In a bookcase in my parent’s house, there was a sleeveless first-edition copy of Franz Werfel’s Song of Bernadette, along with Dr Spock and James Jones’ From Here to Eternity. In 1942, the translated Song of Bernadette by Franz Werfel had topped the New York Times bestseller charts for a year and the book sold well internationally. .Taking the book out from its place on the shelf and returning it later, I would read Werfel’s novel over and over, wishing that there was somebody I could ask about this young woman. Years later, my Latin teacher gave me books to read on Lourdes and the miracles, showed me black-and-white photographs of the vast Basilica of St Pius X at the pilgrimage site of Lourdes.
Franz Werfel: “For those who believe, no explanation is necessary; for those who do not believe, no explanation is possible.”
Bernadette Soubirous was born in Lourdes, France, in 1844, the daughter of an impoverished miller and a laundress. She suffered greatly with asthma and her family lived in abject poverty. Historical researchers have found evidence Bernadette was of Basque origin and an ‘heiress’ in the Basque prophetic tradition. On February 11, 1858, while collecting firewood with her sister and a friend, the 14-year-old Bernadette saw a ‘a small young lady’ (in Gascon Occitan, uo petito damizelo) in a cave on the banks of the Gave River near Lourdes. She described the lady as wearing a white veil, a blue girdle and with a yellow rose on each foot. Crowds gathered when she had 18 more visions of the Virgin, from February 18 of that year through March 4.The civil authorities tried to frighten Bernadette into recanting her accounts, but she remained faithful to the vision. On February 25, after Bernadette had clawed at the earth and eaten mud, a spring emerged in the grotto and the miraculous waters healed the sick and lame.
On March 25, Bernadette announced that the vision stated that she was the Immaculate Conception (a dogma defined only four years earlier by Pius IX), and wanted a chapel to be built. Many authorities tried to shut down the spring and delay the construction of the chapel, but support came from Empress Eugenie, wife of Napoleon Ill, and construction went forward.
In 1866, Bernadette was sent to the Sisters of Notre Dame in Nevers. There she became a member of the community, and was treated harshly by the mistress of novices. This oppression ended when it was discovered that she suffered from a painful, incurable illness. She died on April 16,1879, still giving the same account of her visions. In 1933 she was canonised by Pope Pius XI. Her body remains incorrupt.
Franz Werfel was a Jewish Czech writer and refugee in flight from the Nazis when he reached the village of Lourdes at the foot of the Pyrenees in 1940. Local people helped him and his wife to hide there, and told him the story of Bernadette. Many of them had known her as a girl, Werfel made a vow that if he were to reach safety, he would write the story of this strange visionary. He and his wife Alma crossed the Pyrenees on foot and eventually made their way to America. He wrote the Song of Bernadette, structuring it as a rosary with five sections and 10 chapters in each section. This was a publishing sensation and made into a film with Jennifer Jones. Werfel died in 1945.