Taking holy waters at Lourdes: faith or fiction?

MyFrenchLife™ – MyFrenchLife.org – MyFrenchLife™ - Taking Holy Waters at LourdesThere she was. The Virgin Mary. Standing right in front of Bernadette, the miller’s daughter, who saw her eighteen times. In a cave. In 1875. Just outside Lourdes. And the vision told her to drink of the spring water, and to wash in it.

Lourdes: a place of many miracles?

Then, following a thorough investigation by Church authorities, this miraculous appearance was verified. And that’s why Bernadette was made a saint in 1933. And it’s also why this pretty town in the Haut Pyrénées attracts so many visitors. Six million pilgrims flock to the cave every year.

This makes Lourdes second only to Paris in the number of hotel rooms available in France.

Many of the visitors and pilgrims hope to experience another miracle.

And some of them do, apparently.

Dozens of seriously ill people leave the grotto every year convinced that they have been cured of some maladie or other. Discarded crutches, calipers and wheelchairs bear witness to these allegedly miraculous cures.

Proving that a miracle has occurred is no easy matter.

Pilgrims make c. 35 claims each and every year.  Certain facts need to be established, for a cure to be recognised as a miracle. Amongst others, the cure must be immediate, complete and permanent.

The Church claims the verification process is an “extremely rigorous scientific and medical” investigation. Provided the cures are medically inexplicable—and therefore a possible miracle—the case goes to le Comité Médical International de Lourdes. Then, following a convoluted path, it moves on to the Vatican where the final decision—miracle or no miracle—is made.

The Holy Water of Lourdes

Lourdes water flows from a spring in the grotto. A system of taps allows tourists to drink and collect water from an imposing cistern near the shrine.

MyFrenchLife™ – MyFrenchLife.org – MyFrenchLife™ - Taking Holy Waters at Lourdes

And the more intrepid faithful can even experience total immersion in a series of baths or piscines du sanctuaire. But beware, the water is reportedly very cold.

Emile Zola did not like the look of bathing in Lourdes water.

He visited the grotto in the late nineteenth century and wrote, “As some hundred patients passed through the same water, you can imagine what a horrible slop it was at the end. There was everything in it: threads of blood, sloughed-off skin, scabs, bits of cloth and bandage, an abominable soup of ills… the miracle was that anyone emerged alive from this human slime.”

Making money: the souvenirs of Lourdes

Souvenirs in Lourdes are a lively industry.
“Our biggest sellers are anything to do with water. Plastic Lourdes bottles and Virgin Mary shaped jerry cans,” says the manager of one of the dozens of souvenir shops that line the streets. “Pilgrims buy them in their millions to carry the holy water away with them.”

For those unable to travel—no problem.

A five-litre container of water is available from Amazon: “We certify that each container is filled by ourselves with the Holy water from the Grotto of Lourdes.” And it can be delivered to your home for only two hundred US dollars.

MyFrenchLife™ – MyFrenchLife.org – MyFrenchLife™ - Taking Holy Waters at Lourdes

Candles are also on the list of best sellers.

Lourdes is said to consume more candles than any other town on earth: two tonnes a day. This consumption is helped by signs pointing out that “candles help your prayers last longer.” Lighting a candle can even be carried out online: “We are now able to deliver and light your candle at the Grotto on your behalf, and can even personalise it with your prayer message, addressed to Our Lady of Lourdes.”

Lourdes: religious exploitation or a great experience?

Many critics see Lourdes as tacky commercialism and even downright religious exploitation.

But, why get negative just because of the marriage of religion and commerce? Countless tourists all over the world have a bucket list of ever-popular devotional shrines they’d like to visit.

  • The Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery in Hong Kong,
  • Notre Dame de Paris,
  • St Paul’s in London, and
  • St Peter’s in Rome are visited by millions of secular visitors every year. And an associated gift shop is always close at hand.

So, if your travels take you anywhere near Lourdes in Southwestern France, do pay it a visit. It’s a great tourist experience and a fascinating place. And if your gout doesn’t immediately disappear after drinking the (free) holy water, why not carry home a litre or two in case a delayed-action miracle kicks in?

And while you’re there, for just ten euros or so, you can pick up something you’ll be surprised you were ever able to live without. Your very own Virgin Mary snow globe desk ornament.

Have you ever visited Lourdes? Do you consider it tacky commercialism, or a religious site? We’d love to hear your thoughts and comments in the box below!

Image credits

  1. Grotto of Lourdes, by José Luiz via Wikipedia
  2. Our Lady of Lourdes Grotto, by Ryan J.P. Butt via Wikipedia
  3. Recipients for collecting water, via Wikipedia

About the Contributor

Ray Johnstone

Ray is an artist & writer. His favourite subjects are nudes and portraits. Art holidays for groups & families are catered for in their 800-year-old house La Petite Galerie in Gascony. They also take up to 6 walkers on the 'best bits' of the Pilgrims Route to Compostela. Check out Ray's 100+ articles - he has his own column called 'Perspectives'

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  1. Keisha Davis May 23, 2019 at 9:17 AM - Reply

    Really need prayer

  2. Pauline Ellerton Aug 23, 2020 at 12:05 PM - Reply

    I visited Lourdes two years ago and found it very beautiful. I had the bath yes it was very cold but
    Very invigorating. We spent three full days there and could have stayed longer. Our lady of Lourdes pray for us sinners. We love you.

  3. Steven Toh Sep 21, 2020 at 3:57 PM - Reply

    Lourdes is an interesting book from Emile Zola, knowing his reputation as the founder of a new literary movement ‘Le Naturisme’, return to nature, an extreme form of realism which explains everything based on natural causes rather than supernatural or divine causes.
    I tried to write a blog about him , see whether you like it: https://stenote.blogspot.com/2020/02/an-interview-with-emile.html

  4. Steven Toh Oct 7, 2020 at 1:03 PM - Reply

    Emile Zola experienced Lourdes, he saw and wrote about a cure of lupus in his book Lourdes, yet he denied that it was a miracle. He even refused to look at her the healing of her face closely, and said: ’To me she is still ugly.’

  5. Linda Mikkelson May 22, 2021 at 3:53 AM - Reply

    My deep spiritual feeling at Lourdes was the presence of humans who had come to pray.An essence of faith was palatable and a sense of humanity beyond belief.Of course this is where miracles happen.Gosh together we are an unstoppable force for good .Sometimes when we are catapulted into the most difficult of circumstances the desperate need for hope is expressed.Yes you can buy cheap souveniers yes their are always peolpe profiting however the experience here is beyond all this is a pilgramage and pilgrams know it.

  6. Mary Gioia Jun 28, 2023 at 4:52 AM - Reply

    Fourteen years ago my daughter was told her baby would be born with part of her brain missing and was advised to have an abortion. Dr was seven months pregnant. Determined to keep her baby she prayed always for a miracle. My brother, heartbroken for my daughter offered to take her to Lourdes. Medically unable to go her went for her. He brought back the holy water for her to drink. At peace with Gods plan my daughter gave birth two months later. Doctors called her baby girl Isabella Grace a Miracle. Tests and evaluations showed no signs of any defects that were detected earlier. We are so blessed. In September I made a pilgrimage with my daughter to Lourdes to thank Our Lady for our beautiful gift of Isabella. I have a hunger to return. One visit is not enough. Thank you Mary

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