the situation of Lourdes, the power of the media, and the attractions of Bernadette’s persona.
All biographies are written of their own time, as well as that of their subjects. A late twentieth-century theme which has strongly marked my work is an awareness of celebrity. Celebrity is a public status which makes a person the focus of obsessive love, curiosity and adulation. We are more aware of this now than ever before, but the beginnings of media-driven fame had first appeared in the 1860s – exactly the era when the Lourdes visions became known. Bernadette became a well-known individual because of the printed media and photographic prints. She had an image, and a public identity, quite separate from her own life, and these autonomous forces came to dominate her individual existence. Bernadette was an early traveler on a path which has since been followed by many. When reading this book, one will be reminded of other women who have caught the public’s eye, and have been celebrated for their feminine qualities. Bernadette’s life is not simply a religious story. One can see clear pre-figurings of the public gaze which fixed upon people such as Marilyn Monroe and Diana, the Princess of Wales.
Much of Bernadette’s life was spent coping with irrational sensationalism. She coped well, and emerges as a person of dignity. From quite an early age – as only an adolescent girl – she is remarkable for her refusal either to engage with fame or to fashion herself according to public responses. Bernadette was loved by innumerable people who did not know tier. Their fascination with the holy young girl of Lourdes created a situation which restricted her life and distanced her from her own people. Like most people with admirers, she had few experiences of friendship. Bernadette’s calm response to celebrity status, and her acceptance of the lonely life it imposed upon her, are qualities which have rarely been discussed by religious writers. I do not agree with the Catholic authors who claim that Bernadette is a particularly good example for girls, or for women in general. The circumstances of her life were so peculiar that it is difficult to draw a lesson from them. But I would maintain that she is an excellent example for those few people whose lives oblige them to exist in the public eye. She seems to have had an inner center of balance, untouched by the hysteria of shared enthusiasms.
Among the original material included in this book is full details of the astonishing way that historians persecuted Bernadette during her last months of life. Writers such as Andre Ravier and René Laurentin have mentioned that the historians of the Grotto made many demands upon Bernadette, but the full story of these inquisitions has not been told. The endless interrogations about every detail of the visions, and the demands of rival historians, ate away at Bernadette. Along with tuberculosis, they are one of the things that killed her. Many people have the impression that Bernadette suffered at the Convent of Nevers, because she was persecuted by her religious superiors, and treated with the rigour which was an established custom in such institutions. I discuss these claims in this book, and in particular look at her conflicted relationship with her novice mistress. My own assessment is that Bernadette’s life was not blighted by such difficulties. The severity of religious superiors can easily be overstated. It is the awful demands of the religious historians which have been overlooked.
It is my belief that Bernadette’s life had three levels. There was her life as an individual, her life as a celebrity, and her spiritual experiences. This last aspect has already been examined by writers qualified in theology. I consider only the first two factors. and I do not think that this biography exhausts either of them. Much more could be said about Bernadette’s fame and reputation, and I hope that in future she will be included when scholars talk about representations of women in nineteenth-century France. In this purpose, my work resembles that of Rachel Brownstein, who has studied the actress Rachel, (a contemporary of Bernadette) and has considered both the life and the legends which existed around her (7).
René Laurentin has cited the saying, which is found in many books about Lourdes, that Bernadette is ‘the most hidden of the saints’ (8). There are numerous records of Bernadette’s life, but they record Bernadette being displayed by others, being circumspect in response to them, or repelling attention. She never had any inclination toward self-representation, or confidences, or communicating her version of events. Unlike most saints, she was not famous for what she said or did, but for what others saw in her.
Even before she became a visionary, Bernadette’s life had been one of change and upheavals. Her family had once been prosperous, but the family inheritance, a Lourdes mill, was lost by her parents. They did not have the management skills of the family’s previous generation. Bernadette was the eldest child, and could probably best remember the early years of comfort and then the downward spiral of slum lodgings and unpaid rents. At the age of thirteen, she was sent to live as an unpaid child-servant in a nearby village, as her parents could not afford to keep her. But the post was unsatisfactory, and Bernadette returned home in February 1858. A few weeks later, on a cold February day, she went wood gathering, and saw a beautiful ‘White Lady’ standing in the Grotto of Massabielle. This was the beginning of the visions, which eventually caused thousands to flock to the Grotto where they watched her experience trances and emerge with messages from the White Lady. Eventually, these apparitions were accepted by the Church as genuine appearances of the Virgin, and Bernadette was a figure of admiration all over the Catholic world. She had only eighteen visions, over a few months in 1858, but they altered her status forever.
Those who visited Bernadette during her years of fame were impressed by her indifference to public opinion. To a priest in the 1860s, her statement that ‘if anyone does not want to believe me, then they are free to do so, it does not concern me’ (9) seemed evidence of her modesty. One might wonder if this was not merely the literal truth, and if, as many of her actions indicated, she was unconcerned about the fate of the story of the apparitions. Yet it is also possible that she was aware that her impassive demeanour was part of her credibility, and that she reacted skillfully to people’s need to believe her. An early observer precisely noted the sources of charm and plausibility in her manner when he wrote that he was struck by the ‘form of indifference with which she spoke; the natural charm which I never the less found in her narration; the assurance and her answers; the naivete of her reflections’ (10).
Another observer found these recitals rather suspect. Frère Leobard, a resident of Lourdes, said that he had considered her closely and often asked himself ‘if she was not rather an adroit actress rather than a sincere visionary’ (11). The Police Commissioner made the same point during the period of the visions, in 1858, and put a more openly hostile construction on it: ‘Bernadette is very intelligent: she understands the important role she plays for the public, and she appreciates the benefits (douceurs)’ (12).
The Police Commissioner may have been making a genuine point, for it seems impossible that any genuinely naive and innocent peasant could have played the role of naivete and innocence as effectively as Bernadette did during the stressful years after 1862. Trapped by her family’s obligations and her own renown, she battled amid public exploitations and failing health to preserve her own identity. It is conceivable that during the controversy over the Grotto she had enjoyed a respite from the powerlessness and unimportance which had been her sole experience of life until 1858. Yet, having become a renowned person, she made no move to use her status or improve her situation. She left the development of the Grotto to those who took responsibility, and showed no inclination for the type of promotions which the Church authorities organized around her after 1860.
According to my reading of events, the conclusive turning point of Bernadette’s life was not the visions in 1858. Although these changed other people’s view of Bernadette, she herself refused to change her way of life. She remained with her family, and – when not interrupted by visitors – worked each day in ordinary tasks. Having left school, she even had some paid employment as a servant. But the feckless habits of her parents, and their inability to manage their finances, led to her exile from home. Just as they had sent her to Bartres as a child in 1857, they were obliged to send her to the Lourdes convent as a sixteen year old in 1860. The Catholic Church took over the custody of Bernadette, and her life on public display began in earnest. Whatever the benefits of being a visionary in 1858, they vanished quickly enough, and Bernadette’s quality of life had deteriorated disastrously by the time she left Lourdes in 1866.
At Nevers, Bernadette was exiled from the Pyrenean culture of her home, her childhood and her visions. Yet she made the difficult transition to her post-1866 life as a Soeur de Nevers with unfaltering perfectionism. At the convent, she was offered a sanctuary from the public, in return for a strict and repressed existence among women from much more elevated social backgrounds than her own. With notable fortitude, and in an environment where her every fault was noted, Bernadette faced boredom, isolation, snubs, and the exacting standards of the religious rule. In 1872, she developed a rare and agonizing variety of tuberculosis which infected the marrow of her bones rather than her lungs. Her stoic attitude did not alter throughout the long illness, which finally ended her life in 1879.
Bernadette’s only advice to the historians of Lourdes was to mind that they did not write too much. ‘Out of the wish to embroider things, one disfigures them’ (13). Bernadette’s passivity was one of the reasons why a very strong public image could be constructed around her. In refusing to interact with her fame, she did nothing to contradict it. Her retiring nature also makes her very different from the other women who entered the historical record through French Catholicism. In particular, the other young woman saint of the nineteenth century, Thérèse of Lisieux, found posthumous fame through an autobiography which vividly communicates her childhood memories and interior feelings. This is in complete contrast to Bernadette. Bernadette wrote as little as possible, although her collected letters, notes and resits of the visions do fill a respectably-sized single volume.
In recent years, the apparitions at Lourdes have attracted attention from scholars. Thomas Kselman’s Miracles in Nineteenth-Century France put visionary experiences at the center of a firmly historical work. Previous to this, the writings of Edward Berenson, James McMillan, and other historians, have shown that religion needed as much attention from historians of Europe as from those of the Third World, where it is a more acknowledged focus of study. Most recently, Ruth Harris’ Lourdes: Body and Spirit in the Secular Age (14) has provided a detailed history of the shrine, and has fully contextualized the pilgrimage movement as part of the history of France. French historians have already published works in which Lourdes was considered as a part of larger pictures. Jean-Francois Soulet’s Les Pyrénées au XIXe siecIe (15) is a marvelously rich history, Isaure Gratacos’ folklore studies of women in the Pyrenees are profound (16), and specialized tourist studies such as Michel Chadefaud’s (17) are also important.
Bernadette was not a visionary who preached or proclaimed a message. She was a disadvantaged person – poor, young, and rural – who captured the imaginations of those who lived far from her. It was they who made most of the significant moves in the history of Lourdes. But she was, still, important to the story which grew beyond her. Without Bernadette, there would be no shrine at the Grotto.
LDA: René Laurentin et al., eds, Lourdes, Documents authentiques, vols 1-7, Lethielleux, Paris 1958-66.
RdAM: Homage à la bienheureuse Bernadette Soubirous, Revue d’ascétique at du mystique 10 (1929). Printed testimonies from the Cros archive.