The undeniably beautiful 130-year-old body of Bernadette Soubirous is displayed in a purpose-built crystal coffin, housed in a chapel at the abbey where she served as a nun. Her uncannily lifelike visage, clad in nun’s robes, is one of the most commonly used illustrations of incorruptible saints whose bodies never decay. After her death, she was exhumed no less than three times and found to be perfectly intact at each, which makes it seem strange that the lovely face and hands that are so famous are actually made of wax.
Saint Bernadette began her life relatively recently, by saintly standards, growing up in Victorian-era France. The eldest daughter in a poor family, she struggled with illness her whole life.
Her fame began at age 14 in Lourdes, with a series of sightings of a young woman taken to be Virgin Mary, now known as Our Lady of Lourdes. The apparition appeared eighteen separate times, occasionally giving the girl small bits of encouragement, and most famously, pointing her to the source of the healing spring waters there. Bernadette reported her sightings, and her appearance as a piously innocent, somewhat simple—not to mention exceptionally pretty—young woman may have helped to fuel her reputation and spur on the repetition of her stories.
The Lourdes apparition asked for the shrine that was built at the site of the grotto, which is now one of the most popular Christian pilgrimage spots. It’s also a place of miraculous healings, receiving between four and six million visitors annually. The miraculous healings began in Bernadette’s lifetime and were credited to the spring water. Although several miracles turned out to be short-term recoveries or outright hoaxes, many others were confirmed at the time, and claims continue to this day.
Bernadette herself moved away from Lourdes and joined a nunnery in Nevers, where she lived the rest of her life. She died in 1879 of tuberculosis.
As part of the canonization process, her body was exhumed three separate times, in 1909, 1919, and finally in 1925, when she was moved to the crystal casket. Her body was pronounced by the church as officially “incorrupt,” but it seems the qualifications for that term may have been somewhat lax. In the words of the attending doctor in 1919: “The body is practically mummified, covered with patches of mildew and quite a notable layer of salts, which appear to be calcium salts… The skin has disappeared in some places, but it is still present on most parts of the body.”
After a few ribs were removed to be sent to Rome as relics, it was decided that the “blackish color” of her face might be off-putting to pilgrims, and so a “light wax mask” was in order. Her new face and hands were designed by Pierre Imans, a designer of fashion mannequins in Paris.
The body is on display at the Chapel of Saint Gidard at the Sisters of Charity in Nevers. Visitors should remember that this is an active chapel, and a holy place for many.
It should be noted that after the first exhumation a whopping 30 years after her death she was largely intact. The subsequent (unintentional) mis-handling by the nuns who washed the body caused negative results when her corpse was exhumed the second time a decade later. This had an even more disastrous effect by the third and final exhumation six years after that. Had Bernadette been left alone, she may have still been “incorrupt.”