Faith and Life,  The Saints

Bernadette at Nevers

The incorrupt remains of St Bernadette Soubirous in the convent at Nevers.

In a few weeks time, the relics of Saint Bernadette Soubirous will visit Scotland as part of a wider tour of the United Kingdom, having already stopped at various locations in England. The Relics will come to Carfin Grotto, Scotland’s national shrine in honour of Our Lady of Lourdes, on 24 September, with a National Pilgrimage taking place the following day – this will include a torchlight procession and Mass celebrated by the Bishops of Scotland. The visit will offer many people the opportunity to venerate the Relics of this greatly-loved Saint.

St Bernadette is known throughout the world as the young girl who saw Our Blessed Lady at Lourdes on eighteen occasions between February and July 1858.

A few years later, Bernadette left Lourdes and travelled to a place called Nevers in the Loire Valley, France; there, she entered the Convent of St Gildard, to become one of the Sisters of Charity, being given the religious name Sister Marie Bernarde. She spent her remaining years there as a Sister, before dying in 1879 at the age of thirty-five. The day after her arrival, she was taken to the Novices Hall and instructed to relate just once, for all the Sisters assembled there (including some from other nearby convents), the full story of the appearances of Our Lady at Lourdes; after this, she was forbidden to speak of the events at Lourdes again, except whilst under interrogation by visiting bishops.

Bernadette was initially buried in the tiny chapel dedicated to Saint Joseph, at the end of an avenue of trees in the orchard to the rear of the convent. As part of the process of her beatification and eventual canonisation, her remains were exhumed on three occasions. They were discovered to be incorrupt and so eventually a gilded glass catafalque was made and placed in the convent Chapel – and it is within this that the body of the Saint has rested ever since.

As a child, Bernadette was the first Saint I ever learned about – and it was the first time I discovered that from time to time, Our Blessed Lady appears to certain people on earth. I was astonished, as I had no idea whatsoever. Bernadette instantly had a special place in my heart – which she retains to this day – and she has become a very good and trusted friend over the years, one I go to time and time again.

Now, while many people have visited Lourdes, they often do not realise that Bernadette’s remains are incorrupt and repose in the Chapel of her convent in Nevers – and this is open to the public.

I have had the pleasure of staying at the convent of St Gildard on several occasions, once for almost a week over Easter one year. The Sisters there are very hospitable and welcoming and they treat guests very kindly indeed. Nevers itself is an ancient and beautiful city, with a vast Cathedral dedicated to Ste Julitte and Ste Cyr, dating back to the thirteenth century; it is unusual in that it has twin Altars, one at either end. I was present there, in the company of all the Sisters from the convent, for the Easter Vigil that year and it was an exceptional service. I have very happy memories of all of us walking across the grand park to the Cathedral and of meeting the Archbishop, who very kindly blessed a Crucifix for me. The following day, Easter Sunday, the convent was closed to the public and so my sister (who was there with me) and I – the only guests that weekend – had the place to ourselves. I spent almost the entire afternoon in the Chapel a few feet away from Bernadette, just the Saint and I, as I prayed the Rosary – an experience I will never forget and for which I am immensely grateful.

Upstairs, there is the old Infirmary where Bernadette died, sitting in a chair by the fireplace. At that time, there was a statue of Our Lady of Lourdes on the mantel, next to which there was a piece of granite taken from the spot at the niche in Lourdes where Our Blessed Lady rested Her foot in the course of the appearances in 1858; the statue and the rock remain there still, while the chair is now downstairs in the museum near the entrance to the convent.

Also in this museum are the Rosary and Crucifix of Profession which Bernadette held in her hands throughout the time her body was buried. There is verdigris on the Crucifix and the Rosary is rusted now and the chain is broken, but both can be seen still. Together with these are some of the scapulars which Bernadette loved to make, along with her notebooks, some of her clothes and various other items.

At the bottom of the convent garden, close to the bordering wall which separates the grounds from the town beyond, there is a little niche which is almost hidden and which the visitor needs to go in search of. This niche contains a statue of Our Blessed Lady known as ‘Notre Dâme des Eaux’ – Our Lady of the Waters. Bernadette came to this quiet spot very often in her years at St Gildard and she commented that the statue “has something of the beauty I saw”.

It is tempting to think that Bernadette was declared a Saint because she saw the Blessed Virgin – this, however, was not the reason. Bernadette was canonised not because of how she lived at Lourdes, but because of how she lived the remainder of her life at Nevers. Her remaining years were marked by a profound and deepening holiness, expressed through the living out of the rule of the Congregation to which she belonged; by her profound humility; and by her joyful embrace of the intense sufferings which were characteristic of her entire life.

Entering the Chapel of the convent, the visitor immediately sees the glass shrine ahead, with the little one appearing to be only asleep within it – it is an arresting sight. This is the child who saw Our Blessed Lady and who heard Her say the words “I am the Immaculate Conception”; who prayed the Rosary eighteen times in Her company; and who declared that her Lady was “so beautiful that when one has seen Her once, one would willingly die so as to see Her again”. And it is the same child to whom the Mother of God said – “I cannot promise you happiness in this world, only in the next”.

Bernadette’s journey on earth is complete and she now shares that heavenly joy which the Blessed Virgin promised her. For us who remain on earth yet, the visit of the Relics of St Bernadette – or, better still, a visit to the convent in Nevers – are an expression of our hope that one day we, too, will taste something of that joy.

Catholic | Retired Nurse | UK

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