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When the author Franz Werfel, an Austrian Jew, fled Europe after the collapse of France in June 1940, he and his wife ended up hiding for several weeks in the city of Lourdes.  It was there that he became familiar with the story of Marie Bernard "Bernadette" Soubirous, the impoverished, asthmatic, fourteen year old girl whose visions of the Virgin Mary at the local trash heap eventually made her a saint.  Werfel vowed that if he managed to escape to America he would tell her story :

    I have dared to sing the song of Bernadette, although I am not a Catholic but a Jew; and I drew courage for this undertaking
    from a far older and far more unconscious vow of mine.  Even in the days when I wrote my first verses I vowed that I would
    evermore and everywhere in all I wrote magnify the divine mystery and the holiness of man--careless of a period which has
    turned away with scorn and rage and indifference from these ultimate values of our mortal lot.

Perhaps these words from his Introduction, written in the safety of Los Angeles in May 1941, reveal another of Bernadette's miracles.

Both the book and the movie based on it are exceptional portraits of a simple girl touched by the divine and of the skepticism and even hostility that greeted her claims.  On February 11, 1858, while gathering firewood with a sister and a friend, young Bernadette Soubirous experienced a vision :  a beautiful Lady appeared to her by a rosebush near the town dump in the grotto at Massabielle.  Bernadette was preparing for her confirmation at that time but was relatively ignorant of religious matters and very nearly illiterate, so her claim was greeted with even more derision than might have been expected.  But the Lady asked Bernadette to return for fifteen days and, while no one else ever saw the Lady, growing numbers of townsfolk accompanied Bernadette each day.  Here is how Bernadette described her experiences in a letter :

    I had gone down one day with two other girls to the bank of the river Gave when suddenly I heard a kind of rustling sound.  I turned
    my head toward the field by the side of the river, but the trees seemed quite still and the noise was evidently not from them. Then I
    looked up and caught sight of the cave where I saw a lady wearing a lovely white dress with a bright belt. On top of each of her feet
    was a pale yellow rose, the same color as her rosary beads.

    At this I rubbed my eyes, thinking I was seeing things, and I put my hands into the fold of my dress where my rosary was. I wanted to
    make the sign of the cross, but for the life of me I couldn't manage it, and my hand just fell down. Then the lady made the sign of the
    cross herself, and at the second attempt I managed to do the same, though my hands were trembling. Then I began to say the rosary
    while the lady let her beads clip through her fingers, without moving her lips. When I stopped saying the Hail Mary, she immediately

    I asked my two companions if they had noticed anything, but they said no. Of course, they wanted to know what I was doing, and I
    told them that I had seen a lady wearing a nice white dress, though I didn't know who she was. I told them not to say anything about it,
    and they said I was silly to have anything to do with it. I said they were wrong, and I came back next Sunday, feeling myself drawn
    to the place....

    The third time I went, the lady spoke to me and asked me to come every day for fifteen days. I said I would and then she said that she
    wanted me to tell the priests to build a chapel there. She also told me to drink from the stream. I went to the Gave, the only stream I
    could see. Then she made me realize she was not speaking of the Gave, and she indicated a little trickle of water close by. When I got
    to it I could only find a few drops, mostly mud. I cupped my hands to catch some liquid without success, and then I started to scrape the
    ground. I managed to find a few drops of water, but only at the fourth attempt was there sufficient for any kind of a drink. The lady then
    vanished and I went back home.

    I went back each day for fifteen days, and each time, except one Monday and one Friday, the lady appeared and told me to look for a
    stream and wash in it and to see that the priests build a chapel there. I must also pray, she said, for the conversion of sinners. I asked her
    many times what she meant by that, but she only smiled. Finally, with outstretched arms and eyes looking up to heaven, she told me she
    was the Immaculate Conception.

A spring appeared in the spot where Bernadette scraped at the mud and it was soon attributed curative powers.  Civic authorities were hostile to the idea of building a chapel at the site and tried stopping it.  They also tried limiting access to the spring but the tide of popular opinion overwhelmed them, especially when the Empress Eugenie, wife of Napoleon III, took an interest.

Though the visions and the cures inevitably gave rise to talk that Bernadette was a saint, she remained quite humble and protested that she had been chosen not because she was more holy than others but because she was more ignorant.  In the wake of these extraordinary events, Bernadette became a nun, entering the convent of the Sisters of Notre Dame in Nevers.  There too she was greeted with skepticism, particularly from the mistress of novices.  But this persecution ended when she revealed that she had a painful and incurable disease.  Bernadette died on April 16, 1879.  She was beatified in 1925 and canonized, appropriately enough, on December 8th, 1933, the day of the feast of Immaculate Conception.

Both book and film are utterly earnest in their treatment of Bernadette's life.  They are entirely hagiographic.  The strongest scene in the film comes when the mistress of novices, Sister Marie Therese Vauzous (Gladys Cooper), is tormenting Bernadette with the accusation that God would not have chosen a girl who had suffered so little, when there are women, like herself who have suffered so much.  Bernadette humbly says that perhaps she can relieve some of the Sister's doubts and shows her the "tuberculosis of the bone" that, unbeknownst to anyone else, is eating away at Bernadette's leg.  Marie Therese is overwhelmed with guilt and becomes Bernadette's devoted servant.  And a relationship that is nicely played in both book and film is that between Bernadette and the leading local cleric, Marie Dominique Peyramale, Dean of Lourdes (Charles Bickford).  Initially hostile, he is soon touched by Bernadette's simplicity and guilelessness, but remains troubled by the overly theatrical and religiously dubious claim that the Lady called herself "Immaculate Conception".  Yet, in the end, he believes her and in her and goes to be at her side when she is dying.  After she passes, he surprises himself by whispering : "Your life begins, O Bernadette."

Even if you're skeptical of the miracles yourself, it's still possible to enjoy the story.  The film was nominated for twelve Academy Awards and features Jennifer Jones as a marvelously underplayed Bernadette.  Werfel of course brought to the book his own dramatic story but never overreaches.  Here's an example of how he describes the effect of Bernadette's visions :

    By the favor of incomprehensible powers, Bernadette Soubirous had performed a greater miracle than the discovery of a spring.
    Without her knowledge or desire Bernadette communicated to the downtrodden something of that compassionate consolation which
    flooded her being whenever she saw the lady again. Inexplicably she transferred to masses of men a portion in the heaven of her love.

    Through BernadetteĆ­s mediation they began to feel that behind the forms and words and rites used by the clergy there lay not a vague
    possibility but an almost tangible reality. No more were mortal need and sorrow mere granite loads to be dragged from meaningless
    birth to equally meaningless death. The granite had grown porous and strangely light.

Even if "all" Bernadette Soubirous did was inspire people, including Werfel, to help or heal themselves, she still did something pretty miraculous, something that makes her special.  And if you are more open to the idea of miracles, Bernadette seems like precisely the kind of innocent and selfless soul through whom God would work His wonders.

Buy the book and the film at


Grade: (A+)


Book-related and General Links:
    -Franz Werfel (kirjasto)
    -ESSAY : Franz Werfel (1890-1945) & Alma Mahler-Werfel (1879-1964) : German Exiles in Southern California (Feuchtwanger Memorial Library, University of Southern California)
    -Alma Mahler and Franz Werfel Papers: A Selection of Photographs : Franz Werfel (University of Pennsylvania)
    -Prominent Refugees : Franz Werfel
    -gariwo - Armenia - Werfel
    -ARTWORK : Portraits : Franz Werfel
    -Find A Grave : Franz Werfel
    -ESSAY : Revisiting Franz Werfel (George Weigel, The Catholic Difference)
    -ESSAY : Franz Werfel knew that he had been taken in by forgeries (Excerpts from the book : A Myth of Terror : An Illustrated Expose by Eric Feigl, Armenian Extremism:Its Causes and Its Historical Context)
    -REVIEW : of Alma Mahler: Muse to Genius by Karen Monson (Gabriele Annan, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW : of Bride of the Wind, directed by Bruce Beresford (Rob Blackwelder, SplicedWire)
    -MOVIE LIST : Conservative Movie Guide : #55) Song of Bernadette (National Review)

    -FILMOGRAPHY : Franz Werfel (
    -INFO : The Song of Bernadette (1943) (
    -INFO : Song of Bernadette (Rotten Tomatoes)
    -Song of Bernadette (hiwaay)
    -FILMOGRAPHY : Henry King (
    -REVIEW : of Song of Bernadette (Brian Koller, Films Graded)
    -REVIEW : of Song of Bernadette (Doug Pratt's Laserdisc Review)

    -Saint Bernadette (Catholic Pilgrims)
    -Patron Saints Index: Saint Bernadette of Lourdes (Catholic Forum)
    -St. Bernadette (Catholic Online Saints)
    -St. Bernadette Soubirous (Catholic Online Marian Pages)
    -Saint Bernadette Soubirous |
    -Sacrifice of Love : Our Paitron Saint
    -Bernadette Soubirous (
    -CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA: Notre-Dame de Lourdes
    -EXCERPT : final chapter of "Saint Bernadette Soubirous" by Abbé François Trochu (published by Tan Books)  "He hath exalted the humble"
    -REVIEW : of Lourdes: Body and Spirit in the Secular Age. By Ruth Harris (First Things)
    -REVIEW : of The Forbidden Image: An Intellectual History of Iconoclasm. By Alain Besançon. Translated by Jean Marie Todd (Edward T. Oakes, First Things)
    -REVIEW : of Mary Through the Centuries: Her Place in the History of Culture. By Jaroslav Pelikan (Edward T. Oakes, First Things)

Recommended films of Henry King :
    -Lloyd's of London (1936)
    -Stanley and Livingstone (1939)