It’s many a long year since I first sat in a small cinema at the bottom of a hill and watched a black and white movie called “The Song of Bernadette”. It was about a 14-year-old semi-illiterate girl in the town of Lourdes in the Pyrenees. Her name was Bernadette Soubirous. She was the eldest of nine children born to an impoverished miller and his wife, who was a laundress.

I knew nothing about the Pyrenees, what they were or where they were, and I cared even less. That would change after I sat through the film, which was based on a novel by Franz Werfel. Werfel was a Jewish German language writer whose career spanned the First and Second World Wars.

While the latter raged, and Werfel was trying desperately to escape the Nazi scourge, he found succour in the small market town of Lourdes, lying in the foothill of the Pyrenees. Lourdes was where Bernadette Soubirous had experienced her visions of the Virgin Mary, who told the 14-year-old: “I am The Immaculate Conception” — words, and an expression, the child had never heard before.

The town had become a pilgrimage centre, attracting pilgrims from all over the world. They testified to the power of Bernadette’s message of humility and obedience. Most of the pilgrims arrived in Lourdes seeking miraculous cures. Many inexplicable cures took place, and when news of them spread, so did the numbers of pilgrims.

When the railway eventually reached Lourdes, the volume of visitors expanded so rapidly that people from 19 different countries flooded into the town. It was a religious revival on a massive scale, a fact underlined by the increase in the French National Pilgrimage swelling to 30,000 persons.

Werfel swore that if ever he managed to escape to America, he would write about Saint Bernadette. He did escape, and he wrote the novel “The Song of Bernadette”. Film director Henry King based his film on the book, using the same title. Werfel himself co-wrote the adaptation.
The film won two Academy Awards. One was for Best Actress — the translucently beautiful Jennifer Jones in only her third movie role. She played the peasant girl Bernadette. The second Oscar was for Best Music.

I didn’t know for a long time that many so called factual films did not stick rigidly to facts. “The Song of Bernadette” didn’t. It took liberties with the truth of her life and times. Her life was one of exclusion and suffering. As already mentioned, she was semi-illiterate. She did not speak French, but Occidan, the disdained language of the local people. And she grew up in extreme poverty during a period of intermittent cholera and famine.
Sickly as a child (she suffered from cholera as a toddler and from severe asthmas for the whole of her life) she never grew taller than 4 foot 7 inches.

More often than not shoeless, and with little more than rags for clothing, Bernadette was heading towards tuberculosis from an early age. On the day in February 1858 on which her mother ordered her outdoors to gather firewood, collect sticks, she experienced the first of her 18 visions — “a dazzling light… a white figure…a small young lady.”

Her real life parish priest was Father Dominique Peyramale. To him the Soubirous family was a disgrace. He publicly humiliated two of Bernadette’s unmarried aunts by expelling them from the Children of Mary when they became pregnant.
Bernadette’s father was arrested, accused of theft, and when he failed to pay rent, the family were given a one-room dungeon to live in.

After experiencing her first vision, the apparition of “a beautiful lady” in a grotto by the river, Bernadette called at Father Peyramale’s house to tell him about it. He scarcely gave her the time of day, dismissing her quickly.
A woman in the street, mocking her for “playing the fool”, slapped her across the face.
Some people in the town said the child was suffering from a mental illness and said she should be put into an asylum. And writers like Emile Zola attacked devotion to the Blessed Virgin as “a new religion”, and distorted information about proven miracles.

This then was the girl played by Jennifer Jones in “The Song of Bernadette”. I wish I’d known about the novel’s and the film’s inaccuracies when I sat down in the bottom-of-the-hill cinema seemingly aeons ago. But then again, I’d have been too young to understand. And anyway, innocence is a precious thing, and even as a youngster, I fell in love with Jennifer Jones.

Read Dan Conway every week in Ireland’s Own