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On this day in history, Feb. 11, 1858, Our Lady of Lourdes first appears to St. Bernadette Soubirous


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The first of 18 apparitions of Our Lady of Lourdes to St. Bernadette Soubirous in Lourdes, France, happened on this day in history, Feb. 11, 1858. 

Soubirous, then a sickly 14-year-old peasant girl living in poverty in the small town of Lourdes, was hunting for firewood near the Grotto of Massabielle when she heard a noise she described as "like a gust of wind," according to the website for the Lourdes Shrine.

Turning toward the grotto, Soubirous saw a vision of a "young lady," the website also says.

Not knowing who the lady was, or if she was even demonic in nature, Soubirous asked the friends she was with if they had seen something. They said they did not, the website for the shrine says. 

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Soubirous knelt and prayed the rosary, according to the website.

In her written account of the first apparition, "Les Ecrits de Sainte Bernadette et sa voie spirituelle," Soubirous described the figure she saw as a woman "dressed in a white robe, girded at the waist with a blue ribbon."

She continued, "She wore upon her head a white veil, which gave just a glimpse of hair. Her feet were bare but covered by the last folds of her robe and a yellow rose was upon each of them."

She added, "She held on her right arm a rosary of white beads with a chain of gold shining like the two roses on her feet." 

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The "young lady" disappeared when Soubirous finished the rosary, she wrote. 

Soubirous initially doubted what she had seen, writing, "I thought I had been mistaken." 

"But as we went, all the way, they kept asking me what I had seen. I did not want to tell them. Seeing that they kept on asking I decided to tell them, on condition that they would tell nobody. They promised not to tell," wrote Soubirous. 

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That promise, however, was quickly broken: Soubirous wrote that "as soon as they arrived home they hastened to say that I had seen a lady dressed in white." 

At first, the story by Soubirous was not believed by local authorities, although word of the events spread throughout the region, according to Catholic Online. 

Many people believed she was mentally ill, while others believed she was experiencing something supernatural — and perhaps demonic. 

The apparitions continued, with Soubirious reporting that "the lady" spoke to her starting with the third apparition, but still had not revealed her name. 

On Feb. 25, 1858, "the lady" told Soubirous to "go and drink at the spring and wash myself," she wrote.

As there was no spring at that location, Soubirous initially went to another location before "the lady" redirected her to a rock in the grotto.

"I went, and I found a puddle of water, which was more like mud, and the quantity was so small that I could hardly gather a little in the hollow of my hand," she wrote. 

"Nevertheless, I obeyed, and started scratching the ground; after doing that I was able to take some. The water was so dirty that three times I threw it away. The fourth time I was able to drink it." 

The water from that spring, which is still flowing today, quickly became known for miraculous healing. Three days after the spring appeared, a woman named Catherine Latapie felt compelled to journey to Lourdes to wash her paralyzed hand in its waters. 

Her paralysis was reportedly instantly cured, says the Lourdes shrine website. 

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"The lady" requested Soubirious ask that "a chapel should be built and a procession formed," says Catholic Online. 

That request was initially rebuffed; yet construction began on what is now known as the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in 1871. 

The Lourdes sanctuary is now home to 22 places of worship, including three separate basilicas. Mass is said an estimated 10,000 times each year at the Lourdes sanctuary, says the shrine's website. 

It was not until the third-to-last apparition, on March 25, 1858, that authority figures began to believe Soubirous' stories.

On that day, Soubirous wrote, she visited the grotto, but was still uncertain as to who "the lady" actually was; throughout the visions, "the lady" repeatedly refused to tell the young girl her name. 

"With her arms down, she raised her eyes to heaven and then, folding her hands over her breast, she said, ‘I am the Immaculate Conception,'" wrote Soubirous. 

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Soubirious told a local priest what she'd heard from "the lady," and that she had repeated the phrase "Immaculate Conception" to herself on her way home so that she would not forget it.

Pope Pius IX had defined the dogma of the Virgin Mary as the "Immaculate Conception" a little less than four years prior to the apparitions. Soubirous, who was uneducated, would have had no way of knowing about this relatively obscure dogma, says the Lourdes shrine website. 

Following the apparitions, Soubirous underwent a series of investigations and was found to be telling the truth, says Catholic Online. 

In 1862, Pope Pius IX declared the visions to be "authentic."

Soubirous, uncomfortable with the attention she was receiving, entered the Sisters of Charity as a novice in 1866. 

She died on April 16, 1879, at age 35 and was canonized in 1933, notes Britannica. 

Since 1858, the Lourdes Medical Bureau has verified 70 cures as "miraculous" in nature and unexplained by science. Thousands more people have reported healings from Lourdes, notes the Lourdes website. 

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Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims travel each year to Lourdes seeking some form of healing, making it one of the most-visited pilgrimage sites in France, says travel website TheTravel. 

In May 1992, St. Pope John Paul II declared Feb. 11 to be "World Day of the Sick." 

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