On February 11, 1858, in southern France, Marie-Bernarde Soubirous, a 14-year-old French peasant girl, first claims to have seen the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ and a central figure in the Roman Catholic religion.
The apparitions, which totaled 18 before the end of the year, occurred in a grotto of a rock promontory near Lourdes, France. Marie explained that the Virgin Mary revealed herself as the Immaculate Conception, asked that a chapel be built on the site of the vision, and told the girl to drink from a fountain in the grotto, which Marie subsequently discovered by digging into the earth.
The concept of the Immaculate Conception, in which the Virgin Mary is regarded free from original sin from the moment of her conception, had been accepted just four years previous by Pope Pius IX. Marie’s claims garnered widespread attention, but skeptical church authorities subjected her to severe examinations and refused to accept her visions. After years of mistreatment at the hands of the authorities and the curious public, she was finally allowed to enter the convent of Notre-Dame de Nevers, where she spent her remaining years in prayer and seclusion. She died of ill heath at the age of 35.
The sight of her manifestations subsequently became the most famous modern shrine of the Virgin Mary, and in 1933 Marie-Bernarde Soubirous was canonized as St. Bernadette by the Roman Catholic Church. Today, millions travel to Lourdes every year to visit St. Bernadette’s grotto, whose waters supposedly have curative powers.