On 11 February 1858, St Bernadette, at the age of 14 first had a vision of the Blessed Virgin Mary. She was out with her sister and a friend collecting firewood at Massabielle, near her home town of Lourdes in the South of France.
I heard the sound of wind as in a storm. I turned towards the meadow, and I saw that the trees were not moving at all...
I went on taking my stockings off, and was putting one foot into the water, when I heard the same sound in front of me. I looked up and saw a cluster of branches and brambles underneath the topmost opening in the grotto tossing and swaying to and fro, though nothing else stirred all around.
Behind these branches and within the opening, I saw immediately afterwards a girl in white, no bigger than myself, who greeted me with a slight bow of the head; at the same time, she stretched out her arms slightly away from her body, opening her hands, as in pictures of Our Lady: over her right arm hung a rosary.
I was afraid, I stepped back. I wanted to call the two little girls; I hadn't the courage to do so. I rubbed my eyes again and again: I thought I must be mistaken.
Raising my eyes again, I saw the girl smiling at me most graciously and seeming to invite me to come nearer. But I was still afraid. It was not however a fear such as I have at other times, for I would have stayed there forever looking at her: whereas, when you are afraid, you run away quickly.
Then I thought of saying my prayers. I put my hand in my pocket. I took out the rosary I usually carry on me. I knelt down and I tried to make the sign of the Cross, but I could not lift my hand to my forehead; it fell back.
The girl meanwhile stepped to one side and turned towards me. This time, she was holding the large beads in her hands. She crossed herself as though to pray. My hand was trembling. I tried again to make the sign of the Cross, and this time I could. After that I was not afraid.
I said my Rosary. The young girl sligpped the beads of hers through her fingers, but she was not moving her lips.
While I was saying the rosary, I was watching as hard as I could. She was wearing a white dress reaching down to her feet, of which only the toes appeared. The dress was gathered very high at the neck by a hem from which hung a white cord. A white veil covered her head and came down over her shoulders and arms almost tot he bottom of her dress. On each foot I saw a yellow rose. THe sash of the dress was blue, and hung down below her knees. The chain of the rosary was yellow; the beads white, big and widely spaced.
The girl was alive, very young and surrounded by light.
When I had finished my rosary, she bowed to me smilingly. She retired within a niche and disappeared all of a sudden.
That was the first of almost twenty visions that St Bernadette had of Our Lady at Lourdes.
In that time, a spring miraculously appeared at the grotto, and people began to experience miraculous cures from it.
The Lady gave two public messages: the first was an urgent call to Penance, and the second was that Bernadette was to ask the priests to construct a chapel on the site.
And straight away, the simple but most obedient little girl went to face the lion in his den: the stern, apparently autocratic parish priest, Abbé Peyramale.
The Abbé took her into her house. She immediately gave her message: "Monsieur le Curé, the Lady of the grotto has ordered me to tell the priests that she wishes to have a chapel at Massabielle."
In a surly tone (as the girl remembers) the Abbé said: "What is this lady?"
"She is a very beautiful lady, all surrounded with light, who appears to me at Massabielle."
"I don't understand," said the Abbé, "How has this lady shown herself to you?"
Bernadette told the story simply and clearly, the story she had told the civic authorities previously. (Peyramale later told a friend that, as he listened, he had to force back the tears that rose to his eyes.) Without showing any visible emotion, when the girl was finished, the Abbé said:
"What is this lady's name?"
"I don't know"
"You have not asked her?"
"Yes, but when I ask her, she smiles but does not reply."
"And you assert that she has instructed you to tell me that she wants a chapel at Massabielle?"
At this firm assertion of the little girl, the excitable Abbé flared up. "Girl," he cried, "you are out of your mind! A lady who goes and perches on a rock, a lady you do not know, a lady who is perhaps as lunatic as you! This lady comes and tells you to invite us to have a chapel built for her! And you accept such messages? And you think we are fools enough to listen to them?"
Then calming down a bit: "Since you stick to this lady, find out first who she is, and if she thinks she has a right to a chapel. Ask her from me to prove it by making the rose-bush at the grotto flower immediately."
Bernadette asked several more times for the Lady's name, but the Lady continued to smile and tell her to ask the priests to build the chapel.
Then the visions stopped for three weeks. In that time, the Abbé could not help but notice not only the miraculous cures taking place in his parish, but also an incredible resurgence of the faith and a return to the sacraments by the townspeople.
Then on the Feast of the Annunciation, 25 March, Bernadette again experienced the 'irresistible urge' to go to the grotto. When she came with relatives, there were over a thousand people gathered there. The beautiful lady was already in the niche and waiting for her. The rosary and prayers were said, and during her ecstacy, the little visionary plucked up her courage and asked the beautiful visitor, once, twice, and then a third time: "Madame, will you be so kind as to tell me who you are?"
At the third entreaty, the Lady opened her arms and lowered them, letting the rosary slip down to her wrist, then she rejoined her hands, raised her eyes and delivered her secret: "I am the Immaculate Conception"
As she went from the grotto, Bernadette kept repeating these words which she did not understand; they were but sounds to her. And when she came before the Abbé Peyramale, she burst out without any formality: "I am the Immaculate Conception".
"What's that you say, you conceited little thing?"
"It is the Lady who has just said these words to me."
"Do you know what that means?"
"No, monsieur le Curé."
"I see you are still being deceived. How can you say things that you don't understand?"
"All the way from the grotto, I have been repeating, 'I am the Immaculate Conception'."
The Abbé sent her away with no sign of emotion. Mme Ribette, owner of the grocery store, recalls that M. Peyramale came in that morning for some goods, and said to her: "Listen to what Bernadette Soubirous has just told me the Lady said to her 'I am the Immaculate Conception'. I was so amazed that I felt myself stagger and I was on the point of falling."
The Bishop of Tarbes approved the Apparitions in 1862 after exhaustive investigations as to their authenticity:
"We judge that Mary the Immaculate, Mother of God, did truly appear to Bernadette Soubirous on 11 February 1858, and on subsequent days, to the number of 18 times in all, in the grotto of Massabielle, near the town of Lourdes."
Before Bernadette left Lourdes in 1866 to enter the novitiate of the Sisters of Charity in Nevers, she walked in procession to the grotto with the Children of Mary on the occasion of the blessing of the newly-build crypt of Lourdes' famous Basilica.