La Grotte Gratuite

Walid Anwar

La Grotte d’après une photographie orginiale, 1858

La Grotte d’après une photographie orginiale, 1858

In 1896, The Chicago Tribune covered the miracles witnessed in the city of Lourdes, the pilgrims attending, and some results that came of their encounter with the “Immaculate Conception”, the Virgin Mary. The article questions the reader if the devotees who visited Lourdes perceive the statue and grotto as holy as it pretends to be, if their “spiritual guides” believe it, and if the people of the village believe it. More than 7,000 visitors took part in the pilgrimage only a week prior to the publication of the paper, exhibiting the popularity that was present at the time surrounding the grotto and the healing powers found there. As Harrington discussed in the novel, Bernadette Soubirous, a peasant from Lourdes, France, was berated for telling her community that she was seeing an apparition. The doctors visited her and didn’t find anything wrong, notably hysteria, which was prevalent during that time and a cause for major outburst/delusions (presumably with some of the same mentality that was also held around the time of the Salem Witch Trials). But, when Bernadette hinted that the apparition showed signs similar to that of the Virgin Mary, the “authorities” (seemingly the Churches) accepted her hallucinations as a sign through the “Immaculate Conception”. Bernadette happened upon a grotto, led by an apparition to a fresh water spring. Soon after, locals who visited began reporting healings after contact with the water. Was this an act of God? Or, more specifically, was this the villagers believing in spiritual powers at work and feeling better due to positively thinking about their disease going away? In 1876, the Papacy recognized Lourdes as a holy place of “healing and pilgrimage” (Harrington, 106). The 1876 article questioned the characterization that was attached to the Lady of Lourdes grotto and the Catholics attending, if their beliefs held true or was it a testament of the natural ability of water to heal the human body. As noted in the paper, “Health is the thing sought for…as the effect of waters to which none but the most ordinary natural effects have been attributed.” (Chicago Tribune, September 24, 1876, 13).

An important consideration to make is the knowledge of society and views on religion during the 19th century. The Medical Bureau, composed of a commission of Catholic doctors, determined what healings at Lourdes met the criteria for “medical inexplicability”, in other words, that which could not be understood by traditional (or hard) medical methods. So, out of more than thousands of cases at this sanctuary, the Church had recognized only 66 as true “signs of God”. We must question ourselves, was this minimal chance that played out the body healing itself by beating the odds of disease or the work of God at play by those who believed, with the holy water an agent of cure? A challenge posed by Harrington was that the natural healing powers of the mind were “more extensive than the medical profession had previously appreciated” and included a point made by Charcot, writer of “The Faith Cure”, who exemplified the fact that those who ventured out to Lourdes from far away were exhausted when they arrived and must have had “their faculties…diminished.” (Harrington, 109). At that point, water would be of help to the mind and body. The article states, “We cannot doubt that some of the crowds who were at Lourdes last week, and who will flock there for some time yet, have a more sincere faith in the efficacy and importance of what they are doing (Chicago Tribune, September 24, 1876, 13). Harrington recognized that those who attended the grotto were immersed in a setting where they had no choice to believe, surrounded by many people filled with hope and sacred symbols of healing. The next question to ask is: are we more comfortable with accepting or rejecting our fate as long as we have the discouragement or support from society? These factors can influence our mindset and ultimately play a part in whether or not we choose to believe we can beat a disease, or whether or not we believe that a holy power/spirit is at work, there to help us rid of some suffering.


  1. Lourdes – La Grotte d’après une photographie orginiale, 1858 <>, accessed 2 Feb. 2015.
  2. “The Miracle Season – A Trip to Lourdes.” Chicago Tribune, September 24, 1876. Accessed February 2, 2015.
  3. Harrington, Anne. The Cure Within: A History of Mind-Body Medicine. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2008.

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