Mother Marie-Thérèse Vauzou
February 2, 1899
Mother Marie-Thérèse Vauzou, once the mistress of novices at the Convent of Saint-Gildard but now her order's superior general, judiciously lowered her bulk into the very armchair in which her former charge, Bernadette Soubirous, had died so many years before. The elderly nun was not padded so much as plated with fat, like a stately rhinoceros. The angle of the chair was intended to promote reclining. Nevertheless, the Benedictine brother charged with taking the superior general's testimony understood that Mother Vauzou was determined to sit erect, which feat, after some adjustment and repositioning, she managed to accomplish. Now, perched on the edge of the chair, one liver-spotted hand folded over the other in her lap, she might have appeared quite composed were it not for a tic that made her right cheek jump every few seconds.
"So, if I'm to understand you correctly, Brother, they are talking of canonizing the little Soubirous?" Mother Vauzou spat out the question like a bad taste.
"They are," the Benedictine conceded.
She turned to look at him; her large face, wreathed in a wimple of starched white linen, hovered like a full moon over the blackness of her habit. She had wide-open eyes the color of smoked glass and an enormous beaked nose; her expression was disdainful. "A mistake, if you ask me!" the old nun hissed.
September 22, 1909
Thirty years after the interment of the body of Bernadette Soubirous, to whom the Mother of God had appeared eighteen times in the Grotto of Massabielle, just outside the Pyrenean town of Lourdes, the Bishop of Nevers, Monsignor Gauthey, dispatched a messenger with a request that a Dr. David and a Dr. Jourdan attend at an exhumation to take place at the Convent of Saint-Gildard the following week.
"At long last, the work of the episcopal commission charged with investigating the merits of Bernadette Soubirous's case has been completed and the saintly virtues of the Little Shepherdess thoroughly confirmed," Monsignor Gauthey wrote. "Our next step must be to identify the body and to determine the extent to which it has remained intact. It is incumbent upon my office to do this in accordance with both civil and canon law, in order to do which successfully, I require your assistance."
Accordingly, the two physicians and Monsignor Gauthey met at eight-thirty on the morning of the appointed day at the Chapel of Saint-Joseph in the Convent of Saint-Gildard, where the body of Bernadette Soubirous had been laid to rest. They were joined by five others: Abbé Perreau; Mother Superior Marie-Josephine Forestier and her deputy, Sister Alexandrine; and the mayor and deputy mayor of Nevers. Also in attendance were two stonemasons and two carpenters, who were to see to the practical matters at hand.
Acting on the bishop's instructions, the two stonemasons lifted the massive stone from the vault and, with some difficulty, managed to half pry and half wrestle the wooden coffin out of it.
"Not exactly light as a feather, was she?" one mason muttered to his colleague in mid-negotiation.
"A lead coffin is inside the wooden one," the second mason snapped back. "Standard procedure in these cases. Why do you think I brought the 'can opener'?" Then, to the carpenters, "You there! How about some help carrying this thing!"
The four men staggered under the coffin's weight into the room adjacent to the chapel, where the examination was to take place. They set it down carefully on two trestles and proceeded first to unscrew the lid and then to shear open the lead coffin within. As the masons bent over this task and the metal cutters bit into the lead, everyone stiffened in expectation of a terrible stench: the nuns discreetly applied handkerchiefs to their nostrils and turned slightly away, while the gentlemen concentrated their expressions in such a way that their lips were pursed shut and their nostrils reduced to mere slits.
Then Dr. David spoke. "I say, Jourdan!" he exclaimed. "There's not a trace of an odor!"
The nuns removed the handkerchiefs from their noses and sniffed the air hesitantly. "It's true!" the mother superior said. "How very extraordinary!"
By now the masons had managed to peel back the metal lid. Everyone took two tentative steps nearer to the coffin and peered in.
"Only look, Monsignor!" the deputy mayor said to the bishop. "The body is perfectly preserved! Apart from seeming ... rather wan."
"Only to be expected under the circumstances," the mayor commented to the mother superior.
Sister Alexandrine inhaled deeply. "I smell something!" she announced. "I smell ... lilies!"
"You smell no such thing, Alexandrine!" Mother Forestier chastised her. "You're overexcited."
As for the carpenters and stonemasons, they only stared at the body of the beautiful Bernadette, gulping, their eyes wide with astonishment. Then one of the masons crossed himself and his three colleagues quickly followed suit.
February 2, 1899
Iq am here on the instructions of the episcopal commission, Mother Vauzou," the Benedictine informed the superior general, as dry as toast. "Naturally they are interested in your opinion, although, as you will surely have heard, we have learned of cures. Miraculous ones, and well documented. The commission cannot afford to ignore such apparent manifestations of Our Lady's grace. Surely you understand."
Mother Vauzou snorted. "'Manifestations of Our Lady's grace,'" she muttered. "For the record, I should just like to state my great sadness that of all the good works I have done in my long life, of all my triumphs and achievements, the only thing anyone wishes to discuss with me is that wretched peasant girl. Proceed, sir."
He consulted his list of questions. "When did you first meet Bernadette Soubirous?" he asked.
"Sister Marie-Bernard, as I knew her, came to me some eight years after the last apparition," Mother Vauzou replied. "She was twenty-two years old. The reason for whisking her away to Nevers, so far from her native Bigorre, was not bruited about, for fear of scandal. The nuns in whose charge she had been placed feared for her virtue."
"Why was that?" the Benedictine asked.
"She was demonstrating signs of female weakness," the superior general replied stiffly. "Imagine, if you can, the distress of the poor sister who discovered Marie-Bernard trying to widen her skirt to create the effect of a crinoline underneath. And that is not all! Later she was surprised in the act of introducing pieces of wood into her corset in an attempt to stiffen it further! Such acts were considered by the sisters in whose charge she was placed to be nothing less than diabolical."
"I see!" the Benedictine said.
"Marie-Bernard was terribly vain," Mother Vauzou continued. "She once told a fellow novice that she had joined the Sisters of Charity and Christian Instruction because she preferred our headpiece to that of the Sisters of the Cross, which she compared to a funnel, and our habit to that of the Sisters of Saint Vincent de Paul, which she described as dowdy! Of course, I must concede both her points. But there was more."
"Yes?" the Benedictine said encouragingly.
"An infatuated medical student from Nantes had written the Bishop of Tarbes asking for her hand in marriage," Mother Vauzou exclaimed. "'If I am not permitted to marry her,' the distraught youth wrote, 'I think I will quit this world.' And perhaps he was compelled to do so, for it was inconceivable that anyone—however humble and, for want of a more precise word, simple—to whom the Holy Virgin was believed to have appeared should be permitted to breed."
"Naturally!" the Benedictine agreed.
April 3, 1919
On August 13, 1913, thirty-four years after the death of the Little Shepherdess, Pope Pius X, by virtue of signing the Decree of Venerability, authorized the process by which Bernadette Soubirous might attain beatification and, ultimately, should her virtues be proved authentic, recognition as a saint of the Holy Roman Catholic Church. Unfortunately, the Great War interfered with the progress of Bernadette's case; but on April 3, 1919, the Seer of Lourdes's body was exhumed for the second time. This time the examination was conducted by Drs. Talon and Comte before witnesses who included Monsignor Gauthey's successor, Monsignor Chatelus; Mother Forestier; and her deputy, Sister Alexandrine. Also in attendance were the commissioner of police, representatives of the municipalities, and members of the Church tribunal.
Following the examination, the two men of science retired to write up their reports. They were dispatched to separate rooms to ensure that they could not consult each other as to this detail or that, and thus that one man's observations would not taint or in any way color the other's.
Later, after Bernadette's body had been placed in a new coffin and reburied in the Chapel of Saint-Joseph, the bishop met with the two doctors in Mother Forestier's parlor and reviewed their reports over tea.
"Remarkably, I find that your reports coincide perfectly, not only with each other but also with those of Dr. Jourdan and Dr. David, made at the first exhumation, on September 22, 1909," Monsignor Chatelus told the two physicians. "Except in those several small particulars you mention, of course. Sister Alexandrine, if I could trouble you for another one of those delightful langues-de-chat?"
"But of course, Monsignor!"
"Indeed!" Dr. Comte replied. "The only changes I could observe in the lady's condition were those patches of mildew on the body and quite a notable layer of salt ..."
"Calcium salts, I think," Dr. Talon clarified.
"Probably the result of the body's having been washed the first time it was exhumed," his colleague speculated. "Precisely why I suggested dispensing with a second such bath, Mother Forestier."
"But of course, dear Dr. Comte," the mother superior murmured, a trifle embarrassed. "We were perhaps a little overzealous on the last occasion."
"So exciting!" Sister Alexandrine agreed. "To find our wondrous sister so uncorrupted, I mean. May I freshen your tea, Doctor?"
"Please," Dr. Talon replied.
"As for the skeleton, it is remarkably complete," Dr. Comte declared. "If it had not been, we could not possibly have conveyed the body to the examining table. Without its falling apart, I mean."
"And, not to be indelicate on this, but we detected no smell of putrefaction," Dr. Talon said. He glanced around the room. "No one present experienced any discomfort, I presume?" All shook their heads vigorously.
"Indeed," Sister Alexandrine trilled, "I would have to say that the exercise has been an entirely pleasant one. Who would like a petit four? Sister Casimir makes them, and they are so very good!"
February 2, 1899
Hqer family was perfectly dreadful," Mother Vauzou told the Benedictine. "They lived like pigs in a sty, all six of them crowded together into one tiny room."
"The father, I understand, was a bit of a ne'er-do-well," the Benedictine said. "Arrested twice. Once for stealing two bags of flour, and the second time for removing a plank of wood from the street. They were very poor. Did you know that Bernadette's little brother Jean-Marie was once caught eating the wax that had dripped from the candles in their parish church?"
"Their own fault, if you ask me!" Mother Vauzou said gruffly. "No fortitude. No self-control. No discipline. Oh, I suppose they were well-meaning enough, but inept! Do you know what Marie-Bernard was doing when she first saw Our Lady? She was looking for bones to sell to the local ragpicker!"
"'Blessed are the poor ... ,'" the Benedictine began, but the nun cut him short.
"Don't start in on that!" she said.
April 18, 1925
On November 18, 1923, His Holiness declared Bernadette's virtues to be authentic. Her beatification was imminent.
"We may not yet refer to our famous sister as the Blessed Marie-Bernard," the mother superior informed her charges, "but we soon shall."
She immediately set about making arrangements for the third identification of the body, as required by canon law. "We shall need to avail ourselves of your services once again," she wrote Dr. Talon. To Dr. Comte, who was a surgeon, she added, "We hope you will be so kind as to remove a few tiny relics ... for Rome, Lourdes, and, of course, for ourselves here at Saint-Gildard and other houses of our order."
"I should be honored," Dr. Comte replied by letter.
Accordingly, on April 18, 1925, the bishop, the vicars general, the Church tribunal, and nuns from the community assembled in the little chapel of Saint-Joseph to witness the exhumation. Also in attendance, representing the municipal authorities, were the commissioner of police and a Monsieur Bruneton.
While the masons and carpenters were swearing an oath, "We hereby promise that we shall accomplish the task entrusted to our care to the utmost of our abilities!," Bruneton leaned over and murmured out of the corner of his mouth to the police commissioner, "Given the number of times they've exhumed her, they might have been better off to install her in a jack-in-the-box."
"Shhh!" the commissioner enjoined roughly. He was more devout than Bruneton, a freethinker. Besides, being newly appointed to his position, he had not been present at the previous identification, and was therefore intensely curious to see what a corpse looked like after so many years in the grave.
February 2, 1899
Yqou have written to the commission that you object—'vigorously' is, I believe, the word you used—to this investigation," the Benedictine said. "Would you be so kind as to explain why?"
Mother Vauzou sniffed and sat up even straighter than before, throwing back her shoulders and tossing her head. "The ecclesiastical authorities prevailed upon Marie-Bernard to take the veil because they could not allow her to remain in the world," she replied. "They were afraid that she might embarrass the Church. Their fears, I must say, were well founded, given her nature and her family background. Unfortunately, because of the fame attached to her by the apparitions, once she had completed her novitiate, we had nowhere to send her where she would not have been a curiosity, a carnival sideshow, a freak. All the Sisters of Charity and Christian Instruction who served their novitiate at Saint-Gildard received assignments elsewhere; none stayed on to live at the Mother House. Only Marie-Bernard."
"But surely you cannot blame her for that, madame!" the Benedictine protested. "She was, as it were, a prisoner of her own fame."
"An undeserved fame!" Mother Vauzou cried. "Marie-Bernard Soubirous was an ordinary scullery nun, monsieur, fit for scraping carrots and scrubbing floors and little else. She was vain and stupid and stubborn and sly and common."
"Nevertheless, the Mother of God chose her—" the Benedictine began.
The nun cut him off. "Nonsense! Oh, Marie-Bernard saw something. I will admit to that. She saw something. Just what it was I am not prepared to say."
"But bishops believed her," the Benedictine pointed out. "The pontifical curia ..."
"I am not denying that others believed her," Mother Vauzou clarified. "She took so many people in right from the start, and they could not be dissuaded. Nor can they be dissuaded now, apparently. What I am saying is that I didn't believe her."
April 18, 1925
Nqow, what is it that you would like?" Dr. Comte said, turning to the Bishop of Nevers with the air of a guest at the table who has been asked to carve.
"Whatever you can manage without making too much of a mess," the bishop replied. "In these matters one can rarely afford to be too picky. A few ribs should do nicely, eh, Mother Forestier?"
"We would prefer that the Venerable's heart remain in her body," the mother superior told the surgeon. "Apart from that, anything that can be covered up by her habit would be fine." She turned to the bishop. "Did I tell you? Given the remarkable condition of the Venerable's body, we have decided to display her."
"In a glass coffin?" the bishop asked.
"A crystal-and-gilt reliquary, actually," the mother superior replied. "The Armand Caillat Cateland workshop, in Lyons, does beautiful work. We have already placed the order."
"A splendid idea!" the bishop exclaimed.
"I say, Talon, the trunk is slightly supported on the left arm," Dr. Comte pointed out. "Might be a bit tricky to go in there without doing noticeable damage."
"Right you are," his colleague replied. "We'll start with the other side, then. Scalpel, Sister Clémence, please!"
February 2, 1899
Iqt seems to me, Mother Vauzou ... if you don't mind my saying so ... that you are displaying a prideful nature in insisting that you are right about Sister Marie-Bernard whereas so many eminent ecclesiastics—men better equipped than you to judge these matters, I might add—are wrong." This old harridan with the twitching cheek was beginning to try the Benedictine's patience. "Not to mention the thousands of devout Catholics who champion her cause!"
"Eminent ecclesiastics! Devout Catholics!" Mother Vauzou snorted. "I suppose you're referring to those countless bishops and cardinals, not to mention wealthy ladies, who would convene in the parlor to hear Marie-Bernard's account of the apparitions and, in the course of conversation, casually drop a handkerchief in the hopes that she might pick it up and so transform it into a holy object!" She laughed. "Not that she enjoyed talking about the apparitions, mind you! 'Do I have to tell the story again?' she would complain petulantly. 'How tiresome!' Or, sulking and turning away, 'I'm sorry, Mother, but I forget.' As if anyone could forget one moment of an encounter with Our Lady! That was when I began to suspect her."
"So she did not vaunt herself on account of the apparitions?" the Benedictine said, writing this down. "Some people would relish the attention."
"Not Marie-Bernard!" Mother Vauzou shook her head. "She was a secretive little thing. You recall that the Holy Mother was supposed to have given her messages?"
"She wouldn't tell me what they were!" Mother Vauzou was indignant. "'You must tell me what the Queen of Heaven said,' I'd tell her.
"'No,' she'd reply, shaking her head. 'They were secrets.'
"'But I am the mistress of novices,' I would remind her. 'You cannot have any secrets from me!'
"'Aquerò said, "Tell no one!" She always referred to the Virgin Mother as Aquerò—a pronoun in her native langue d'oc, best translated as 'That one there.' I thought it very disrespectful!
"'But what about the Pope?' I would counter. 'Would you not tell His Holiness if he asked you?'
"'Certainly not!' she would reply. 'My secrets have nothing to do with him either.' You see how bold she was? How insolent? Why it was necessary to ... do as I did?"
April 18, 1925
Carefully the surgeon made an incision in the right side of Bernadette Soubirous's thorax and detached and then removed the rear section of the fifth and sixth right ribs. He handed these to Sister Clémence, the convent's infirmarian, who promptly dropped them on the slate floor.
"Mother of God!" Sister Clémence cried out in a strangled voice.
"What?" Dr. Comte asked.
"They're warm!" she declared.
"That is impossible!" the doctor countered.
"Sister Clémence!" The mother superior took charge of the situation. "Get ahold of yourself!" Stooping, she picked up the two pieces of rib and popped them into the basin of holy water designated for that purpose. "You are overwrought," she told the infirmarian. "The holy relics are not in the least warm. Indeed, they are cold." She handed Sister Clémence a towel of white linen. "Now dry them off and place them on the silver tray."
But Sister Clémence burst into noisy tears. "I felt the dear saint's life tremble in her bones!" she sputtered. "I assure you, Mother Forestier, they were quite warm! Oh, thanks be to our Holy Mother in Heaven! Blessed Bernadette!" In the end she had to be led, gulping and hysterical, from the chapel. Poor Sister Philomène, her assistant, reluctantly took her place.
February 2, 1899
Tqo do as you did ... ?" the Benedictine repeated, feigning ignorance.
"Oh, don't tell me you haven't heard the rumors!" Mother Vauzou scoffed. "Read the reports! It was all over the newspapers at the time. The convent's physician told a journalist that the years of scrubbing stone floors on her hands and knees had given rise to that grotesque tumor on her right knee, which contributed to her eventual demise. He implied that I was somehow to blame ... that I had worked Marie-Bernard too hard, given the ever fragile state of her health. Of course, the mother superior promptly dismissed him, but the harm was done."
"Let me assure you ... ," the Benedictine began.
Mother Vauzou cut him short. "You will no doubt be surprised to hear that I concede his point. I was too hard on Marie-Bernard. I was obviously too hard on the wretched girl. She died, didn't she?"
"I'm sure you didn't mean ..." The Benedictine faltered.
"However," the elderly nun said, "nonetheless, I must remind the episcopal commission that it was my job to humble Marie-Bernard. The Mother of Our Lord was supposed to have elected to appear to her. That she would be proud of this fact would be inevitable, and pride, as you have so recently pointed out, is the devil's own snare. Then, too, I had the other nuns in my charge to think of. We could not have them venerating Marie-Bernard and so putting their own mortal souls in peril."
"Still ..." The Benedictine consulted his notes. "She was quite ill. Asthma that became, over time, chronic, not to mention chest pains and shortness of breath. Then there was that aneurysm she had and, of course, the bone decay."
"Yes! Yes!" Mother Vauzou admitted. "No need to go on and on about it! She was a veritable bundle of infirmities! She was forever hawking up blood. Basin after basin of it. One would never have thought she had so much in her. However, I still maintain that receiving extreme unction four times in one lifetime is excessive."
April 18, 1925
Wqhat have we here?" Dr. Comte said, poking around in the opening in Bernadette's thorax with his thumb.
"Let's have a look!" Dr. Talon suggested, moving alongside his colleague and bending over the body. "Offhand I would say that that would be the liver, covered by the diaphragm."
"Excellent!" Dr. Comte replied. "Let's take a sliver!" Carefully he removed a piece of the diaphragm and cut into the liver below. "Mon Dieu!" he exclaimed softly.
"What?" the bishop asked.
"The liver is still ... viable!" Dr. Comte replied. "Observe!" Straightening up, he dangled a slice of the organ from his forceps. "The liver," he explained to the assembled witnesses, "is a soft organ and inclined to crumble. Normally it decomposes very rapidly, or else hardens to a chalky consistency. That it should be so well preserved in this case is ... well, wouldn't you agree with me, Talon, that it might be called preternatural?"
"Indeed!" Dr. Talon said, nodding gravely. "Preternatural!"
"A viable liver! Our Bernadette is blessed indeed!" the bishop cried, while the nuns fluttered and made sounds like those of birds when a gentle spring rain commences.
February 2, 1899
Sqo, in brief, you feel that Marie-Bernard did not exhibit the attributes of a saint as you understand them, and you question the authenticity of the apparitions. Is that correct?"
"That is correct," Mother Vauzou replied.
The Benedictine closed his notebook and started to rise. "Well, Mother Vauzou, this has been most enlightening ..."
"That is not to say that she didn't have a way about her," Mother Vauzou said hastily, as if seeking to detain him.
"What do you mean?" the Benedictine asked.
"She drew people to her," Mother Vauzou explained. "She had, for lack of a better word, a sort of charisma."
"Charisma?" the Benedictine repeated.
"And, of course, she was ... I suppose you might say fetching."
"I don't grasp your meaning," the Benedictine said.
"Attractive," the nun said. "She was very attractive."
"I have seen photographs," the Benedictine said.
"Well, they do not do her justice." The old nun's expression softened momentarily, becoming almost wistful. "Marie-Bernard had a certain otherworldly quality that became even more pronounced over time," she continued, but in a gentler tone. "Even when she came to us, a fresh-faced girl and, if the truth be told, too much like a dumpling for my taste, something about her eyes was compelling." Mother Vauzou paused, remembering. Then she glanced away and said hurriedly, "Prolonged illness greatly refined her beauty even as it rendered her poor body grotesque. By the end she was ... quite inexplicably lovely. Transfigured, you might say."
"You did not hate her so much as you pretend," the Benedictine said, guessing.
"On the contrary!" the former mistress of novices confessed in a constricted voice. "I loved her as I have loved no other human being. I loved her, to my great shame, more than I loved the Bridegroom! She had seen God, you see—just not yours and mine!"
A single tear inched its way through the labyrinth of wrinkles that was the old nun's ruined face, while her right cheek vibrated like the plucked string of a standing bass.
Once the relics had been removed from Bernadette's thorax, everyone left the chapel with the exception of the handful of Sisters of Charity and Christian Instruction upon whom the mother superior had bestowed the signal honor of assisting in the preparation of the body of the soon to be Blessed Bernadette Soubirous. On Mother Forestier's instructions they swathed Marie-Bernard with bandages, leaving only her hands and face uncovered, and replaced her in her coffin. Then the mother superior sent Sister Clémence to fetch a Monsieur Bourgeot to the chapel. He was from the firm of Pierre Imans, a mannequin manufacturer in Paris, and had been waiting in her parlor.
"Although you will see that Sister Marie-Bernard's body is perfectly mummified," she told him, "you can't help noting a somewhat blackish tinge to her face and hands and a rather sunken quality to her nose and eyes. As we have decided to display her to the public, we are naturally concerned that these slight imperfections might distress our visitors. That is the reason we have approached your firm."
"You have done the right thing," Monsieur Bourgeot said. "We French are not like the Italians, who insist on displaying their saints regardless of how hideous they appear. Have you ever seen Santa Chiara, madame, in Assisi? Black as an Ethiope! Very unbecoming!"
He then proceeded to make a precise imprint of the Seer's face and hands, from which to fashion a light wax mask and a set of paraffin gloves.
"I have some photographs for you as well," the mother superior said, handing the artisan a packet. "They should assist you in perfecting the likeness."
"Trust Pierre Imans, madame!" Monsieur Bourgeot said. "The Blessed Bernadette will look as beautiful in death as in life, and no one shall suspect a thing!"
The coffin was transferred to the Chapel of Saint-Helen (which was more easily sealed off not only from the curious public but also from the other nuns, whose devotion to Marie-Bernard might distract them from other obligations) and was left open until such time as the firm of Armand Caillat Cateland had finished the crystal-and-gilt reliquary. "I want these doors locked and sealed until the Pope has proclaimed our Marie-Bernard blessed," Mother Forestier instructed the sacristan.
For the next three months the body of Bernadette, tightly bound in bandages, lay alone in the shadowy chapel, listening to the prayers of nuns who knelt, whispering, beyond the padlocked doors.
Aqre they all gone, Aquerò? Such a noise they make, and so much fuss! The little Forestier ... she was just beginning her novitiate when the doctor said, 'It's the White Chapel for you, my girl!' and off to the infirmary I went for the last time. Do you remember my White Chapel, Aquerò? That's what I used to call my little bed in the infirmary, with its white curtains. So pretty! I must say Forestier looks rather the worse for wear. Was her chin always that long? But she was never good-looking. Not like me, Aquerò. Not like you.
"I can't say I was very happy when that fellow with the goatee cut me open. 'Like slicing beef jerky!' he muttered under his breath to that other monsieur, the stout one with the pince-nez. He should try being dead for forty-six years! And his breath smelled of whiskey and garlic.
"So this is what you meant when you said I would be immortal. Put in a glass case for all to see, like the Star of India, or Snow White. And apparently I will look my best. I have to say I'm pleased about that. How angry horrid old Mother Vauzou was when I wouldn't tell her my secret. But really, now, when you think of it, how could I? You told me not to, and you are much, much more powerful than Mother Vauzou. Besides, if I had told the old terror, she would only have beaten me some more for being too proud. She was strange. Sometimes I'd catch her looking at me, just staring—with the most peculiar expression on her face, as though I were something in a store window that she wanted to buy but couldn't afford.
"I wonder if poor Raoul, who wanted so to marry me, is still alive. If he is, he must be a very old man ... eighty-five at least. Perhaps he will come to see me from Nantes. How I would enjoy that!
"Aquerò? Aquerò? You are still here, aren't you? Oh, good! I am so glad. Locked away in that vault all by myself. It was dark and cold and so tedious. To tell the truth, I thought you were never coming. Not that I doubted your promise. No, not for an instant!
"Do you think you could come a little closer? I cannot move my head, you see. So many years have passed since Massabielle, and I have missed you very much.
"Ah, there you are! You are as beautiful as I remember. So much more beautiful than they imagined. I know you were disappointed with the statue at Lourdes, but the sculptor insisted on making you look like Mary, though you are so much more beautiful. But they had it in their heads, you know. 'It's the Mother of God you saw!' they'd insist. 'Why, it must be!' And they believed it. Yet I never said so, Aquerò. I never used her name, only that which belonged to you. I was faithful all those years, in spite of everything.
"And now they will call me blessed and venerate me, and I will have a shrine like those that my friends and I used to build for you out of stones back in Lourdes every May—only much grander, apparently. Miraculous cures will be attributed to me and people will implore me to intercede on their behalf with God. Little do they know I am your handmaiden and yours alone, Aquerò. Beautiful, terrible Goddess."
July 18, 1925
On June 14, 1925, Pope Pius XI signed the official edict: the Venerable Bernadette, now the Blessed Bernadette, was launched on the road to sainthood, which she would attain, finally, in 1933.
However, delays occurred at the firm of Armand Caillat Cateland; not until the first week of July did the gilt-encrusted crystal reliquary in which Marie-Bernard's body was to be displayed arrive on the train. It was then carted to the novices' hall in the Convent of Saint-Gildard, where it was lovingly unpacked and polished.
On July 18 the body of Bernadette Soubirous, clothed in a new habit and outfitted with the wax mask and gloves made for her in Paris by the firm of Pierre Imans, was borne to the Hall of Novices on a white stretcher. Following the chant for the Office of the Virgins, the body was, with great gentleness born of reverence, placed in the reliquary. On August 3 it was transferred to its permanent position in the beautiful principal chapel of the Convent of Saint-Gildard, where it is on view to this day.
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