The sanctuary of Notre-Dame de Lourdes is a major pilgrimage site located in the Hautes-Pyrénées department, in the Occitanie region. Famous for its miraculous healings from the water of the Massabielle cave, this Catholic shrine covers nearly 52 hectares and attracts more than 3.5 million visitors and pilgrims each year. Composed of several buildings and places of prayer, including the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception and the Basilica of St. Pius X, the Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes also houses a dozen chapels, fountains, pools and the monumental Way of the Cross of the Espélugues. In this article, we will look at the history of the sanctuary of Lourdes, which was created following the apparitions of the Virgin Mary to Bernadette Soubirous, and at the various infrastructures that make up this major pilgrimage site located in the south of France.
The origins of the sanctuary of Lourdes
The origins of the sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes date back to 1858, following the multiple apparitions of the Immaculate Conception (the Virgin Mary) to Bernadette Soubirous. The latter, then 14 years old, asserts that she witnessed the apparition of the Blessed Virgin at the grotto of Massabielle in Lourdes on 18 occasions between February 11 and July 16, 1858. Famous throughout the world, the young woman who became Saint Bernadette was finally beatified on June 14, 1925 and then canonized in 1933 by Pope Pius XI. Following the proclamation of the divine and supernatural character of the apparitions by the bishop of Tarbes, a chapel was built on the sacred site. In fact, according to Bernadette Soubirous, the Virgin Mary suggested to the young woman that she bring back to the priests “the construction of a chapel so that one could come there in procession”. Abbot Peyramale is charged by the Catholic Church to supervise the construction project and the implementation of the pilgrimage site. The project of a chapel which will be built above the grotto is validated and will bear the name of “Basilica of the Immaculate Conception of Lourdes”. On August 4, 1864, a statue of the Virgin Mary in front of the grotto of Massabielle was blessed by Bertrand Sévère-Laurence, bishop of Tarbes.
The infrastructure of the pilgrimage site
Following the purchase of the grotto and its domain by the diocese of Tarbes, development work was carried out in order to welcome millions of pilgrims each year. Seven gates were built to access the domain. The most famous are the Saint Michael’s Gate and the Saint Joseph’s Gate, which lead respectively to the procession alley and to the city of Lourdes. Located on the left bank of the Gave de Pau, the sanctuary of Notre-Dame de Lourdes is spread over three axes: the central part hosts the grotto of Massabielle, three basilicas and various annexes. The second part, located to the south, houses the monumental Way of the Cross of Espélugue, as well as the chaplains’ house. Finally, the third part, located to the north and on the right bank of the Gave, includes the swimming pool footbridge, the arcade footbridge and the esplanade footbridge. The Saint-Michel gate takes its name from the archangel Saint-Michel, whose statue also crowns the top of the famous abbey of Mont Saint-Michel.
The Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Lourdes
This basilica is the first building to be constructed on the shrine of Our Lady, following the request made by the Virgin Mary to Bernadette Soubirous during her apparitions. Located above the Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary, it overlooks the grotto of Massabielle and was built between 1862 and 1871, before being consecrated in 1876 by Pope Pius IX. The work on the building began with roadwork, as well as the flattening of the Massabielle rock destined to receive the basilica. The church was blessed in 1871 and the solemn consecration took place on July 2, 1876 in the presence of Cardinal Guibert, Archbishop of Paris. Designed by the architect Hippolyte Durant in the neo-Gothic style, it is built over a crypt and measures 51 meters long by 21 meters wide. Its spire reaches 93 meters above the Gave and the heart of the building is surrounded by 5 chapels. All the windows are decorated with stained glass and two bells are added in 1908 to the four bells of flight. Listed as a historical monument since 1995, it has a capacity of 700 seats. Soon it became too small to accommodate the numerous pilgrims, and the ecclesiastical authorities decided to build a new building in 1883: the Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary.
The Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary
This second basilica was built between 1883 and 1889 in order to welcome more visitors to the most important pilgrimage center in France. In Romanesque-Byzantine style, just like Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde in Marseille, this “lower basilica” is located in front of and below the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, making it easier to access. Financed by numerous Catholic donations, its first stone was laid on July 16, 1883, the 25th anniversary of the last apparition of the Virgin Mary to Bernadette Soubirous. Its interior decoration was entrusted to the famous Franco-Italian mosaicist Giandomenico Facchina and was completed only in 1907. A cross and a golden crown over the dome were installed in 1923. Listed as a historical monument since 1995, the Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary has a surface area of 2,000 m² and can accommodate up to 1,500 people. The building opens onto a vast esplanade that can accommodate up to 80,000 visitors and is framed by two hemicycle access ramps. Devoid of glass, the interior of the religious building is covered with mosaics on more than 2 000 m² of surface. The church authorities decided, 50 years later, to build a third building: the underground basilica of St. Pius X.
The underground basilica of Saint Pius X
Built under the esplanade of the Rosary between 1956 and 1958, this basilica inaugurated during the centenary of the apparitions of the Virgin Mary can now welcome up to 25,000 pilgrims! Dedicated to Pope Pius X, the building was originally intended to serve as a large shelter for processions and to be used in case of bad weather. Its construction required the destruction of the Peace Monument, a religious building dedicated to the dead dating from 1920. Work began in 1956, after receiving the blessing of the Archbishop of Lyon on May 30. Entirely built underground, the building, made of reinforced concrete, is located below the level of the Gave de Pau and its construction cost nearly 40 million euros. Of ellipsoidal shape, the underground basilica measures 201 meters long by 81 meters wide, that is to say a total surface of 12 000 m². Accessible through two large entrances, its altar, placed in its center, is visible to all pilgrims.
The church of Saint Bernadette in the sanctuary of Lourdes
Located in front of the grotto of Massabielle, this church is the last religious building built within the sanctuary of Lourdes. As its name indicates, it is dedicated to Saint Bernadette, formerly known as Bernadette Soubirous. It is also the place where the plenary assembly of the bishops of France meets and its construction work began in 1986. The church of Saint Bernadette was inaugurated on March 25, 1988 for the 130th anniversary of the apparitions of the Virgin Mary. This Brutalist-style religious building was designed above all to be versatile and modular in order to accommodate up to 5,000 people, including 300 patients in carts.
Pilgrimages to Lourdes
The first pilgrimages date back to 1858, when the Immaculate Conception appeared to Bernadette Soubirous. Nowadays, the pilgrimage season takes place every year from March to October and brings together millions of visitors from all over Europe and beyond. In France, pilgrimages are generally organized by each diocese. The oldest are :
- The national pilgrimage of the Assumption: organized since 1873 around August 15, it gathers each year nearly 8,000 visitors.
- The Rosary Pilgrimage: organized by the Dominicans every October 7 since 1908, it brings together up to 17,000 pilgrims!
- The international military pilgrimage: organized at the end of May and since 1958 by the diocese of the French Armed Forces, it brings together up to 12,000 faithful.
- The International Pilgrimage of the Order of Malta: organized since 1958 at the beginning of May by the Order of Malta, it brings together about 16,000 people.
All of them have the particularity of counting among their participants many sick and disabled people. They are cared for by volunteers, usually hospital staff, stretcher bearers or nurses. It should also be noted that half of the attendance at the shrine of Lourdes is made up of independent travelers and worshippers, who come to the shrine of Our Lady by their own means.
Miraculous cures at Lourdes
During her apparitions to Bernadette Soubirous, the Virgin Mary is said to have declared: “Come and drink from the fountain and wash yourself”. Since then, pilgrims flock to drink the water from the many fountains or bathe in the pools of the sanctuary. Thus, many people claim to have been healed during a pilgrimage to Lourdes. An office of medical findings was even created in 1884 to examine the statements! In 2020, the number of miraculous healings will be 70, after validation of a process that can take several years. The rate of healing due to miracles is about 0.001%. According to Jacques Perrier, bishop of Tarbes and Lourdes, the current attitude of doctors is very respectful of the Church’s magisterium. The latter know that a miracle is a sign of a spiritual nature, even though some healings remain medically unexplained.
We invite you to consult the website www.lourdes-france.com to organize your stay in Lourdes.