Here’s a saint study about St. Bernadette Soubirous, complete with lesson ideas and activities.
By Kate Daneluk
What is more traumatizing to a young person than being teased and humiliated? Children and especially teens are particularly vulnerable to long-term emotional damage from childhood ridicule.
The anti-bullying movement is a response to a real problem in our society, exacerbated by social media. Children feel powerless in these situations and suicide as a result of bullying is on the rise.
Never have our children needed the friendship and example of St. Bernadette more. This young girl chose to follow the Blessed Mother and speak the truth even when she faced ridicule and threat by non-believers, those who had authority over her, and sometimes her own peers.
About St. Bernadette Soubirous
In 1844 a country miller and his young wife were blessed with their first child, Bernadette. They went on to have eight more children, but like many children of this time period, four died in infancy and another as a young boy.
When Bernadette was 10, a cholera epidemic overcame the small town of Lourdes. Bernadette almost died of the illness. Shortly after, famine swept the land, and destroyed her father, Francois’, business.
Reduced to poverty, her family was given residence in an abandoned jail cell. The environment, coupled with Bernadette’s weakened constitution, left her frequently sick with asthma. Despite such trying times, the Soubirous family was a loving, peaceful, and faithful family who maintained close relationships with neighbors and extended family through the town.
While collecting firewood near a grotto, Bernadette had her first vision of the most beautiful young lady she had ever seen.
The lady was surrounded by a brilliant but gentle light and dressed in white with a blue sash from which dangled an elegant rosary. Golden roses adorned each bare foot.
The lady continued to appear to Bernadette for a total of 15 days. Crowds of the faithful and penitent followed her to watch the apparitions although none could see the lady or hear the conversations.
At one vision, the Lady instructed Bernadette to wash and drink from the “spring” and led her to a moist spot on the ground. Bernadette tried to dig in the ground only to bathe her hands, clothes, and face in dirt.
Though her family and many supported Bernadette and trusted her accounts of the visions, others persecuted her.
Bernadette had had little to no opportunity for school between her health and the need to work to help her family. When she did have educational opportunity, she was often tired and many suspect she may have coped with learning disabilities.
She was labeled as stupid and was held in contempt by her First Communion teacher, some neighbors and relatives, and mostly by the local authorities who tried repeatedly to intimidate her and her family with long interrogations about the apparitions and the threat of jail.
Her long-suffering, courageous directness, and extreme consistency in her accounts, along with the support of local priests and family kept her safe. In particular, her embarrassment with the “spring” brought ridicule. Her aunt slapped her face for being “ridiculous.”
Much was redeemed when overnight, the mud bubbled into a full-fledged spring with a pool of cool water through which God granted miracles of healing to the faithful. The rise of the miracles led many to repentance and others to faith.
But some were threatened as God’s power defied the science that many of the age revered and deemed as superior and incompatible with religion. The leader of France, Napoleon III, was particularly opposed to the Church. Bernadette’s practical and consistent answers to the challenges continuously proved her sane and even led to the conversion of some of the skeptics.
All along, the Lady asked for a chapel and a procession at the grotto. All along, Bernadette brought the request to the priest who, in turn, requested the lady to name herself and provide a sign.
Finally, three weeks since the Lady’s last appearance, the lady came again to Bernadette and identified herself as “The Immaculate Conception.” Bernadette repeated the unfamiliar words to herself all the way to Fr. Peyramale, who was stunned.
While he hoped that this was a message from the Blessed Mother, he could not explain how Bernadette, illiterate and ignorant of the proper French language, would know this term and in perfect French.
The pope had just declared this title four years earlier and while it was not a new idea, it was met with some controversy as a universal doctrine. As all this was clearly beyond Bernadette’s knowledge and few could doubt her sincerity, Fr. Peyramale set out to fulfill Our Lady’s requests.
Our Lady appeared one last time to say goodbye. Bernadette was sent to a convent school where she was sometimes punished for silly pranks.
Bernadette rejected the idea of marriage and it was decided that she would enter the convent. She ultimately became Sr. Marie-Bernard at the far-away convent at Nevers.
Life in the convent was peaceful, though she struggled at first with home-sickness and again was treated with contempt by an overly-strict mistress of novices who felt it was her job to prevent Bernadette from feeling proud. Yet again, Bernadette’s faithfulness was rewarded with accusations of being a “show off.”
Ultimately, Bernadette died a painful death of tuberculosis at the age of 35, for which Our Lady prepared her. After the death of her Mother General, the petition was set for canonization. During the process, her body was exhumed and found to be incorrupt and can be visited and viewed in Lourdes.
When Bernadette recounted the teasing, berating, punishments, and threats, she continually stated that the promise of Heaven and experience with Our Heavenly Queen and Mother stayed with her and diminished the fears. How could she care about earthly things with the glimpse of Heaven in her heart?
Later, when her parents died while she was at the convent, she reflected, “Earth is only Heaven’s waiting room.”
Looking beyond the now to our eternity in Heaven is usually very difficult for young teens. What a great example and friend to teens in crisis is St. Bernadette!
Fun facts about St. Bernadette Soubirous
St Bernadette is the patron saint of:
- Bodily illness
- Shepherds and shepherdesses
- Against poverty
- People ridiculed for their faith
The Miracles of St. Bernadette:
- Miraculous visions of the Virgin Mary
- Miracles of healing in the waters of the spring of Lourdes
- St. Bernadette’s body remains incorrupt since her death
- The Miracle of the Candle in which her hand was in direct contact with the flame of a candle for up to 15 minutes during an apparition but created neither pain nor injury
St. Bernadette Soubirous in your classroom:
The life of St. Bernadette can be utilized to help provide a Catholic perspective with several topics across the curriculum:
- History/Social Studies – Plague and famine in Europe, the second French Empire, Napoleon III, Romanticism and Modernism
- Geography – France/Europe
- Literature – Topics of bullying, poverty, famine, plague, humiliation
- Science – The respiratory system (asthma, tuberculosis), plague/cholera/disease control, sound waves (no one could hear Bernadette when she spoke with the Blessed Mother, except for three words, “Repentance, repentance, repentance”), spring water
- Religion – The Immaculate Conception, Marian Apparitions, repentance, what constitutes a miraculous healing, humility
Here are some activities you can use in your classroom relating to St. Bernadette Soubirous.
Reading and discussion (grades 3 and up): Either read aloud or have the class read an age-appropriate biography of St. Bernadette. EWTN has a nice one based heavily on her own words.
Follow up with discussion questions (Adapt as needed for comprehension and vocabulary. These questions are designed for older students.):
- Would you say that Bernadette was bullied by some of the people in her community? What helped her cope with this? Why does bullying send people into a state of despair even to the point of suicide? What can we learn from St. Bernadette that would help us address bullying in our time?
- What are the challenges Bernadette and her family faced? Why did she describe her childhood as loving and peaceful?
- While many people persecuted Bernadette, others supported her and kept her from harm. Bernadette always recognized that God sent these people to protect her but also allowed her to be persecuted to help her remain humble and for the Glory of the Kingdom. Can you think of examples of God using His people to answer the prayers and needs of others? Can you think of examples of how challenging people can help you to be a better person? What happens if we don’t follow God’s call to help our neighbors? What if Bernadette’s parents and other supporters refused to help her?
Creative writing with emphasis on dialogue mechanics (grades 3-5): Imagine you could talk to the Blessed Mother like St. Bernadette did. Write a dialogue describing what you would say to her and what she might say to you.
Research project or book report (grades 3 and up): Lourdes continues to be a site of pilgrimage for many, some of whom receive graces of physical and spiritual healing. There are many books written about the miracles of Lourdes and stories recounted by those who have experienced this healing. You will want to vet any books chosen for a book report to ensure they are not anti-Catholic in nature. For a research project, have students recount 3 separate miracles and examine the similarities and differences. Have them attempt to discern God’s purpose and message in the healings.
Film Critic (all ages): There are several movies about St. Bernadette. Let your students create a video or written review of one of the films. This can be a class project or an individual assignment. Older students can compare 2 or more films. There is a good example to share with the students on writing a movie review on Decent Films.
Unanswered prayers (grades 4 and up): Have students interview someone or read a blog or article by someone who traveled to Lourdes but did not receive a miraculous healing. Have them deliver a written or oral report about the experience and discuss why God doesn’t heal everyone.
Kate Daneluk is a former Catholic school teacher, early childhood music teacher, creator of the Making Music, Praying Twice music curriculum, and a homeschooling mother of six.