By Regina Linskey
Catholic News Service
LOURDES, France (CNS) -- St. Bernadette Soubirous was 14 years old, poor, illiterate and did not know the catechism enough to make her first Communion when Mary appeared to her in the grotto at Lourdes.
Though St. Bernadette lived in poverty, she was born into a family with comfortable means. Her mother, Louise, and father, Francois, took ownership of her grandfather's mill outside Lourdes, a small town of about 4,000 people in the Pyrenees Mountains. The family was living comfortably when St. Bernadette was born in the Boly Mill Jan. 7, 1844. She was the first of nine children.
But times got bad for the family. In April 1845, St. Bernadette's younger brother died. He was the first of five of the family's children who would die in childhood.
Three years later, St. Bernadette's father lost his eye in a work accident. Eventually, the family lost the mill and their money due to poor business decisions. By 1854 Francois Soubirous was a day laborer and Louise Soubirous was working, but the money was not enough. They gave up St. Bernadette, first as a servant to her aunt, then to help on a farm outside Lourdes.
In 1857, the family could no longer pay rent and sought shelter from one of Louise's cousins, who offered the bottom floor of his house -- a former town jail, or a cachot. That same year, St. Bernadette's father was falsely accused of stealing and was imprisoned.
St. Bernadette returned to Lourdes for catechism classes in 1858. On Feb. 11 that year, St. Bernadette, her sister and a friend went looking for wood. As she was taking off her stockings and shoes to cross a canal, she heard a gust of wind and saw a young woman dressed in white. That was the first of 18 Marian apparitions.
But St. Bernadette shunned the attention that followed. She sought seclusion and entered religious life with the Sisters of Charity and Christian Instruction at Nevers, France. She remained hidden from the world and died in 1879 of tuberculosis of the bone. She was canonized in 1933. Her body is incorrupt and venerated at the altar of the Nevers convent.
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