The Sanctuary of Lourdes is a very special place, on a site of over 124 acres, nestled in the foothills of the Pyrenees. Visited by millions of pilgrims from all over the world to pray to the Virgin Mary, it is a sacred place on which "Heaven has shone a spotlight" (@lourdes_recteur). Whether you are with a group, alone or with your family, whether you are a believer or not, you will find that Lourdes is a place of renewal, discovery and meditation. Let yourself be surprised by the unexpected in Lourdes.
The Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary
The short-lived bishop of Tarbes, Mgr Langenieux, (he was bishop for less than a year, in 1874) launched the idea of a new church dedicated to Our Lady of the Rosary. The first stone was put in place in 1883. Six years later, the church was open for worship but it was not consecrated until 1901. Since then, other phases of work have been undertaken. The last and most recent is the complete restoration of the building which has taken nearly 10 years.
In Lourdes, water flows everywhere: from the sky, the mountains and the earth. In spite of the skill of those who constructed the building, water was causing damage: eroded by moisture and on the exterior by frost, the stonework continued to crumble. A third of the ramps neede to be repaired. The roof of the dome needed to be totally reconstructed. Let’s go back to the beginning. Where can we build a new church, much larger than the Immaculate Conception basilica, but without damaging the present church? The architect, Leopold Hardy, had the idea of, in a sense, sliding the new church beneath the old. On the upper terrace, in front of the entrance to the Underground church, white stones mark the position of the chapels in the central apse of the Rosary church. From the St. Michel gate, one has the impression that the construction below serves as a base or foundation for that above, while the two churches are completely independent of one another.
“The Rosary” is more than a building. It is an architectural ensemble; almost a dramatic stage. The outside is as important as the interior. At the time of Bernadette, this immense square was a swampy field, planted with poplars, beyond the Savy mill (the current site of the Bookshop). It was the stream serving the Savy mill which Bernadette had to cross on 11th February. It was necessary to drain and reinforce the ground so that stable foundations could be laid.
The Rosary Esplanade, with a surface area of around 10,000 square metres, is surrounded by two great ramps. These are like a mother’s arms gathering her children to press them close to her heart. In a different way than the Grotto, the square is a site of both welcome and safety. It is here that the daily evening procession ends. It is here that the Masses for the largest pilgrimages are celebrated, like that of the Rosary in October. The ramps form the walls of a church open to the sky, a round church like the basilica itself, so close by to the east.
The Crypt was blessed on 19th May, 1866, in the presence of Bernadette. At that time, it looked very different from how it appears today. Access was by two chapels, one each side of the entry, opening onto passages where priests heard confessions. The central gallery was not added until 1904. It was necessary to cut trough the paved floor of the Immaculate Conception Basilica which lies above. It is decorated with ex-voto thanksgiving plaques in marble from Campan in the High Pyrenees, donated in thanks for the blessings obtained from Our Lady of Lourdes. In the Crypt itself, mosaics by Facchina add a touch of colour to what is necessarily sober and solid. The windows draw attention to the thickness of the walls. A Virgin and Child is the work of the sculptor Fabisch, like the statue in the Grotto.
STATUE OF SAINT PETER
As you enter, to the right there is a statue of St. Peter welcoming pilgrims. In his left hand he carries the keys and with his right hand he makes a gesture of blessing. It is a reproduction of a statue in bronze found at the entrance to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Like the original, its right foot has been worn by the kisses and touches of pilgrims who in this veneration show their respect for the Pontiff.
A CORRIDOR OF EX-VOTO
This long corridor which leads to the Crypt is 25 metres long and is decorated with ex-voto. Engraved in marble plaques, the ex-voto testify to the innumerable graces received by pilgrims.
- The Crypt is the only building at the Shrine seen by Bernadette before she left Lourdes for Nevers.
The Basilica of the Immaculate Conception
In the 13th Apparition on 2nd March, 1858, the Lady gave Bernadette a mission: to go and tell the priests to organize a procession and to build a chapel. To build a chapel on the request of a Lady who had not given her name. Of course, Fr. Peyramale dismissed Bernadette’s requests, even when Bernadette added to the Lady’s words: “Even if it would only be very small”. The next day, 3rd March, she repeated her request. The curé, whose innermost thoughts we know nothing of, (“I wouldn’t want my hat to know what I am thinking”), asked for a sign: that the Lady declare her name and that she make the rose bush at the Grotto flower. Flower, in the month of March! If the Lady gave the signs, “we would build her a chapel, and it would not be a tiny one, so there! It would be very big!” This good man did not believe what he said. When the Bishop of Tarbes, Mgr. Laurence, recognized the authenticity of the Apparitions in January 1862, he immediately set about raising funds for the construction of the “chapel”.
To construct a place of worship, according to the Concordat of 1801, it was necessary to have imperial authorization. Even before the official recognition of the Apparitions, Mgr Laurence had moved heaven and earth to obtain the requisite authorization. In January 1862, had had already made contact with Hippolyte Durand, diocesan architect since 1854. Where to build this chapel? It had to be close to the Grotto. Happily, it was impossible to enclose the Grotto within a church, and the river Gave was much closer to the Grotto then than it is today. There remained one solution: to build above the Grotto. There was much discussion before a plan was drawn up. Finally, it was decided that the chapel, which became a “church” before becoming a “basilica”, would be facing west, contrary to age-old tradition. This arrangement was so that it could be open towards the town and so that the chancel would exactly overhang the Grotto.
Work began on 14th October, 1862, but the spire was not completed until 1872. The stained glass windows were even later (1877-1878). Beneath the porch of the Basilica, one is welcomed by a statue of the Virgin. On the lintel Christ is shown in glory, surrounded by symbols of the apostles: the ox for St. Matthew, the lion for St. Mark, a man for St. Luke, and the eagle for St. John. These sculptures were donated by the town of Tarbes, seat of the diocese in which Lourdes is located. The upper church is dedicated to the Immaculate Conception, the name which the Lady declared on 25th March, 1858. This church was blessed on 15th August, 1871 and consecrated in 1876. It was endowed with the dignity of a “basilica” in 1874.
- the minute hands of the clock in the bell tower measure 1.80 metres
- the distance between the terrace of the Crypt and the steeple cross is 72 metres
The Basilica of Saint Pius X
No sooner was the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception finished, than Mgr Langenieux visualized a larger one: this was the Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary. World War II had just ended, leaving in its wake heaps of ruins all across Europe, when Mgr Theas proposed the construction of an immense ‘refuge’. The idea was to provide a sheltered space for daily processions on rainy days and those of intense heat which were difficult conditions for the sick. There seemed no suitable solution. The centenary of the Apparitions was due. Mgr Theas had a providential encounter with Father Vago. This architect had started to work in the Shrine. His obsession was to pare down the site so that the pilgrims could be free of unnecessary distraction. It was not a question of adding to what had been built, and even less that of building something vast. The great idea was to bury it underground. In March 1956, the papers of commitment to the undertaking were officially signed. The tenacity of the bishop and the architect, the confidence of the businessmen, and the financial support from Rome ended up overcoming all the obstacles. Two years after the signature, Cardinal Roncalli was sent by the Pope to consecrate the basilica. The ceremony took place on 25th March, 1958.
The concept of the building was totally original, from the technical as well as the liturgical perspective. It was an achievement to create a graceful vault all in one piece, without supporting pillars. This success was made possible thanks to the ‘prestressed’ concrete invented by the engineer Freyssinet and used previously for bridge building. From the liturgical point of view, the conception of the building was equally audacious: an underground church in elliptical layout with a central altar. Strictly speaking, there was no sanctuary and the celebrant would face part of the congregation.
There is a contrast between the basilica empty and the basilica full and active. Empty, one can admire the rigour and purity of its design. Pierre Vago said: in fidelity to Bernadette, “this vessel must become poor, naked, true – in a word, pure.” But to understand the building, one must participate in celebration there: the international Sunday Mass or that of Wednesday morning; the Eucharistic adoration every afternoon. Like all the other buildings at Lourdes, the Saint Pius X Basilica has evolved over time. In addition to new audiovisual technology which has replaced the original system, but the walls have been equally updated. In the 1980’s, the basilica became the home of a new kind of art: “gemmail” (a type of stained glass window without lead, made up of fragments of coloured glass juxtaposed on each other with a varnished binding material). Between the pillars, tapestries represent the saints of all regions and epochs of the world.
- Surface area: 12,000 square metres (greater than 2 football fields)
- Volume: 100,000 cubic metres
- 15,000 tonnes of concrete
- 58 concrete half-arches supporting the whole
- Capacity: holds 25,000 – seating for 5,000
40 microphones, 88 loudspeakers, 11 cameras (7 interior and 4 exterior), 30 kilometres of video, audio, and fibre optic cable, 20 screens on the central control panel, 6 big public screens, 700 floodlights, 1.300 neon lights.