The convent of St Gildard in the little town of Nevers, France. The town dates back to the 13th Century. The convent sits on the hill, close to the River Loire, and on the other side of the park from the beautiful Cathedral, with it’s twin Altars.
Bernadette in her religious habit, sometime after 1866
The Infirmary of the Holy Cross, where Bernadette died in 1879. Now converted into a small chapel. Bernadette’s bed is on the right, marked by a cross. She died in the chair at the fireplace, before the statue of Our Lady of Lourdes; this statue still stands there on the mantelpiece.
The interior of the tiny Chapel of Saint Joseph, in the orchard of the Convent – Bernadette was buried and remained here until the exhumation at the time of her beatification.
St Bernadette’s shrine in the main Chapel of the convent. Her body is incorrupt.
The story of Saint Bernadette Soubirous did not end with the last appearance of Our Blessed Lady at Lourdes. Her life continued at the convent of Saint Gildard in Nevers, France, at the Motherhouse of the Sisters of Charity of Nevers.
It was to here that Bernadette came in 1866, taking the religious name ‘Sister Marie Bernarde’, and remaining there for thirteen years, until her death in the spring of 1879. And it was this part of her life that led to her being canonised as a Saint of the Roman Catholic Church.
Much has been written about what Bernadette said in various interviews and conversations, and in describing the events whcih had taken place at Lourdes. What is not so well known are the written words of Bernadette, revealing her own deepest thoughts and aspirations, particularly with regard to her religious life. What follows, then, is a look at what Bernadette wrote in the years after Lourdes.
Bernadette made her intention very clear regarding why she had come to Nevers – ‘I have come here to hide myself’, she said on many occasions. For so many years following Lourdes, she was little more than a curiosity – to common people, titled people, Priests, Bishops, and even those of no professed faith; all wanted to see the little visionary who had looked upon the face of Our Lady. Despite her intentions, life in the convent did not entirely preclude her continuing to be a spectacle for others. Always smart, however, Sister Marie Bernarde found some ingenious strategies for avoiding their curious gaze. Although she sought to hide from public scrutiny, she always remembered those who asked her prayers – ‘I will forget no-one’. Throughout it all, her intention remained pure; in 1873, she wrote in her personal notebook – ‘My own concerns no longer concern me; from now on, I must belong entirely to God alone. Never to myself’.
This personal notebook was filled mainly with her written thoughts during religious retreats, as well as some very beautiful original prayers, teogether with a few pieces she copied from religious books she had read, and which had touched her heart in a special way. She was clear in her perception of what her vocation would consist of – ‘I will not live a moment without suffering’.
This perception would turn out to be very intuitive – or perhaps the Lady had mentioned it during those days before the Grotto at Lourdes. Bernadette said the Lady had given her three secrets which were concerned her alone; one was a prayer for her personal use, which she never revealed; one may well have been to do with her vocation, based on a conversation she once had; and the other is unknown. In 1873, Sister Marie Bernarde wrote –
‘Continually dying to myself, peacefully supporting trials, I work, I suffer and I wish to have no other witness but His Heart.. here on earth, Love cannot live without suffering.. pure love cannot exist without suffering. O Jesus, Jesus, I no longer feel my cross when I think of Yours.. my gentle Jesus, give me a great love of the Cross’.
As time went on, Sister Marie Bernarde suffered greatly from physical illnesses – the severe asthma which had been her companion since childhood, an which nearly took her life on several occasions; and later on, the tuberculosis of the knee, which caused her intense pain and eventually resulted in her death. For her, the Cross was never far away; but in this Cross, she perceived clearly both the will of God and the path to sanctity.
Sister Marie Bernarde’s writings also reveal a deepening wisdom as her religious life progressed. She was never some simpleton who, because she had seen Our Lady, had shallow notions of saintliness; on the contrary, she knew only too well that her path to true holiness was to be dificult and arduous, often battling that most deadly of enemies – the self. She wrote –
‘Never fear temptation, it is necessary and useful to us. Be armed with prayer, have a boundless trust in God, great distrust of self, profound humility, blind obedience, easy and joyful, ready to put up with everything. Jesus crucified is my Model; I must work with energy to be like Him’.
During the retreat in which she wrote these words, she made a firm comittment based on them –
‘Resolution: energy to break my will in the very least detail.. Detachment from creatures and things. Watch over the feelings of my heart.. Community life, saintly life’.
The majority of Sister Marie Bernarde’s writings were either directed to – or in reference to – the Lord. But from time to time, she would address or concern herself with the Blessed Virgin, whose immaculate face she had gazed upon all those years before. Such was the case in a beautiful prayer she wrote, as though spoken directly to the soul by the Mother of God –
‘Courage, My child, you have found the precious pearl with which to buy the Kingdom of Heaven. Always love what God wills. Will it always.. Desire it always.. Do it always. It is the greatest secret of perfection, the key of paradise, the foretaste of the peace of the Saints. The more your heart is united to Mine, the more you will understand the truth of these words.’
She continued her intention to be always hidden, referring to this again in notes written during a retreat in September 1874 –
‘The prinicipal grace to ask for during this retreat is to live more and more hidden in imitation of Jesus and Mary.. detachment from others and myself.. for the past, abandonment; and for the future, trust.. Obedience carried out even to blind obedience; poverty as radical as evangelical poverty; mortification as far as crucifixion; humility until annihilation!’
The following summer, Sister Marie Bernarde’s writings make reference (unusually) to the events of Lourdes in 1858 –
‘Remember the words of the Virgin Mary: “Penance! Penance!” Suffer everything in silence for sinners.. silence, exterior and interior. Silence of words.. Silence of memory, of imagination, so silence of all your senses and thus constant mortification. Die to oneself to live for God, such must be our endeavour.’
On two separate pages, but still during this same retreat, she wrote –
‘Resolution: never to be discouraged, see the will of God in all that happens to me, thank Him for everything, thinking that it is for my greatest good that He allows it. Work to become indifferent to what my superiors or companions may say or think of me, withdraw myself from everything in order to apply myself only to please God and save my soul.’
Throughout the thirteen years of her religious life at the Convent of Saint Gildard, Sister Marie Bernarde sought one thing alone – the will of God. The cost of this was forgetfulness of all else, especially herself and her own will and desires. She was clear that in this way, with perseverance, and always hidden as far as possible, she would advance on the way of holiness. Her final spoken words, at the moment of her death, again echoed the summation of all she written throughout these years in the convent –
‘Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for me – poor sinner, poor sinner..’
Bernadette Soubirous entered the convent in July 1866 and she died there in April 1879. And in December 1933, she was declared a Saint of the Roman Catholic Church – not because she saw Our Lady, but because she was faithful to the message and mission of the Lady, living a life of deep sanctity as a result.
Saint Bernadette Soubirous, pray for us.