The statue of ‘Notre Dame des Eaux’ in the convent garden.
Bernadette said of it – “She has something of the beauty that I saw”.
I had written earlier about my favourite Saints and noting that at the top of my personal list is Saint Bernadette Soubirous, who saw Our Blessed Lady at Lourdes.
My Aunt Margaret was deeply devoted to Our Lady of Lourdes and to Saint Bernadette and we had small images of both at home, which Aunt Margaret had brought back from one of her visits to the Grotto at Lourdes – having had cancer, she had been there several times and she would later tell me all about the place and her experiences there. All of this left me with a great love of the Lady of Lourdes and of Bernadette, a gift my Aunt gave to me and for which I will always be thankful.
In my earlier piece, I had also mentioned having stayed at Bernadette’s convent in France – and so I wanted to write just a little more about this particular experience.
At Lourdes, Bernadette had known some of the Sisters of Charity who had a house there; leaving Lourdes after the visions she had been granted, Bernadette travelled to Nevers, to the motherhouse of the order; entering religious life among the Sisters, she was given the name ‘Sister Marie-Bernarde’ – partly in honour of her Aunt, but mainly to take from her the name which had become so well-known throughout the whole world. She would spend the rest of her life there, dying in the Motherhouse on 16th April 1879. Speaking of the convent, she would comment –
“I have come here to hide myself.”
The day after her arrival at the motherhouse, Bernadette was summoned to the Hall of Novices, where around three hundred of the Sisters were gathered. She was instructed to tell the full story of the appearances of Our Blessed Lady at Lourdes. After this, she was not permitted to speak of the visions again, except when being interviewed by important visitors or Church hierarchy.
Nevers is in the Bourgogne region of central France. It takes a couple of hours to reach there by train from the Gard du Nord station in Paris – the trains are ‘old world’ if you get one of the older ones; they are very comfortable, with framed photographs on the carriage walls, lamps on the tables and little curtains at the windows. There are also very modern trains, with every conceivable convenience installed and ready to use.
Arriving at the station in Nevers, you find yourself in the town itself and at the bottom of the hill. Nevers is a very old town and it has a very distinct French charm about it. There is an astonishing market in the town square on Tuesday mornings, where you can buy every type of food and many other things besides. Nevers is also unusual in having a Cathedral, dating back to the Thirteenth Century, which has an altar at both ends. More about that later. Walking upon the hill, the convent is very easy to locate as there are plenty of signs for the many pilgrims who visit there.
Sitting on a vast piece of land surrounded by drystone walls at the back and high stone walls at the front, the tall iron gates stand on the corner of the Rue St Gildard. Walking through them, there is a large statue of Bernadette in her religious habit, directly in front; to the right, there is a replica of the Grotto at Lourdes. Just beneath the niche, there is a marble plaque, attached to which is a large piece of the basalt rock from the original Grotto – the plaque notes this comes from the very spot where Our Lady’s feet rested during Her eighteen appearances to Bernadette in 1858.
Immediately in front, there is a door leading directly into the Chapel. Going through this door, pilgrims are generally surprised to find themselves face to face with the little seer of Lourdes – her golden shrine is immediately in front of them, just a few feet away, in the little side chapel to the right of the sanctuary. In life, Bernadette was anything but tall and her diminutive figure, dressed in the garb of a nun, lies there as though merely asleep, her hands clasping a Rosary and her head tilted to the left, as though to greet those who have come to visit her in the convent. I’m sure many visitors pause for a moment at this point, watching in case the Saint is, in fact, breathing.
The ’T’ shaped chapel is very simple and beautiful. At the very rear of the Chapel, above the main entrance, is the choir loft – Bernadette often came here to pray in peace, as the public could not access it; she would pull her veil close to her face so that even if anyone saw a figure up there, they would not realise it was her.
Going through the main door, the cloister of the convent is beyond, long and beautiful, with wonderful views of the orchard and the gardens to the rear of the convent.
Walking to the left, there is the museum which details the life of Bernadette in Nevers. The museum contains many precious personal items and relics – the chair in which Bernadette died in 1879; the Rosary and Profession Crucifix which were in her hands throughout her time in the tomb; various holy cards and scapulars which she made; the scales she used in the infirmary; personal letters and notebooks which she had written.
Also at that end of the convent there is the refectory, where guests are offered a lovely selection of simple food; and there is the staircase leading up to the ‘Salle de Sainte Croix’ – the former infirmary where, in the chair at the fireplace Bernadette gave her soul back to the Lord. On that fireplace is the statue of Our Blessed Lady as She had appeared at Lourdes, and which Bernadette gazed at longingly in the days approaching her death; just next to it is another little piece of the rock from the interior of the Grotto at Lourdes.
Now, the little infirmary has been made into a Chapel for the Sisters, a Tabernacle on the far wall, and Bernadette’s bed frame now transformed into a small altar. During her illnesses, she spent long periods in this bed, draped with it’s white net curtains – she called it “my white chapel”.
Walking along the cloister to the right brings the pilgrim to the guest accommodation, set over two floors, and the view depending on which side of the ‘H’-shaped building the room is situated.
I had always wanted to visit the convent after reading an article about it many years ago. I first visited in the early 1990s with a good friend of mine, Sandra. The Sisters made us exceptionally welcome and were so hospitable to us. They even allowed us to spend time alone in the old Infirmary, which is not usually open to the public.
I visited again in 1995 with my sister. We spent several days there over the Easter weekend, having travelled from Paris on Good Friday of that year. As before the Sisters were so very kind. Because it was the Easter weekend, my sister and I were the only guests staying at the Convent.
I have two very fond memories of that particular visit.
The first memory is from Holy Saturday of that weekend.
In the evening, just as due was approaching, my sister and I joined the Sisters of the Convent and we all walked together out of the grounds, across the expansive park nearby and to the Cathedral of St Cyr and St Julitte, with it’s double altars.
It was the Easter Vigil Mass and it was exceptionally beautiful, celebrated by Bishop Moutel.
Initially the Cathedral was in complete darkness, until gradually the candles were each lit from the blazing brazier of Easter fire, before one lighted another until the light filled the expanse of the Cathedral.
I spoke with Bishop Moutel after the Mass and he very kindly blessed a small bronze wall Crucifix which I had bought in the convent as a souvenir; as I sit here in the study writing this, I can see that same little Crucifix hanging on the wall above the statue of the Blessed Virgin on Her altar.
My second memory is a very precious and personal one indeed.
It took place the following day, Easter Sunday. Because of the great feast, the Convent was closed to the public, so my sister and I had the place to ourselves. We had been treated to a wonderful Easter lunch – as we entered the refectory, the Sisters had placed bright yellow blossoms at our places at table, which was a beautiful touch; I still have those blossoms, each though the colours are now long-since faded.
My sister went for a walk in the afternoon through the convent grounds and so I spent a couple of hours alone in the Chapel, right beside Bernadette’s gold and crystal catafalque. I prayed the Rosary, kneeling there beside her, and I thought a great deal about when she had prayed this same prayer in the very presence of the Most Blessed Virgin at Lourdes. Bernadette retained her great love of the Rosary for the rest of her life, praying it faithfully until death. Indeed, she died with the words of the ‘Hail Mary’ on her lips –
“..pray for me, poor sinner, poor sinner..”
There are narrow stained glass windows high above Bernadette’s shrine. As I knelt there, the afternoon sunlight flooded in through those windows, such that a shaft of it was coloured a deep blue and fell directly across the shrine of my dearest Saint, bathing her for some time in this colour so long associated with the Mother of God.
Those hours I spent there that afternoon are amongst the most precious of my life and I will never forget them. To have had the opportunity to spend such a long time completely alone with my little Saint, who has been a good and kind friend for so very long, was a great grace and a joy which will likely never be equalled.
All too quickly, our time in the Convent of St Gildard came to an end and it was time to return to Paris before coming home.
But one day, I will return there.
All images are copyright (C) MrWillRoss