Just a bead of water. Not everyone has seen one, but they are fairly common, or easy to come by: Lourdes rosaries and chaplets (a set of prayer beads). What is distinctive about them is that their centerpiece medals may contain a drop of water encased in the bead. The water bead comes from the shrine of Lourdes in France.
Lourdes is where, in 1858, a young girl named Bernadette Soubirous received 18 visions of the Blessed Mother. The first vision was on Feb. 11, which today is the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes and World Day of the Sick.
Just as the shrine of Lourdes is famous as a pilgrimage site for the sick, so too is the water from the shrine’s spring believed to have healing powers. Yet not everyone knows much about the water itself.
The site of St. Bernadette’s visions — the Grotto of Massabielle — is near a river, the Gave de Pau, the water from the Lourdes shrine does not come from that river. Instead, the water is from a spring that flows down into the Gave de Pau. The spring did not exist before Bernadette’s ninth apparition of Mary, on Feb. 25, 1858.
At that time, Mary told Bernadette to “drink of the fountain and wash in it.” Since there was no spring, Bernadette turned to go to the river, but the Blessed Mother stopped her and indicated a nearby ditch. Many of us have seen the event portrayed in the 1943 movie, “The Song of Bernadette.” Jennifer Jones, who portrayed the visionary, digs in the dirt and eventually unearths a pure stream of water. So it was with Bernadette: she dug in the dirt and a stream and then a fountain welled up.
The stream has flowed ever since and now offers 27,000 gallons of fresh water each day.
Even before Bernadette’s final vision on July 16, 1858, the sick began claiming that the water of Lourdes had healing qualities. The mayor of the town, Anselme Lacade commissioned a chemical study of the water to see if it had any unusual quality. It was found to be simple drinking water, without any special characteristics. Before long, primitive baths were set up, pumped by hand, in which the sick could bathe.
The church began investigating claims of cures, under the authority of the local bishop, Bertrand-Sévère Laurence of Tarbe-et-Lourdes. He approved the first official miracle of healing at Lourdes on Jan. 18, 1862. It involved the water.
Catherine Latapie was a local woman and mother who had broken her shoulder years earlier and suffered partial paralysis of her arm and hand because of poor healing. In March, 1858, while the visions were still occurring and just after the spring had been uncovered, Catherine went to pray at the spring one night. She then bathed her arm in the water and was instantly healed. Her claim was carefully assessed by medical personnel.
Since then, there have been 69 official healings associated with Lourdes, not all with the water, and countless other claims of healing and miracles. What is today known as the Office of Medical Observations, Sanctuary of Lourdes, was first established in 1883, as the Bureau des Constatations Médicales under the direction of Dr. Georges-Fernand Dunot de Saint-Maclou.
The International Medical Committee of Lourdes was established in 1947 and today has about 30 members at any one time. They are doctors and scientists from around the world. It is their job to assess all claims and certify that a cure is “indeed ‘unexplained’ on the basis of current medical knowledge. Any physician who visits is welcome at the center and 200 to 300 physicians use the facilities each year,” according to the current bishop, Mgr. Jacques Perrier.
What began as small bathing areas now consists of 17 baths in small cubicles — 11 for women and six for men — into which the unheated water of the spring is pumped each day. Volunteers helpers “hospitaliers” have been assisting people to the baths since 1885. The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes notes that 100,000 people from around the world come to the shrine each year to help the 350,000 people who come to bathe in the waters.
Not everyone who comes to Lourdes just to bathe in the water — although many will take water home from the spring. (Others, who never visit France, will order water shipped from the sanctuary at Lourdes.)
Many others will also pray along the Water Walk that was established in 2002 along the river. At nine sites along this walk, stand small wells filled with Lourdes water and named for nine sites mentioned in the Bible, where God intervened in people’s lives through water.
- Beer-sheeba, where Abraham dug a well: Gn 21, 25-34
- On the road to Gaza, where Philip baptized the Ethiopian court official: Acts 8.26-40
- Meribah, when the people complained for lack of water: Ex 17, 1-7
- Ein Gedi, where David fled from Saul: Song of Songs 1, 13-14
- The source of Living Water (Jesus spoke of himself as this in Jerusalem near the Temple): Jn 7, 37-39
- Nazareth, where the angel Gabriel spoke with Mary: Lk 2, 51-52
- Jacob’s Well, where Jesus met the Samaritan woman: Jn 4, 1-26
- Bethesda, where waters were stirred by an angel and where Jesus healed a paralytic: Jn 5, 1-18
- Siloam, where Jesus sent the blind man to wash: Jn 9, 1-41
In whatever ways the water at Lourdes touches lives, it is best to remember what Bernadette herself is credited with saying about that water: “This water is considered as a drug. … but you have to keep the faith and pray: this water couldn’t do anything without faith!”
Sources: Sanctuary Our Lady of Lourdes at en.lourdes-france.org; “Catholic Encyclopedia”; marypages.com; “Lourdes, Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow”; visitlourdesfr.org.uk; sacredsites.com; devotiontoourlady.org; miraclehunter.com; and Catholic News Agency.