The year is 1909, and it’s been 30 years since the death of Bernadette Soubirous – a simple but pious girl from a small town in France. Doctors are preparing to perform the first exhumation of her body. And in normal circumstances, the medics might expect to find some degree of natural decomposition. But Bernadette was no ordinary person.
As a teenager in Lourdes, Bernadette became notorious for apparently experiencing visions of the Virgin Mary. Wanting to escape the attention, however, she lived out the rest of her days humbly at a Catholic convent in Nevers, France. Yet Bernadette’s life was blighted by ill health. And the Frenchwoman passed away at the young age of 35 after a prolonged battle with tuberculosis.
So, when experts came to dig up Bernadette’s body in 1909, they were searching for evidence that might explain the supposed divine encounters that had brought her fame as a young woman. And as the team carefully prized the stone slab off her tomb and cracked open the coffin, they were met by an eerie sight. You see, three decades after Bernadette’s death, her body remained mysteriously intact.
Saint Bernadette entered the world as Marie Bernarde Soubirous on January 7, 1844. She was born in the French town of Lourdes, near the Pyrenees mountains, along with eight brothers and sisters. Bernadette’s father, François, worked at a mill, while her mother, Louise, did laundry for a living. And it’s safe to say that the family suffered their share of financial hardship.
Meanwhile, on top of the poverty that Bernadette experienced, she was also beset with sickness. And some say that this could explain why the Frenchwoman never grew beyond 4 feet and 7 inches in height. As a small child, Bernadette fell ill with cholera, and she was afflicted by acute breathing problems for the remainder of her existence.
Bernadette’s schooling was also affected in part by her frail health. Her reading and writing skills were poor, for instance, and she only had a limited grasp of French. Instead, Bernadette talked in Occitan – a tongue native to the Pyrenees region in which she lived.
Now at some point in Bernadette’s childhood, her family’s fortunes slumped so significantly that the 11 of them were forced to live together in a single underground room. And although they dwelt there rent free thanks to a relative of Louise’s, the conditions weren’t ideal. The makeshift home had in fact once operated as a prison cell, and it was aptly nicknamed “the dungeon.”
Meanwhile, in order to feed their many children, Bernadette’s parents were forced to shoulder all manner of work. And for some time, Bernadette herself helped out her former wet nurse, Marie Lagues, in the nearby village of Bartrès. The girl was apparently taken on so that Marie could look after her, but accounts have it that she found herself caring for her former wet nurse’s own brood and even ministering to her sheep – all without pay.
Throughout Bernadette’s struggles, however, she maintained a strong sense of religious devotion. When the Frenchwoman was chastised for failing to memorize her religious studies, for instance, she reportedly responded by saying, “At least she would always know how to love the good God.” And Bernadette’s pious nature certainly didn’t go unnoticed by local clergymen.
In fact, a priest called Abbe Arder, from the commune of Bartrès, appeared to be quite taken with Bernadette – despite his limited interactions with her. “She seems to me like a flower surrounded in divine perfume,” Arder apparently mused. On another occasion, he reportedly said of the girl, “Look at this small child. When the Blessed Virgin wants to appear on Earth, she chooses children like her.” But no one could have imagined just how apt the clergyman’s description of Bernadette would turn out to be.
You see, in February 1858 Bernadette was out collecting firewood with her sibling Toinette and a playmate called Jeanne. It’s said that the girls were exploring a little cave – known as Massabielle, meaning “old rock” – at the bottom of a hillside in Lourdes. Cattle were known to take refuge inside the grotto, and in front of it ran a brook.
The story goes that Toinette and Jeanne crossed the river away from the grotto and continued on their way. Bernadette, however, was apparently reluctant to do the same for fear of getting cold, so she searched for a dryer route. And in the end, the teenaged girl reportedly decided that she’d need to take off her shoes and stockings in order to traverse the water.
After Bernadette then sat down to remove her footwear, it seems she heard a noise that sounded like a gust of wind. Yet almost everything stayed eerily still. Apparently, the only thing that moved with the breeze was a wild rose inside the grotto. Bernadette also claimed that at this point, without warning, a figure appeared from the darkness of the cave.
Later, Bernadette would describe the apparition as a beautiful young woman who was bathed in a sparkling light. The vision reportedly stretched its arms out towards Bernadette, too, perhaps signaling the Frenchwoman to come closer. And apparently, the figure was also carrying an ivory-colored rosary.
According to a 1941 book by Franz Werfel, The Song of Bernadette, the teenaged girl initially felt alarmed by the vision. But something, it seems, compelled her to stay, and she found herself strangely enthralled by the figure. Then, Bernadette was moved to pull out her own rosary and pray. And it’s said that when she stopped after around 15 minutes, the apparition suddenly vanished.
Afterwards, Bernadette told her sister Toinette about her strange encounter with the mysterious vision. And although the teenaged girl apparently swore her sibling to silence, it seems that Toinette subsequently told their parents. So it was that word of the apparition in the cave soon spread throughout Lourdes.
Little did Bernadette know, however, that this professed vision was not to be her last. In fact, she would reportedly experience 18 of them between the spring and summer of 1858. The second is said to have taken place on February 14 of that year, when Bernadette visited the cave again after church. And this time, according to reports, the teenaged girl went with her sister Marie and a number of acquaintances.
The story goes that as soon as Bernadette arrived at the cave, she dropped to her knees, claiming that the figure had appeared once more. Yet while it’s been reported that Bernadette entered a trance-like state, the other girls were apparently unaffected. Accounts also claim that when one of the group sprayed holy water into the darkness and another smashed a stone on the ground, the vision subsequently vanished.
According to historian Therese Taylor, Bernadette returned to the grotto once again on February 18. And on this occasion, the strange figure apparently instructed the teenaged girl to visit the cave daily for two weeks. This period would eventually be referred to as “la Quinzaine sacrée” – or the “holy fortnight” – and it was to define the rest of Bernadette’s life.
It’s said that during one of these visits to the grotto, the figure asked Bernadette to quench her thirst from a spring and clean herself in its water. But there was no spring around. And so the story goes that Bernadette dug into the soil and uncovered a bubbling brook. The young woman then apparently took a drink from the water source – starting a tradition that would make Lourdes among the most important Catholic pilgrimage sites in the world.
Before long, the spring that Bernadette is said to have uncovered was producing thousands of gallons of water each day. And it has continued to do so even during periods of little rainfall. Today, the spring is redirected into a reservoir that provides water for pilgrims to bathe in and drink – just as it’s believed Bernadette did the same all those years ago.
The discovery of the spring wasn’t the last vision that Bernadette claimed to have experienced, though. And during the seventh reported manifestation, the young woman was apparently given an important task. You see, it seems that the apparition wanted the local clergymen to construct a chapel beside the grotto – a directive that Bernadette subsequently passed on to her family.
Prior to this, Bernadette’s parents had reportedly been a little ashamed by their daughter’s tales and had even tried to prevent her from going to the cave. Yet some locals believed the teenaged girl, and these people were seemingly of the opinion that she’d seen the Virgin Mary. Bernadette herself hadn’t yet confirmed this theory, however.
Apparently, though, Bernadette did provide a thorough description of the apparition. According to Taylor’s 2003 biography, Bernadette of Lourdes: Her Life, Death and Visions, the young woman described the figure as “a small young lady.” She also reportedly claimed that the apparition was attired in a white shawl and a blue belt. And Bernadette in addition apparently recalled having seen a yellow flower on each of the figure’s feet – echoing many religious depictions of the Virgin Mary.
But it seems that Bernadette wouldn’t receive any firm indication of who the enigmatic apparition was until one of her final visions. The Frenchwoman claimed that during this hour-long encounter, she repeatedly asked the figure what she was called. And apparently, the vision revealed, “I am the Immaculate Conception.” This was the last time that Bernadette would claim the Virgin Mary had spoken to her, however.
Following Bernadette’s visions, she was questioned by religious officials and government authorities. Yet her account never wavered. And in 1862 the church actually declared the teenaged girl’s visions to have been real. What’s more, the spring that Bernadette uncovered has, according to the Lourdes Medical Bureau, led to nearly 70 miraculous healings.
Meanwhile, in the same year as Bernadette’s professed visions, the mayor of Lourdes had requested that the water from the grotto be tested. And an expert had found that the spring – despite its raised mineral content – contained nothing that could have explained the verified cures. However, according to Bernadette, the secret ingredients behind the miracles were simply belief and worship. She reportedly said, “The water will have no virtue without faith.”
In the meantime, Bernadette’s calls for the construction of a church at the cave led to various places of worship being built in Lourdes. The land closest to the grotto itself became known as the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes. And today the holy site attracts millions of devotees from across the globe each year.
But while Lourdes thrived as a pilgrimage site following the visions, Bernadette herself was apparently eager to escape the exposure that they had brought her. As a result, she traveled over 400 miles from her hometown to live at a religious institute run by the Sisters of Charity of Nevers. And it was here that Bernadette finally grew to be literate.
In 1866 Bernadette also became a novice nun. And she lived out the rest of her days in Nevers in solitude and prayer. According to reports, Bernadette was admired by those around her for her piety, warmheartedness and keen humor, and these attributes were apparently untiring even in the face of continual illness and physical suffering.
Eventually, though, in April 1879, Bernadette succumbed to her long battle with tuberculosis. And yet although the nun had been in immense discomfort, she’d apparently continued to pray right up until her death. It’s said that Bernadette’s last words were thus: “Blessed Mary, Mother of God, pray for me! A poor sinner, a poor sinner.”
Bernadette’s body was subsequently interred at the Saint Gildard Convent in Lurcy-le-Bourg – a commune not far from Nevers. However, the church dug up her body in 1909. And shockingly, despite the fact that Bernadette had been dead for 30 years, her remains were remarkably preserved. Even though the cross and rosary that lay in the coffin had both rusted, the corpse was practically free from signs of decay.
According to Roman Catholicism, God allows for the remains of religiously significant individuals to avoid decomposition. A corpse that somehow resists this natural decay is referred to as incorrupt. And Catholics believe this to be an indicator that the owner of the body is a saint.
Given Bernadette’s professed divine visions, there may have been cause to suspect that she was deserving of this holy title. And this perhaps explains why her coffin was reopened. In any case, the inspection was carried out by physicians Dr. David and Dr. Jourdan, who later testified that there had been no odor nor any visual indications of decay.
In fact, a document that was signed by both doctors following their examination describes in great detail how Bernadette’s remains lacked the expected signs of decomposition. The report comments on the body’s “perfectly preserved” hands and fingernails, for instance, as well as its intact facial features. What’s more, the nuns who had readied Bernadette’s remains for entombment three decades prior claimed that she appeared the same as she had done back then.
Now in order to be considered officially incorruptible, a body must be well preserved in vigor and hue and appear almost living. There should be no signs of normal decomposition or odor, either, nor any clear explanation as to how this condition might be the case. And when it came to Bernadette, her remains certainly seemed to fit the bill.
This wasn’t the last time that Bernadette’s remains were disturbed, mind you. Following the first exhumation – after which her body was washed and redressed before being returned to its resting place – the coffin was opened again in 1919. And just as before, there was apparently a distinct lack of odor. This time, however, the corpse’s skin had undergone some discoloration – although it’s likely that this had been caused by people touching it back in 1909. Meanwhile, the skin had become desiccated, and there was some evidence of mold.
At this point, Dr. Comte – one of the experts performing the examination – removed a few parts of Bernadette’s body in order to send them to Rome in anticipation of her being made a saint. Then, in 1925, the nun’s remains were exhumed for a third and final time. And the corpse was subsequently transferred to a new resting place in Nevers’ Chapel of St. Bernadette.
Since then, Bernadette’s body has been displayed in a glass casket. Wax molds are now in place over the face and hands in order to disguise the darkened color of the skin. And fascinatingly, in order to achieve a likeness, these coverings were created especially by a Parisian company, using photographs from when Bernadette was alive and an impression of her face.
After being declared blessed in 1925, Bernadette was officially made a saint by Pope Pius XI on December 8, 1933. Her resting place in Nevers, meanwhile, continues to be a significant pilgrimage destination. And even 140 years after the famous nun’s death, there is still no explanation as to why her body has remained so mysteriously unchanged – except, of course, by means of divine intervention.
So is Bernadette’s tale unique, or are there other saints whose corpses remain eerily intact? Well, thousands of people over the years have flocked to the Vatican to view the decades-old body of Padre Pio – a “mystic monk” whose story will blow your mind.
Traveling to Rome in 2016 had not been a journey that Padre Pio himself had expected to make. But as he moves through the ancient streets towards the Vatican, large crowds gather, cheer and take photos. And if the priest were to open his eyes briefly, any doubts that people have about his abilities would surely fade. In fact, Pio would be performing a miracle that no one this time around could deny. Right now, you see, Pio is lying in a crystal sarcophagus – having been dead for several decades.
Yet even though the priest passed away back in 1968, his cadaver appears extremely lifelike as he shuttles through the capital in his coffin. Miraculously, perhaps, his face – all the way down to his wispy beard – looks practically identical to how it did in life. And as Pio – who posthumously became a saint – always said that he would do more after his death than during his life, maybe it’s not so strange that he’s drawing crowds even now.
What’s more, while the Catholic Church came to eventually accept Pio, it had certainly been a long road. Once, you see, the former friar had run afoul of Vatican leaders for his seemingly unreal manifestations of their God. But now, Pio’s life inspires millions of pilgrims to visit his stunningly preserved remains – even in the years after the man himself passed on.
Astonishingly, at just five years old, Francesco Forgione knew what he wanted to do with his life. You’ve guessed it: the young shepherd had already decided to devote himself to the church. And as one of five surviving children born to parents Grazio and Maria, he grew up with a strong Catholic grounding. The Forgione family, who were based some 60 miles from Naples in Pietrelcina, attended church and prayed the rosary every day.
And while Forgione had gone through just three years of public school by 1897, he nevertheless felt ready to leave academia behind. After he had heard a Capuchin friar speak in the countryside, you see, he had felt drawn to become one, too. So, his parents brought the boy to a nearby Franciscan order to see if the young Forgione could join.
Fortunately, then, the friars said that they’d be happy to welcome Forgione – so long as he underwent further education. Grazio thus moved to the United States to obtain work and pay for his son’s private tutoring. And the hard graft ultimately paid off when Forgione met the academic benchmarks and entered the Capuchin Order on January 6, 1903.
About two weeks after that, Forgione adopted the Franciscan lifestyle for the first time. On that day, he also changed his name to Friar Pio, paying homage to Pope Pius I. And he vowed to live in chastity, poverty and obedience, after which he embarked on the steps involved in becoming a priest.
But Friar Pio’s journey to priesthood, which began with studying in Umbria, would be a turbulent one. Around two years after joining the Capuchin Order, he became sick, experiencing symptoms of insomnia, exhaustion, migraines and fainting. The then-17-year-old couldn’t digest any food aside from milk and cheese, either, and he vomited constantly.
Strikingly, at around the time of these symptoms, Friar Pio’s peers reportedly started to notice strange changes in his behavior. In the midst of prayer, they noted, the teenager seemed to be in a daze. Another friar even claimed to have seen Friar Pio levitating from the ground and experiencing religious ecstasy.
Nevertheless, Friar Pio’s health didn’t improve in the midst of all of this. His superiors therefore transferred him to a convent in the mountains in the hope that the fresh air would help him to get better. But sadly the move didn’t change anything, so doctors ordered Pio to go home to Pietrelcina.
Yet even at home, Friar Pio’s health remained in the same dire condition. Nevertheless, he survived to make his solemn profession of faith in 1907, and in 1910 he became an ordained priest. The once-sickly religious man said his first Mass in the week following his ordainment, although he would remain in his family’s care for six more years.
And it wasn’t until September 1916 that the man who could now call himself Padre Pio finally returned to the Capuchin Order. In fact, he moved to the Gargano Mountains, where he and six other friars served the San Giovanni Rotondo community. Pio would remain at this post until his death, too – save for his spells serving in World War I.
After World War I concluded, though, Padre Pio’s influence appeared to grow in the south of Italy. As locals started the monumental task of post-conflict rebuilding, they looked to him as a source of hope and inspiration. At the same time, Pio started to exhibit the behaviors for which he would be known long after his death. And a few notable claims were about to cause quite a stir in the Catholic Church.
For one thing, Padre Pio seemed to some to have a miraculous ability to heal his followers. For example, Gemma di Giorgi had come into the world without eyesight, owing to the fact that she had no pupils. But once the young girl met with Padre Pio, it’s said that she gained vision – even despite her condition.
Another woman, Signora Massari, came to Pio to cure her deafness – a condition she had had for two decades. And as the story goes, after she requested the priest’s help, she started to hear his chants during mass. Then when Signora Massari left the service, she could apparently hear the church bells ringing – for the first time in 20 years.
But while Padre Pio also had a reputation for converting people to Catholicism, sometimes that allegedly came in conjunction with a miracle, too. For example, Jewish man Lello Pegna came to the famed priest in the hope that he could cure his blindness. According to Catholicism.org, though, Pio told Pegna that he couldn’t help him until he became baptized in the Catholic Church.
Pio reportedly explained to Pegna, “The Lord will not grant you the grace of physical sight unless you first receive sight for your soul. After you are baptized, then the Lord will give you your sight.” So, while it’s said that the blind man converted against his family’s wishes, his slight then slowly started to return. In the end, as the story goes, Pegna’s vision was completely renewed.
However, not all of Padre Pio’s purported miracles had to do with healing. Most famously, he is known for allegedly suffering from stigmata – markings and bleeding in the same places as Christ’s crucifixion wounds. And the priest appears to have first shared details of his lacerations in 1911, when he wrote a letter to another religious man. In the missive, Pio explained, “In the middle of the palms of my hands a red mark appeared – about the size of a penny – accompanied by acute pain.”
But other sources claim that Pio only started manifesting the phenomenon in 1918. At that time, the priest was supposedly in the midst of hearing confessions when blood started to flow from his stigmata. And strangely, those who claimed to have witnessed the sight suggested that the blood smelled as if it had been perfumed, or perhaps that it had the scent of flowers.
Now it’s said that the bearded priest tried to keep his stigmata under wraps – quite literally. Yes, he wore gloves or other coverings to hide the wounds, as he was said to have been embarrassed by them. However, by 1919, word had started to spread that the priest bore the signs of the stigmata. And as you can imagine, visiting him in the Campania region thus became a religious pilgrimage for many.
Plus, while not every person who came to see Padre Pio could expect him to perform a miracle, they could still find out for themselves whether he possessed the markings of the stigmata. And this fact contributed to the priest’s already large following; even non-believers would come to see if he did indeed present the crucifixion wounds.
Beyond that, Padre Pio had a few other inexplicable qualities. For one thing, he is said to have appeared to others in visions – including on the day of his death – while some have reported seeing him praying in church even though he hadn’t left his room. And Pio also apparently gave prophecies. At one point, he supposedly told Father Karol Józef Wojtyła that he’d one day ascend to the church’s “highest post.” Later, that man became Pope John Paul II.
But not everyone bought into Padre Pio’s mystical powers, healing abilities and stigmata. Perhaps most importantly, the Vatican did not appreciate the hubbub surrounding their priest in southern Italy. And in the 1920s Catholic leaders stopped him from giving Mass, blessing his followers, showing his stigmata or answering letters.
Understandably, the church was worried that Padre Pio hadn’t actually received his stigmata from a divine source. Instead, the Vatican feared that the marks were self-inflicted, which would have meant the friar had garnered his following falsely. With that in mind, the organization sent a doctor to examine the wounds.
And the results of the examination didn’t exactly come out in Padre Pio’s favor. Yes, the doctor determined that the priest had not only likely created the wounds himself, but that he had also kept them open. So, the medic wrapped the cuts and sealed them in such a way that Pio couldn’t take them off. But the story doesn’t end there.
After a month, the doctor removed the bandages to find that Padre Pio’s stigmata curiously remained unhealed. Now, during previous medical procedures, the priest’s surgical wounds had closed up over time. Additionally, blood tests revealed nothing abnormal about his genetic makeup. All things considered, then, the lacerations on his hands should have healed, too.
But Padre Pio underwent more than one medical examination, and yet another expert agreed that he hadn’t received his wounds divinely. Yes, Agostino Gemelli, a Franciscan priest and psychiatrist, evaluated his peer in 1926. After that, Gemelli concluded that Pio had used some sort of corrosive agent to keep his wounds open. He additionally claimed that Pio was of “hysteric mind,” and any ideas of manifestation had been “planted” by a trusted colleague.
And later reports – even ones that emerged after Padre Pio’s death – apparently corroborated such a stance. Historian Sergio Luzzatto, who published a book on the priest in 2007, claimed to have uncovered evidence suggesting foul play. Documents proved, the writer said, that Pio had used carbolic acid to create and maintain his faux stigmata. Luzzatto also reportedly discovered that one of his pilgrims had tried to help him procure the acid he needed.
According to The Independent, a woman named Maria De Vito had asked her pharmacist cousin for a bottle of carbolic acid. Not only this, but she apparently requested the item in Pio’s name and in “strict secrecy.” The pharmacist is said to have admitted, “My thought was that the carbolic acid could be used by Padre Pio to procure or further irritate wounds on his hands.”
However, by the time Luzzatto had shared his findings, the Vatican had already changed its mind on Padre Pio. As early as 1933, the Church began to let go of the suspicion that had once surrounded the popular priest. And that year, Pope Pius XI removed the ban that had prevented Pio from giving mass publicly.
Then, 12 months or so later, Pope Pius XI gave Padre Pio the green light to hear confessions again. To add to that, when Pius XI’s successor, Pius XII, took over, it became obvious that Pio had been redeemed. How? Well, the new pope actually began to encourage worshippers to visit the priest in southern Italy.
Then in the mid-’60s Pope Paul VI crystallized the church’s position on Padre Pio by dismissing all allegations against the priest. Interestingly, this decision came near the end of Pio’s life, as he ultimately passed away in 1968 after having served the church for most of his 81 years.
Meanwhile, according to Reverend John Schug’s book A Padre Pio Profile, the priest often said, “After my death, I will do more. My real mission will begin after my death.” In 1982, then, the archbishop of Manfredonia began an investigation to determine if Pio could become a saint.
Intriguingly, the seven-year inquiry did not include an official verdict from the Catholic Church on Padre Pio’s stigmata – even though disagreements over the source of the wounds could have prevented his canonization from happening. Instead, in 1990, the Church focused on considering whether or not Pio had lived an honorable life.
By this time, John Paul II held the Church’s highest post, and he decided in 1997 that Pio was venerable. Next, the Pope and others discussed Padre Pio’s reported healing powers and their effects on others. And this led John Paul II to deem the famous priest “blessed” in 1999.
So just as Padre Pio himself had predicted, even after his passing, he continued to do good on Earth. As such, John Paul II declared Padre Pio a saint on June 16, 2002 – two decades after the investigation had begun. And the event demonstrated the power that the priest continued to wield, as roughly 300,000 people came to the Roman ceremony.
What’s more, pilgrims converged to visit Saint Pio at his final resting place in San Giovanni Rotondo. And in 2008 his presence there became physical when the priest’s remains were exhumed and placed on display. Notably, a silicone mask modeled on his face was produced, with this having the effect of making the corpse appear more lifelike.
Now that brings us back to the start of our story. In 2016, you see, Pio heeded yet another call from the Vatican. This time, Pope Francis wanted to place the saint’s body on display in St. Peter’s Basilica; ostensibly, he would be a symbol of that Holy Year’s theme of mercy. And as Pio’s clear coffin made its way through the streets of Rome to the Vatican, thousands gathered.
According to HuffPost, Pope Francis would also iterate why Saint Pio was such a worthy example of the Holy theme. In effect, the Catholic leader said, the former priest had been a “servant of mercy.” The Pope added, “He did so full time, practicing – at times in exhaustion – the apostolate of listening.”
Thereafter, Pio’s remains sat on display at St. Peter’s Basilica for about a month before returning to San Giovanni Rotondo. And he continues to draw a stunning number of visitors to the small Italian town. In fact, according to estimates, hundreds of thousands flock to the location every year – until, perhaps, Pio is sent on another journey of his own.