The Body of St. Bernadette of Lourdes

Author: Andre Ravier, S.J.


Andre Ravier, S.J.

Based on documents in the archives of the convent of Saint-Gildard, of the diocese and the city of Nevers

Very fine wax masks were laid over the face and hands of St. Bernadette's body in 1925 to disguise the sunken eyes and nose and the blackish tinge to the face and hands. During the first exhumation (1909) the face had been "a dull white" and the hands "perfectly preserved" but the nose was already "dilated and shrunken". The eyes were not noted as having yet sunk. She died on April 16, 1879. Her body has not been embalmed or specially treated in any way.

On April 16, 1879, Bernadette—or Sister Marie-Bernard, as she was known within her order—died in the Sainte Croix (Holy Cross) Infirmary of the Convent of Saint-Gildard. She was thirty-five.

Born into a humble family which little by little fell into extreme poverty, Bernadette had always been a frail child. Quite young, she had already suffered from digestive trouble, then after having just escaped being a victim of the cholera epidemic of 1855, she experienced painful attacks of asthma, and her ill health almost caused her to be cut off for ever from the religious life. When asked by Monsignor Forcade to take Bernadette, Louise Ferrand, the Mother Superior of the Sisters of Nevers, replied: "Monsignor, she will be a pillar of the infirmary".

At least three times during her short life-time, she received the last Sacraments. She was gradually struck by other illnesses as well as asthma: among them, tuberculosis of the lung and a tubercular tumour on her right knee. On Wednesday, April 16, 1879, her pain got much worse. Shortly after eleven she seemed to be almost suffocating and was carried to an armchair, where she sat with her feet on a footstool in front of a blazing fire. She died at about 3.15 in the afternoon.

The civil authorities permitted her body to remain on view to be venerated by the public until Saturday, April 19. Then it was "placed in a double coffin of lead and oak which was sealed in the presence of witnesses who signed a record of the events". Among the witnesses were "inspector of the peace, Devraine, and constables Saget and Moyen".

The nuns of Saint-Gildard, with the support of the bishop of Nevers, applied to the civil authorities for permission to bury Bernadette's body in a small chapel dedicated to Saint Joseph which was within the confines of the convent. The permission was granted on April 25, 1879, and on April 30, the local Prefect pronounced his approval of the choice of the site for burial. Immediately they set to work on preparing the vault. On May 30, 1879, Bernadette's coffin was finally transferred to the crypt of the chapel of Saint Joseph. A very simple ceremony was held to commemorate the event.

First "Identification Of The Body" September 22, 1909

In the autumn of 1909 the work of the episcopal commission looking into Bernadette's reputation for saintliness, virtue and miracles with a view to canonisation was complete. The next step was the first "identification of the body" as it is called, which implies identification in accordance with both civil and canon law and verification of the state of the corpse.

The body was exhumed for the first time on Wednesday, September 22, 1909. The official records, which are kept in the Archives of Saint Gildard, enable us to follow the identification proceedings virtually step by step.

Monsignor Gauthey, Bishop of Nevers, and the church tribunal, entered the main chapel of the convent at 8.30 a.m. A table had been placed at the entrance to the sanctuary. On it were the Holy Gospels. One by one, the three witnesses (Abbe Perreau, the Mother Superior of the order, Marie-Josephine Forestier, and her deputy), the doctors (Doctors Jourdan and David), the stonemasons, Gavillon and Boue, and the carpenters, Cognet and Mary, swore an oath to tell the truth. The party then moved on to the chapel of Saint Joseph. The mayor and the deputy mayor insisted on carrying out the legal formalities in person. Once the stone had been lifted from the vault the coffin was immediately visible. It was carried to the room prepared for it and placed on two trestles covered with a cloth. On one side was a table covered with a white cloth. The body—or, if applicable, the bones—of Bernadette were to be placed on this table. The wooden coffin was unscrewed and the lead coffin cut open to reveal the body of Bernadette in a state of perfect preservation. There was not the slightest trace of an unpleasant smell. The Sisters who had buried her thirty years earlier noted only that her hands had fallen slightly to the left. But the words of the surgeon and the doctor, who were under oath, speak for themselves:

"The coffin was opened in the presence of the Bishop of Nevers, the mayor of the town, his principal deputy, several canons and ourselves. We noticed no smell. The body was clothed in the habit of Bernadette's order. The habit was damp. Only the face, hands and forearms were uncovered.

The head was tilted to the left. The face was dull white. The skin clung to the muscles and the muscles adhered to the bones. The sockets of the eyes were covered by the eye-lids. The brows were flat on the skin and stuck to the arches above the eyes. The lashes of the right eyelid were stuck to the skin. The nose was dilated and shrunken. The mouth was open slightly and it could be seen that the teeth were still in place. The hands, which were crossed on her breast, were perfectly preserved, as were the nails. The hands still held a rusting rosary. The veins on the forearms stood out.

Like the hands, the feet were wizened and the toenails were still intact (one of them was torn off when the corpse was washed). When the habits had been removed and the veil lifted from the head, the whole of the shrivelled body could be seen, rigid and taut in every limb.

It was found that the hair, which had been cut short, was stuck to the head and still attached to the skull—that the ears were in a state of perfect preservation—that the left side of the body was slightly higher than the right from the hip up.

The stomach had caved in and was taut like the rest of the body. It sounded like cardboard when struck.

The left knee was not as large as the right. The ribs protruded as did the muscles in the limbs.

So rigid was the body that it could be rolled over and back for washing.

The lower parts of the body had turned slightly black. This seems to have been the result of the carbon of which quite large quantities were found in the coffin.

In witness of which we have duly drawn up this present statement in which all is truthfully recorded.

Nevers, September 22, 1909

Drs. Ch. David, A. Jourdan. "

The nuns washed the body and replaced it in a new coffin lined with zinc and padded with white silk. In the few hours in which it had been exposed to the air the body had started turning black. The double coffin was closed, soldered, screwed down and sealed with seven seals.

The workmen once again bore Bernadette's body into the vault. It was 5.30 p.m. by the time everything had been completed.

The fact that Bernadette's body was perfectly preserved is not necessarily miraculous. It is well known that corpses decompose less in certain kinds of soil and gradually mummify. It should be noted, however, that in the case of Bernadette this mummified state is quite astounding. Her illnesses and the state of her body when she died, the humidity in the vault in the chapel of Saint Joseph (the habit was damp, the rosary rusty and the crucifix had turned green) would all seem to be conducive to disintegration of the flesh. We should be glad, therefore, that Bernadette benefited from a fairly rare biological phenomenon. But this is not a "miracle" in the strictest sense of the word.

Second "Identification Of The Body" April 3, 1919

On August 13, 1913, Pope Pius X, in consequence of a decision of the Congregation of Rites, authorised the introduction of the cause of beatification and canonisation of Bernadette Soubirous and signed the decree of venerability. War broke out and it was impossible to take up the case again immediately. This was not done until 1918, at which time Monsignor Chatelus was bishop of Nevers. This made another identification of the body of the venerable Bernadette necessary. Doctor Talon and Doctor Comte were asked to undertake the examination. It took place on April 3, 1919, in the presence of the Bishop of Nevers, the police commissioner, representatives of the municipalities and members of the church tribunal.

Everything was just the same as at the time of the first exhumation. Oaths were sworn, the vault was opened, the body transferred to a new coffin and reburied, all in accordance with canon and civil law. After the doctors had examined the body, they retired alone in separate rooms to write their personal reports without being able to consult each other.

The two reports coincide perfectly with each other and also with Doctor Jourdan and Doctor David's report of 1909. There is one new element as regards the state of the body. This is the existence of "patches of mildew and a layer of salt which seems to be calcium salt," and which were probably the result of the body's having been washed the first time it was exhumed. We will quote only the first few lines of Dr. Comte's report:

"When the coffin was opened the body appeared to be absolutely intact and odourless. '' (Dr. Talon was more specific: "There was no smell of putrefaction and none of those present experienced any discomfort.") The body is practically mummified, covered with patches of mildew and quite a notable layer of salts which appear to be calcium salts. The skeleton is complete, and it was possible to carry the body to a table without any trouble. The skin has disappeared in some places, but it is still present on most parts of the body. Some of the veins are still visible. "

At 5 p.m. that evening the body was reburied in the chapel of Saint Joseph in the presence of the Bishop, Mother Forestier and the police commissioner.

Third "Identification Of The Body" April 18, 1925

On November 18, 1923, the pope pronounced the authenticity of Bernadette's virtues and the path to beatification was open.

A third and final identification of the body was required for the proclamation of beatification. The relics, which were to go to Rome, Lourdes, or houses of the Order, were to be taken during this exhumation.

Doctor Talon and Doctor Comte were once again asked to examine the body and Doctor Comte, who was a surgeon, was to remove the relics.

The ceremony took place on April 18, 1925 forty-six years and two days after Bernadette's death. The ceremony was private as is required by canon law when beatification has not yet been pronounced. Present were the nuns from the community, the Bishop, the vicars general, the church tribunal, two "instrumental" witnesses, the two doctors, Mabille, the commissioner of police, and Leon Bruneton, representing the municipal authorities.

At 8.30 a.m. in the chapel of the convent the two doctors, whose task it was to examine the body for the official identification, and the masons and carpenters who were to open the vault and take out the coffin swore the usual oaths on the gospels.

"I swear and promise to faithfully accomplish the task with which I have been entrusted", declared the doctors, "and to tell the truth in the replies I make to questions put to me and in my written statements on the examination of the body of the Venerable Servant of God, Sister Marie-Bernard Soubirous, and on the removal of the relics. This, I promise and swear. So help me God and the Holy Gospels." And each of the workmen took an oath: "With my hand on God's gospels I swear and promise to faithfully accomplish the task with which I have been entrusted. So help me God and the Holy Gospels."

The group then fetched the coffin of Bernadette from the chapel of Saint Joseph in procession and carried it to the chapel of Saint-Helen.

Here are some passages from Doctor Comte's report:

"At the request of the Bishop of Nevers I detached and removed the rear section of the fifth and sixth right ribs as relics; I noted that there was a resistant, hard mass in the thorax, which was the liver covered by the diaphragm. I also took a piece of the diaphragm and the liver beneath it as relics, and can affirm that this organ was in a remarkable state of preservation. I also removed the two patella bones to which the skin clung and which were covered with more clinging calcium matter.

Finally I removed the muscle fragments right and left from the outsides of the thighs. These muscles were also in a very good state of preservation and did not seem to have putrefied at all. " Doctor Comte continues: "From this examination I conclude that the body of the Venerable Bernadette is intact, the skeleton is complete, the muscles have atrophied, but are well preserved; only the skin, which has shrivelled, seems to have suffered from the effects of the damp in the coffin. It has taken on a greyish tinge and is covered with patches of mildew and quite a large number of crystals and calcium salts; but the body does not seem have putrefied, nor has any decomposition of the cadaver set in, although this would be expected and normal after such a long period in a vault hollowed out of the earth."

Three years later, in 1928, Doctor Comte published "report on the exhumation of the Blessed Bernadette" in the second issue of the Bulletin de l'Association medical de Notre-Dame de Lourdes.

''I would have liked", he wrote, ''to open the left side of the thorax to take the ribs as relics and then remove the heart which I am certain must have survived. However, the trunk was slightly supported on the left arm, it would have been rather difficult to try and get at the heart without doing too much noticeable damage. As the Mother Superior had expressed a desire for the Saint's heart to be kept together with the whole body, and as Monsignor the Bishop did not insist, I gave up the idea of opening the lefthand side of the thorax and contented myself with removing the two, right ribs which were more accessible.''

The surgeon was particularly struck by the state of preservation of the liver: "What struck me during this examination, of course, was the state of perfect preservation the skeleton, the fibrous tissues of the muscles (still supple and firm), of the ligaments and of the skin, and above all the totally unexpected state of the liver after 46 years. One would have thought that this organ, which is basically soft and inclined to crumble, would have decomposed very rapidly or would have hardened to a chalky consistency. Yet when it was cut it was soft and almost normal in consistency. I pointed this out to those present, remarking that this did not seem to be a natural phenomenon. "

Once the surgical part was over, Doctor Comte had the body swathed in bandages leaving only the face and hands free. Bernadette's body was then put back into the coffin, but left uncovered. At this point a precise imprint of the face was moulded so that the firm of Pierre Imans in Paris could make a light wax mask based on the imprints and on some genuine photos. It was feared that, although the body was mummified, the blackish tinge to the face and the sunken eyes and nose would make an unpleasant impression on the public.

Imprints of the hands were also taken for the same reasons. Care was taken not to alter their position in the coffin in any way.

The body was left in the chapel of Saint-Helen, but the doors to the chapel were closed and sealed and no one could get in. The nuns who wished to pray close to the body of Bernadette could only see her through a glass partition.

On June 14, 1925, Pope Pius XI officially proclaimed Bernadette Blessed. But, as the shrine being made in the workshops of the firm of Armand Caillat Cateland in Lyons was not finished, it was not possible to place Bernadette's body in position in its shrine until July 18. The ceremony when the day came was a very simple one. Once the ecclesiastical authorities had satisfied themselves that everything in Saint-Helen's Chapel was as it had been left on April 18, the nuns dressed Bernadette's body in a new habit. The sculptor took the light wax masks which had been made on the basis of the imprints and placed them on the face and hands. Then the body was carried on a white stretcher to the novices' hall. The chant for the Office of the Virgins was sung and then the body was finally placed in its shrine.

On the evening of August 3, the shrine was ceremonially transferred from the novices' hall to the chapel of the convent of Saint-Gildard. On August 4, 5 and 6, ceremonial masses were said in Bernadette's honour.

It was in August 1925 that the long pilgrimage of friends of Saint Bernadette began. Among them are many tourists, who come out of plain curiosity; there are even sceptics among the praying throng.

"But is this really Bernadette's body?" they ask. "If it really is her body, then wasn't it embalmed?"

Sufficient answer to these questions can be found in the medical reports on the three exhumations, in the presence each time of the civil and church authorities, and in the strictness of canon law. Yes, it is Bernadette's body—intact—which is in the shrine. It looks "as if it is mummified", to quote the doctors. Only some relics have been removed. Very fine wax masks have been laid over the face and hands moulded from imprints taken directly from the body and backed up by authentic photographic documents. Anyone who were to dispute this state, however wonderful it may appear, would be questioning the sincerity of people whose word is normally considered to be authoritative; doctors, policemen, sworn witnesses, and members of the church tribunal.

Yes, this is the body of Bernadette in the attitude of meditation and prayer which it adopted in its first coffin This is the face which was lifted eighteen times to the "Lady of Massabielle", these are the hands which fingered the rosary before and during the apparitions, these are the fingers which scratched the earth and made the miraculous spring appear, these are the ears which heard the message and these the lips which repeated the Lady's Name to Father Peyramale; "I am the Immaculate Conception." This is the heart, too, which bore so much love for Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary and sinners. One only has to look at the body in the shrine to be present at the wonderful events of Lourdes. Something of the grace of Massabielle strikes the soul.

Inscribed in the metal around the shrine are the words "The Virgin."

But was it necessary? A silent voice reaches out to our innermost being from the slight, fragile body which seems to be absorbed in God. Here Bernadette is present. Here Bernadette is praying. Here Bernadette bears witness. Dare we say it: here in some way Bernadette lives on. And her messages bursts forth as clearly as on the first day: here Bernadette is carrying on day by day in the presence of each pilgrim the work which the "Immaculate Conception" gave her in the name of God. She reminds us that God is Love and that he never stops calling us to pass from the night of our sin to his wondrous Light.

To know more about the true Bernadette, read:

Bernadette Soubirous: Personal notes. Saint Gildard: Some of Bernadette's sayings. Fr. John Moloney: Bernadette speaks. R. Laurentin: Bernadette of Lourdes. Nevers: Along the pathways of Faith lead us. A. Ravier: Bernadette and her Rosary.—Bernadette, the saint of poverty and of light.—Les ecrits de Sainte Bernadette et sa voie spirituelle.