Lourdes: Yesterday, To-day and To-morrow

The Civil Authorities.

THE civic administration of the commune of Lourdes could hardly preserve an attitude of indifference while the events just related were taking place. It decided, indeed, without much loss of time, upon a course of hostility. At first the civil authorities merely disbelieved the tale repeated by those who had it from the child; but when the matter took the form of a strong popular movement, they took steps in opposition.

M. Jacomet, Commissary of Police, undertook the case. On the first of February, as Bernadette was leaving church, an agent of police ordered her to accompany him to the station. The child made no kind of resistance, and entered with composure the office of M. Jacomet, followed by the protesting murmurs of the crowd. It conjectured that M. Jacomet was moved by a certain official ambition. He was aware that his superiors did not approve of the progress of events, and he was willing enough to take the matter in hand and to put a summary stop to what he called a public scandal. He examined Bernadette. She made her simple replies, giving an account of her visions. She described again the Lady who had smiled upon her, whose face was radiant, who wore a white robe, and who was surrounded with a light brighter than the spring sunshine. The Commissary of Police spoke to the child gently at first, and then more harshly. He made her repeat her story three or four times. Bernadette acquitted herself without falling into any contradictions. Civic authority was baffled. It put what obstacles it could to the assembling of the public, but it could not stop the flight of the words of Bernadette, and it could not prevent their effect in drawing the thoughts of the countryside to the Grotto by the Gave. After an hour's interrogation, M. Jacomet drew up his procès verbal, and gave Bernadette back into the hands of her father, warning him, under threat of imprisonment for the child, to forbid her visits to the Grotto. She told the Commissary that she should certainly continue them; she could not help herself.

Bernadette kept her word. M. Jacomet, finding that his orders were thus disregarded, made a report to M. Dufour, Procureur Impérial. Appeal was then made to the clergy, who were suspected of some complicity, for profit, in the deception of the public. But the civil authorities were met by the unexpected fact that the clergy were to the full as incredulous as they. M. Peyramale, the parish priest, informed the police drily that he had no belief whatever in the Apparition. The clergy had no self-interest -- no interest of any kind -- in the matter. And the family of Bernadette, poor as they were, had consistently refused to touch the offerings of the curious -- strangers and visitors who were eager to hear more.

On the twenty-fifth of February, Bernadette was brought before the magistrates and examined by them, with no other result than had followed her interview with the Commissary of Police. She did not contradict herself. An application followed to the Mayor of Lourdes himself -- M. Lacadé. A request was made that he would publish a formal prohibition of the assembling of the public in that part of the communal territory upon which stood the rocks of Massabielle. M. Lacadé refused. They then tried the Prefect -- M. le Baron Massy. This gentleman, a "practising" Catholic, complied at once. He ordered a detachment of soldiers from the fort to guard the road from the town to the Grotto. This done, he addressed a report to M. Rouland, Minister of Public Worship. This member of the Imperial Government adopted the views of M. Massy, and shared his insensibility to the absurdity of the position. He replied as follows to the report of his local subordinate:

Monsieur le Préfet,

I have examined the two documents which you have had the goodness to send me relating to an alleged apparition of the Virgin at a grotto in the neighbourhood of the town of Lourdes. It is desirable, in my opinion, to put a stop to the course of acts which will in the end seriously compromise the true interests of the Catholic religion, and injure the spirit of piety in the masses. No one can, in law, institute a chapel or public place of worship without the double sanction of the Civil Power and of Ecclesiastical Authority. You would be justified, therefore, according to strict principle, in immediately closing the grotto which has been formed into a kind of oratory.

Nevertheless, there would be grave inconvenience in the abrupt exercise of this right. It will be sufficient if you prevent the young girl from having access to the grotto, and take such measures as may gradually and insensibly divert the attention of the public and diminish the frequency of gatherings at the place. I am unable at this moment, Monsieur le Préfet, to give you more precise instructions. It is distinctly an occasion for tact, prudence, and resolution; and no remarks of mine are needed to recommend these. It is quite indispensable that you should have the support and concurrence of the clergy; and I cannot too strongly urge you to communicate, as regards this delicate matter, immediately and directly with his Lordship the Bishop of Tarbes. I authorise you to inform that Prelate, in my name, that I am strongly in favour of putting a stop to occurrences which will assuredly serve as a pretext for fresh attacks upon religion and the priesthood.

M. Rouland, after this letter, by which he doubtless believed he had served his country and the cause of religion alike, left the matter to the discretion of the Prefect. From that interchange of official documents dated the hard persecution which befell the child Bernadette.

On the fifth of April, which was the Easter Monday of that year, the Baron de Massy sought audience of Monseigneur Laurence, and communicated to him the Ministerial letter. The Prefect was instant in his request that the Bishop would take the matter in hand. He spoke with all the earnestness of a defender of the Faith, basing his plea upon the interests of the Church, of which he declared himself a most devoted member. The Bishop, nevertheless, listened in silence. Finally, he declined to interfere. The time, he said, had not yet come for any pronouncement of opinion by ecclesiastical authority.

The Prefect left the Bishop's house deeply hurt by the check he had encountered. He had not ventured, and of course had not been in a position, to press the Bishop, beyond a certain point; but he cast about for some means of carrying on the campaign he had undertaken. On the morrow, M. Jacomet, the zealous Commissary, and M. Dufour, the Procureur Impérial, examined Bernadette with more skill and greater rigour than ever, convinced that at last they should succeed in entangling her in her talk. But Bernadette said the same thing as she had said before, and said it with unchanged straightforwardness. "The child was mad." Upon this new conviction M. de Massy appointed the usual examination by two physicians, so that Bernadette might, with all legality, be consigned to a maison de santé. The doctors had from the first been loud in their protestations of the impossibility of the Apparition, and they appeared to be ready enough to take the least favourable view of the sanity of Bernadette. The examination went on for a whole month. The child was minutely watched. Her daily actions were made the subject of intent study. The doctors made a practice of taking her by surprise at any moment of the day or night. No symptom of insanity could be detected. Finally, their report was made; and against the expectation of their employer, it declared that Bernadette was not a lunatic. It did declare, however, to the satisfaction of those who intended to put down the Apparitions, and who still suspected a clerical plot, that Bernadette was the subject of an hallucination.

M.de Massy had succeeded, inasmuch as he held that for hallucination, no less than for lunacy, it would be safe and expedient to consign Bernadette to the care of an asylum. She was to be nursed back to a normal state of nerves and eyesight. A few days later the Prefect was called to the town to preside over certain official councils. He took occasion to give his orders to the Mayors of the Canton. He announced to them, in the interests of religion, that he intended to hand over to medical care all persons who asserted themselves to be visited by visions; and to bring before the magistrates, as propagators of false tidings, all persons who should relate the visions of others. Thereupon he commanded M. Lacadé, Mayor of Lourdes, to cause Bernadette Soubirous to be conveyed to the hospital; and he ordered the Commissary of Police to strip the Grotto forthwith of whatever had been placed there. The local party of Free-thought had the victory. It was all over, they averred, with the miracles of Lourdes. They offered the Prefect their emphatic congratulations. And now for the execution of the orders.

M. Jacomet welcomed the opportunity of action; he had always intended that his administration should be brilliant and distinguished. He set immediately about the task of clearing the Grotto of Massabielle from the signs and offerings of the pilgrims.

The aspect of the spot was profoundly interesting. The Apparitions had been taking place for some few days, and already had faith burnt high in the hearts of the mountain people. They believed indeed that the veritable Virgin Mary had revealed herself in all her greatness and beauty to Bernadette. Each of them had brought a tribute to that Blessed Virgin: rosaries, crosses, flowers, and garlands. All that the simplest and sincerest piety could think of was laid upon the threshold of the cave, and candles burnt there as they did in the parish church. The Massabielle rocks had become a consecrated place. Of all this the Commissary of Police was well aware.

In order to strike a certain awe into these good people, who were as respectful to civil authority as they were reverential to religion, M. Jacomet put on his full dress uniform and girded himself with his official scarf. Nevertheless, his task was not an easy one. With some difficulty, and at a great price, he obtained a cart, and with this and his guards he marched to the rock of Massabielle. The crowd had been there before him. They were assembled on their knees by the Grotto; and when the order was given for breaking the enclosure and clearing away the offerings, there was a murmur of protest, but no Opposition. They obeyed the order of their parish priest that they should manifest entire respect to the Prefect and to his emissary. But that evening and during the following day the concourse of pilgrims was redoubled. Against this form of protest the police could do nothing.

It remained now for the Mayor to secure the person of Bernadette. M. Lacadé sought, first of all, an interview with the Abbé Peyramale, the parish priest. To him he communicated the orders of M. de Massy, and the melancholy obligation under which they had placed him. Upon this information M. Peyramale laid aside, for the first time, the reserve which he had maintained almost without intermission -- the long and vigilant silence -- since the day of the first Apparition. After hearing attentively what M. Lacadé had to tell him, he spoke, and spoke with indignation. He would undertake, he said, the protection of Bernadette against those who would imprison her in a madhouse. He knew the child, and of one thing in her history and character he was convinced -- her sincerity. As to her madness or hallucination, it was in any case not such as to warrant her consignment to the living death of such a fate. The parish priest was a resolute man; the Mayor had proved himself a man of enterprise; but resolution had the victory. M. Lacadé reported the conversation to the Prefect. The Prefect was impressed with its gravity. After a certain time for reflection, the civil authority decided to forego its action in regard to Bernadette. She kept her liberty.

During the progress of these days miraculous cures by the waters of the spring that had begun to flow under the finger of Bernadette were talked of in the town. The people were beginning to bring their sick to drink and to wash in the fountain of the Grotto. In order to mitigate the excitement caused by these occurrences, and to give to the water a purely civil character, such as it might share with the springs, of Vichy and La Bourboule, and with those of several watering-places in the Pyrenees, the Mayor resolved upon having it analysed. He entrusted the task to an acquaintance, a distinguished chemist, M. Latour de Trie -- and confidently expected to hear that curative properties of a natural character had been discovered, enough to account for some of the cures and to promise a certain prosperity to the town. The analysis was returned as follows:

The water of the Grotto of Lourdes is extremely clear; it is inodorous and without marked flavour. Its gravity is almost that of distilled water, Its temperature is of fifteen degrees centigrade. It contains:

1. Chlorides of soda, of lime, and of magnesia.
2. Carbonates of lime and of magnesia.
3. Silicates of lime and of albumen.
4. Oxide of iron.
5. Sulphate of soda and carbonate of soda.
6. Traces of phosphate.
7. Organic matter: ulmine.

We note a complete absence of sulphate of lime or selenite. This somewhat remarkable peculiarity is much to the advantage of the water, and entitles it to be considered light and easy of digestion and favourable to the equilibrium of vital action in the animal economy. We believe that, considering the conjunction and quality of substances in solution, we need have no hesitation in forecasting that medical science will speedily recognise this spring as endowed with specific curative virtues such as might give it a place among the waters that constitute the mineral wealth of this Department.


The Prefect ordered the publication of the analysis. Its correctness was questioned. Thereupon M. Lacadé proposed that the Municipal Council should get a fresh analysis made. A specimen of the water was to be referred to M. Filhol, Professor of the Faculty of Toulouse.

The Massabielles Rocks

The Prefect, however, declined to wait for the result. He took immediate steps. And the shortest way, in Imperial France, was open to him. He simply determined on preventing the pilgrimages by main force. Well aware that the local authorities would hesitate to take the step, he drew up the notice himself, and sent it to the Mayor simply with the order to sign it and post it up. M. Lacadé had his misgivings. He knew how orderly the crowd had always been, and he did not see upon what pretext authority could interfere. He attempted to parley with his Prefect. But a more peremptory order compelled him to publish the Arrêté, which he did with a line of preface:

Considering the instructions conveyed to him from higher authority.

Then followed the Notice.


Whereas it is desirable, in the interests of religion, to put an end to the regrettable scenes taking place in the Massabielle Grotto, situated at Lourdes, on the left bank of the Gave;

Whereas it is also the duty of the Mayor to exercise care as to the public health of the locality;

Whereas a great number of citizens and of strangers have visited the place to draw water from the fountain in the said Grotto;

Whereas there are grave reasons for believing that the water in question may contain mineral substances; and whereas it is desirable, before authorising their use, to obtain a scientific analysis which shall inform the public of the properties of such substances; whereas, moreover, the law secures the property and direction of mineral springs to the initiative authority of Government;

Orders as follows:

Article 1. -- It is forbidden to the public to draw water from the spring above mentioned.

Article 2. -- It is forbidden to the public to use the land belonging to the Commune, upon the Massabielle bank of the river, as a thoroughfare.

Article 3.-- A barrier will be erected at the entrance to the Grotto for preventing access thereto. Posts will be set up bearing this notice: "Trespassers will be prosecuted."

Article 4. -- All contravention of the present order will, in fact, be prosecuted according to law.

Article 5. -- The Commissary of Police, the Police, the Rural Guard, and the Authorities of the Commune are charged with the execution of the present Decree.

Done at Lourdes, at the Town Hall, June 8th, 1858.

The Mayor: A LACADÉ.

Seen and approved: The Prefect, 0. MASSY.

That same day the barriers were set up. The inscriptions were displayed. The guard, charged with the exercise of extreme vigilance, was at its post. And from that hour M. Duprat, Justice of the Peace, had his hands full. The people, evading the watch, or openly disregarding it, clambered over the paling and went, to the Grotto quand même. They continued to arrive, in fact, by thousands. The civil authority, discouraged, went on none the less making arrests, imposing fines. Citizens were fined for kneeling, even at a distance. They were fined for their talk. They were fined, in some instances, for having made the Miracles the subject of overheard conversations. In a word, a little Terror reigned over the provincial commune. Finally, the Minister of Public Worship considered it his duty to appeal to the Bishop of Tarbes. For the Bishop had made no sign.

Two boys -- gamins inspired by the imp of emulation -- having declared that they also had seen visions, the matter was reported to M. Rouland, and he took occasion to address the Bishop of Tarbes as follows:


The new tidings I have received concerning Lourdes seem to me to be of a nature to cause the deepest distress to all persons who sincerely respect religious things. These ceremonies of the blessing of rosaries by children, these public demonstrations in which women of doubtful morals have taken conspicuous part, these crownings of visionaries, these grotesque ceremonies, veritable parodies of the rites of religion, could hardly have failed to give rise to the attacks of Protestant and other papers, if the civil authority had not interfered to prevent dispute. None the less do the scandalous scenes in question discredit religion in the eyes of the people; and I hold it to be my duty, Monseigneur, to call once more your careful attention to the facts.

These deplorable occurrences would seem to be of such a nature as legitimately to summon the clergy out of the reserve in which they have hitherto chosen to remain. I can but make a pressing appeal, on this point, to all your Lordship's prudence and resolution, and can but ask you whether you will not judge it expedient to administer a public reproof to the profanations in question.

The Minister of Public Worship and Education:
(Signed) ROULAND.

In the following chapter may be read the reply of Monseigneur Laurence.

Meantime, events proceeded. Miracles increased. And now came the report of the second analyst -- M. Filhol -- upon the chemical constituents of the water of the new fountain. It ran as follows:

I, undersigned, Professor of Chemistry of the Faculty of Sciences at Toulouse, Professor of Pharmacy and of Toxicology at the School of Medicine in the same town, Chevalier of the Legion of Honour, do certify that I have analysed water taken from a fountain that has sprung up in the neighbourhood of Lourdes.

As the result of such analysis, I find the composition of the water of the Grotto of Lourdes to be such as to constitute it a potable water, analogous to the greater number of waters to be met with in mountains of which the soil is rich in calcareous matter.

The extraordinary effects which are alleged to have followed the use of the water cannot, at least in the present state of science, be explained by the nature of the salts revealed by analysis. The water contains no active substance capable of endowing it with marked therapeutic properties. It can be taken without injury.

The water contains:
1. Oxygen.
2. Azote.
3. Carbonic acid.
4. Carbonates of lime and magnesia, and a trace of carbonate of iron.
5. An alkaline carbonate or silicate; chlorides of potassium and sodium.
6.Traces of sulphates of potassium and soda.
7. Traces of ammonia.
8. Traces of iodine, etc.
(Signed) FILHOL.
Toulouse, August 7th, 1858.

Thus M. de Massy had made a melancholy failure; the complaisance of his first analyst was exhibited in the light of day, and the Faculty made a public assertion that the water of the Grotto had no curative powers. The cures at Lourdes were therefore referred directly to the effect of miracle.

The civil authority was at a loss. Its local efforts having come to nothing, it began, through the Parisian press, a campaign which had the unexpected effect of bringing Lourdes and its events before the notice of the Emperor, and finally of hastening the settlement of the question.

The season of the watering-places had come, and strangers were flocking to the Pyrenees. Many of these came as far as Lourdes. Napoleon III. betook himself to Biarritz. He who lived in a dream up to the day of Sedan had not yet expressed an opinion on the occurrence which, by this time, was exciting the whole of France. One day, Monseigneur de Salinis, Archbishop of Auch, presented himself at the Imperial villa, requested an audience, and informed the Emperor of the state of things, adding an instant prayer that His Majesty would interfere, in the name of liberty.

Napoleon III. allowed himself to be persuaded. He ordered, by telegram, the Baron de Massy to report immediately what Decrees he had published at Lourdes concerning the rocks of Massabielle. The receipt of this telegram was kept secret just so long as was necessary for making one brief attempt to change the Emperor's mind. That effort was all in vain. Napoleon refused to rescind his order; and on the 3rd of October Lourdes was placarded once more, and to this effect:


In consideration of instructions conveyed to him, gives notice,
That the Decrees published by him on the 8th of June, 1858, are abrogated.
Done at Lourdes, at the Town Hall, October 5th, 1858.
The Mayor: A. LACADÉ.

Thus was the little shepherdess vindicated, and thus were the faithful people free once more to kneel before the Grotto and to offer public homage to the Blessed Virgin. That day Lourdes kept festival. A considerable crowd assembled by the Gave to see M. Jacomet, Commissary of Police, take down the posts and palings which he had erected a few months previously. Civil authority was silenced. The Baron de Massy lost his post. And no further attempt was made at coercion.

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