Church Life,  Events,  The Saints

Bernadette After Death

The Relics of Saint Bernadette Soubirous arrived in Carfin Grotto, Scotland, this morning. St Bernadette is, and always has been, an immensely popular Saint of the Catholic Church. If the visit of the relics of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux to the Grotto in 2019 are anything to judge by, this visit by the little Saint of Lourdes will draw huge crowds from across Scotland, particularly as this is the only Scottish destination on the national tour of the relics.

Many know at least the basic details of the eighteen Appearances of the Blessed Virgin to Saint Bernadette at Lourdes in 1858, and some know that she lived the rest of her life amongst the Sisters of Charity and Christian Instruction, whose Order she joined after leaving Lourdes. She entered the Convent of Saint Gildard at Nevers, France, and remained there for the remaining thirteen years of her life, until her death on 16th April 1879.

The visit of Bernadette’s relics does not involve her entire body – this remains in the shrine at her Convent in France. But the tour involves particular relics, portion of the remains which were removed from her body; the relics here are a knee cap and a rib.

This raises a natural question of what exactly happened to the body of Saint Bernadette following her death?

Bernadette had suffered terribly from poor health all her life – initially from severe asthma, which remained for all her life; and then latterly from tuberculosis of the lung and a tubercular tumour on her right knee, which caused her immense pain. For the few days prior to her death, the other Sisters thought it likely she was about to die, and so they gathered around her and offered prayers to support her.

Pray for me, poor sinner, poor sinner..

Bernadette died at 3:15pm on the Wednesday of Easter week, within her Convent of Saint Gildard in Nevers, France, sitting in a chair by the fire in the upstairs Infirmary of the Holy Cross. She had been moved to the chair as she was unable to breathe lying down in bed. On the mantelpiece in front of her was a statue of Our Lady of Lourdes, beside which rested a small piece of rock from the very spot upon which the foot of the Blessed Virgin had rested. Both remain there today.

Following Bernadette’s death, she was first buried in a hastily-dug vault in a small chapel in the grounds of the convent. Here she remained for many years until the process of her eventual canonisation necessitated the exhumation, identification and examination of her remains. This process took place three on three occasions – first in 1909, then once again in 1919 and for a final time in 1925. Each time, civil and religious authorities gathered – the local Bishop, the Mother Superior of the convent, the mayor, medical doctors; they swore oaths, undertook the necessary procedures and testified to what had taken place. The convent retains the archives detailing what took place on each occasion. The convent has produced a wonderful and very detailed booklet entitled “The Body of Saint Bernadette”, written by Fr André Ravier, from which the accounts here are primarily taken.

Here is what happened between the death of Bernadette and her canonisation.

Chapel of St Joseph, where Bernadette was originally buried

Bernadette’s body remained remained on view by the public until the Saturday, then it was placed in a double coffin, the inner one made of lead; this was then sealed in the presence of religious and civil authorities, who acted as witnessed and testified to the events. The Sisters of Saint Gildard’s convent asked the authorities for permission to bury Bernadette in the convent grounds; despite being very unusual, that permission was given on 25th April.

At the rear of the cloisters there is a large apple orchard and in the middle of this there are two rows of trees; these lead to the little chapel dedicated to Saint Joseph and it was here that Bernadette would initially be buried. A vault was dug beneath the floor of the chapel and Bernadette’s coffin was lowered into this on 30th May 1879, during a very simple ceremony. Today, a simple Cross and a plaque recalls this place of burial.

Almost three decades later, the Episcopal Commission was established and began to examine Bernadette’s reputation for sanctity with a view to possible canonisation at some later point. As part of the first steps of the process, the remains of the deceased nun had to undergo an identification and examination. This was done on 22nd September 1909, and the archives in Saint Gildard’s Convent detail precisely what happened.

Early that morning, the Bishop of Nevers and other officials – the Mother Superior of the Convent, her deputy, the mayor and two medical doctors – met in the main Chapel of the Convent and each swore an oath on the Book of the Gospels, in front of the Tabernacle.

Then they moved to the little Chapel of St Joseph along with stonemasons and carpenters. The stone was removed from the vault and the coffin was exhumed and taken into the Convent. The outer wooden coffin was unscrewed and the inner lead coffin cut open.

The dignitaries were astonished to find the body completely intact and incorrupt, with no odour from the tomb. Her hands had moved to the side and her religious habit was damp. She still held the Rosary and the Profession Crucifix which had been placed in her hands at the time of her death – the Rosary was now rusted and there was verdigris on the Crucifix. Both items can be seen today in the little museum in the Convent and they are pictured in the photograph below.

Surgeons Dr Jourdan and Dr David were present and their written testimony says this –

“The face was dull white.. the nose was dilated and shrunken.. the mouth was slightly open. The hands, which were crossed on her breast, were perfectly preserved as were the nails. The hands still held a rusting Rosary.. When the habit had been removed and the veil lifted from the head, the whole of the shrivelled body could be see.. So rigid was the body that it could be rolled over and back fro washing. The lower parts of the body had turned slightly black. This seems to have been the result of the carbon, of which quite large quantities were found in the coffin..”

The body was washed, clothed in a new religious habit, put into a new inner lead coffin which was sealed and then placed within a new outer wooden coffin; this, too, was then sealed and returned to the grave by early evening.

In the hours it had been exposed to the air, the body had begun to blacken slightly. It was essentially mummified to a degree, with the stomach described as being “almost like cardboard”. But given the damp habit and the rusted Rosary, there had clearly been some ingress of water into the tomb – this, combined with the severe illness from which Bernadette had died, make it very surprising that anything was left at all at the time of the 1909 exhumation.

Bernadette’s profession Crucifix and her Rosary, both buried with her in 1879.

In the autumn of 1913, Pope Pius X formally allowed the Cause for Canonisation to proceed, declaring that Bernadette was now ‘Venerable’. A further ‘identification and examination’ of the remains was necessary but the First World War got in the way, so that the second exhumation did not take place until the first week of April 1919. As before, the Bishop were present along with other officials and doctors – on this occasion, Dr Talon and Dr Comte and with the Commissioner of Police. The procedure was the same as on the first occasion.

Examining the remains at this second exhumation, the doctors noted there was now some mildew and salt on the corpse, thought to be from the original washing of the body in 1909. There was also some deterioration in parts of the skin, though intact in most places. After the usual depositions and oaths, the body was buried once more in the early evening, in the original grave.

Bernadette’s Cause for Canonisation proceeded without issue and she was to be declared ‘Blessed’ – the final step before sainthood. And so a third exhumation had become necessary. Being declared ‘Blessed’ also meant that her remains could be venerated publicly and first-class relics removed; these were to be sent to Rome and would also be used in the altar stones of the altars of Catholic Churches.

This third exhumation took place on 18th April 1925 and as before, Dr Comte and Dr Talon were present and testified to what took place. Everything was then done precisely as on the two earlier occasions – oaths were sworn, the body was exhumed from the grave and taken to the Convent and the examination proceeded. Dr Comte testified –

“At the request of the Bishop of Nevers, I detached and removed the rear sections of the fifth and sixth right ribs as relics.. I also removed the two patella bones.. from this examination, I concluded that the body of the Venerable Bernadette is intact, the Skelton is complete, the muscles have atrophied (shrunken), but are well preserved. Only the skin, which has shrivelled, seems to have suffered from the effects of the damp in the coffin. It has taken on a greyish tinge and covered with patches of mildew.. but the body does not seem to have putrefied, nor has any decomposition of the cadaver set in, although this would be expected and normal after such a long time in a vault hollowed out of the earth.”

Writing in a medical bulletin a couple of years later, Dr Comte expressed his great surprise at the remarkable preservation of the internal organs – “I pointed this out to those present (at the exhumation), remarking that this did not seem to be a natural phenomenon.”

The body of St Bernadette in the shrine at the Convent of St Gildard, Nevers, France. Image – Convent of St Gildard

On this third occasion, once the relics had been removed the body was covered in bandages except for the face and hands, and then placed back in the coffin, which was left open.

Pierre Imans, a Parisienne sculptor, had been asked to make a wax mask of both the face and the hands, as it was thought the colour of the skin would be distasteful to the public viewing the remains later on.

Two months later, in June 1925, the Holy Father Pope Pius XI declared Bernadette ‘Blessed’.

A Shrine was being constructed by a firm in Lyons, made of gilt and glass, and this was ready by 18th July. On that date, the Sisters clothed the body of Blessed Bernadette in a new religious habit and placed a new Rosary in her hands. The light wax masks were carefully placed upon the face and hands of the new Beata and the Sisters of the Convent solemnly carried her to the Shrine, presently in the Novices Hall; two weeks later, that shrine was solemnly transferred to the little side chapel at the right hand of the Sanctuary in the main Chapel of the convent, where it remains to this day.

Eight years later, on 8th December 1933, Pope Pius XI declared Bernadette a Saint of the Catholic Church.

Today, visitors can go the Convent of St Gildard at Nevers, France. Entering through the gates of the Convent, the arched doorway to the Chapel is directly in front and upon entering, the Shrine is immediately there before you. Within it, the little one looks as though she is merely asleep and might awaken at any moment. It is hard to believe you are standing in the presence of the child who saw Our Lady at Lourdes, and who heard Her utter the words – “I am the Immaculate Conception”.

The Sisters at the convent are kind and gracious and make visitors feel very welcome, and they are happy to relate the story of the appearance of Our Lady of Lourdes. It is a timeless message of prayer, penance and conversion – as relevant now as it was in 1858, if not more so.


Catholic | Retired Nurse | UK

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