Lourdes is a small town in south-western France. The historic town prominently features an old fortified castle which rises from the center. In 1858 Lourdes rose to prominence in France and abroad due to the Marian apparitions seen by the peasant girl Bernadette Soubirous, who was later canonized. Shortly thereafter the city became one of the world's most important sites of pilgrimage and religious tourism. Today Lourdes hosts around six million visitors every year from all corners of the world. This constant stream of pilgrims and tourists transformed quiet Lourdes into the second most important center of tourism in France, second only to Paris.
The full story is as follows:
Beginning on February 11, 1858, a 14-year-old girl named Bernadette Soubirous claimed to have experienced a series of apparitions of a girl dressed in white and with a blue belt around her waist, who eventually introduced herself as the Immaculate Conception, a name by which the Virgin Mary was known.
At the time of the apparitions, the grotto lay well outside town, on common ground which was used by the villagers variously for pasturing animals, collecting firewood, and as a garbage dump, and it had a reputation for being an unpleasant place.
The figure of Mary always appeared in one place - a niche above the main cavity of the grotto, in which a wild rose bush was growing. Among the instructions from the Virgin Mary were "Go and drink from the spring", "Go and tell the priests to build a chapel here", and "Have the people come here in procession". These three instructions in particular were to prove pivotal in the development of the Domain and its ceremonies.
From here, public interest in the apparitions grew and curious visitors began to be replaced by pilgrims from increasingly far away - drawn by compelling stories of apparitions and miracles.
A local priest, Abbé Dominique Peyramale, together with his bishop, Monsignor Bertrand-Sévère Mascarou Laurence, bought the grotto and the land around it from the commune in 1861, 3 years after the apparitions. They immediately set about modifying the area to make it more accessible to visitors, and started work to build the first of the churches, which is now known as the Crypt.
In 1864, the Lyonnais sculptor Joseph-Hugues Fabisch was commissioned to create a statue of Our Lady of Lourdes based on Bernadette's descriptions. Although it has become an iconic symbol of Our Lady of Lourdes, it depicts a figure which is not only older and taller than Bernadette's description, but also more in keeping with orthodox and traditional representations of the Virgin Mary. The statue rests in the niche where the Virgin appeared to Bernadette. The original wild rose bush was destroyed shortly after the apparitions by pilgrims seeking relics; a newer one has been planted nearby.