In 1906, Mother Forestier of Saint Gildard paid a visit to Mother Marie Therese Vauzou in the Hospice at Lourdes, where she was dying. Mother Forestier had been in Rome; while there, she had been informed there was possibility of Bernadette’s Cause for Canonisation going before the Holy Father. She mentioned this to Mother Marie Therese. Her reply to this statement was direct – “Wait until I am dead!”.
On 15 February 1907, Mother Marie Therese died in Lourdes, upon her lips an invocation to Our Lady of Lourdes, begging Her help in the hour of her death. Hearing this news, Mother Forestier prayed to her departed Sister in religion, asking her to help to have Bernadette’s Cause introduced.
On 20 August 1908, as Bishop Gauthey prepared to begin the Annual Retreat for the Sisters of Nevers, he informed them that Bernadette’s Cause was to be put before the Holy Father.
This was duly done and after one hundred and thirty two sessions, the Ecclesiastical Court finally had in their possession all the necessary documentation. The Informative Process was now closed.
The next task before the Court was to identify the relics of Bernadette Soubirous. So, at half past eight on the morning of 22 September 1909, Bishop Gauthey of Nevers, together with other Church representatives and officials, entered the convent Chapel and took an oath upon the Holy Bible to tell the truth.
Then the tomb was opened and the body exhumed. Bernadette appeared exactly as she had been on the day of her death. In her hands she held a Rosary, which was rusting, and a Crucifix, which was covered in verdigris. The body was completely intact.
There was no smell and no trace of corruption was seen on the little body in the coffin. Doctor Jourdan, the surgeon who was present for the exhumation, has left a written record in the Community archives describing what occurred –
“The coffin was opened in the presence of the Bishop of Nevers, the mayors of the town several canons and ourselves. We noticed no smell. The body was clothed in the habit of Bernadette’s order. The habit was damp. Only the face, hands and forearms were uncovered.”
“The head was tilted to the left. The face was dull white. The mouth was open slightly and it could be seen that the teeth were still in place. The hands, which were crossed upon the breast, were perfectly preserved, as were the nails. The hands still held a rusting Rosary. The veins on the forearms stood out.”
After the identification, the Sisters washed the body and dressed it in a fresh habit. It was then placed in a new coffin lined with white silk, and lowered back into the tomb. The entire process was completed at half past five in the evening.
On 13 August 1913, Pope Pius X authorised the introduction of the Cause for Canonisation – Bernadette could now be given the title ‘Venerable’. This meant that body had to be exhumed once again. This process was interrupted by the war, and the body was not re-exhumed until 3 April 1919. The process was the same as before – as were the results. The body remained intact.
On 18 November 1923, the Holy Father announced the authenticity of Bernadette’s virtues – her beatification could now proceed.
Consequently, a third exhumation was needed. This time, relics were to be taken from the body – these would then be sent to Rome, to Lourdes and to Houses of the Sisters of Nevers throughout the world.
On 18 April 1925, the exhumation took place. Bernadette had been dead more than forty six years. Yet, her body remained incorrupt. Doctor Talon, a surgeon, removed the relics. Three years later he wrote a report about this exhumation, for a medical journal. In it, he described his amazement at the perfect preservation of the skeleton and the muscles in particular, as well as the liver which – he stated – should have deteriorated entirely very soon after death. he concluded that “this did not seem to be a natural phenomenon”.
At this exhumation, it was noted that a small portion of the skin on the face had discoloured slightly, due probably to the washing the body had received and its exposure to the organisms of the air. Consequently, it was decided to cover the face and hands with light wax masks. The firm of Pierre Imans in Paris was contacted, and they agreed to make the necessary masks.
Also, the Armand Catelan workshop in Lyons had been contacted and they would make a beautiful reliquary for the body of the deceased Sister.
On 14 June 1925, Pope Pius XI declared Bernadette ‘Blessed’ – her relics could now be exposed for public veneration. But the reliquary was not yet ready. So the body was put in the small chapel dedicated to Saint Helen, which was then officially sealed.
On 18 July, the shrine
was ready. The body of the Beata was clothed once more in a new habit and was
then transferred to the shrine. The reliquary was made of silver, gilt and
crystal. On it were depiction’s of the Apparitions at Lourdes, and lilies – the
symbol of Bernadette’s purity. Crowning the reliquary were the initials ‘N.D. de
L.’ Notre Dame de Lourdes, entwined around which was a Rosary. The Office of
Virgins was sung by the assembled Sisters. The shrine was solemnly transferred
to the main chapel of the convent on 3 August 1925. For the three days following
this, solemn Masses were sung in her honour.