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Premiered December 16 at 8/7C

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Full episode: Lourdes (54:50)

Lourdes: At a Glance

In 1858, in an unassuming town in the southwest of France, a 14-year-old peasant girl named Bernadette Soubirous claimed she had 18 encounters with the Virgin Mary. Since then, Lourdes has become one of the holiest Catholic pilgrimage sites in the world, visited annually by more than five million people who come in search of healing from its sacred waters. Since the end of World War II, soldiers from around the world have journeyed to Lourdes seeking healing and unity with one another at a week-long gathering known as the International Military Pilgrimage.

Earliest pilgrimage on record:1858
Frequency:Daily; once a year for the International Military Pilgrimage
Length:Varies; one weekend for the International Military Pilgrimage
Annual participants:Over 3 million
Follows in the footsteps of:Saint Bernadette
Support provided by: Learn more

Explore a Map of Lourdes

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Use the Google Maps controls to explore the town of Lourdes, France.

Begin the Journey


Procession to the Basilica

Walk in the footsteps of Saint Bernadette to the Rosary Basilica.


Rosary Basilica

Join international military pilgrims for mass at the main basilica.


The Underground Basilica

Celebrate in one of the world’s largest underground basilicas.

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Procession to the Basilica

Although the International Military Pilgrimage officially begins with a ceremony in the Underground Basilica, many pilgrims begin their journey with a procession to the Rosary Basilica through the streets of Lourdes. Thousands of active and retired veterans make their way down the sidewalks of this sacred town in the footsteps of Bernadette.

Explore the Streets of Lourdes

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Use the Google maps controls to stroll through the streets of Lourdes.

Bruce Feiler's Notes from the Field

Lourdes NFTF Bernadette

Who Was Bernadette?

On Feb 11, 1858, 14-year-old Bernadette was gathering firewood beside the river near the grotto Massabielle when she said she first saw an apparition that identified itself as the Immaculate Conception. What was the Catholic Church's reactions to this ordinary girl's extraordinary experiences? Take a look.

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Rosary Basilica

The procession through the streets of Lourdes ends at the next step in the pilgrimage, the Rosary Basilica, the most elaborate of the twenty-three chapels and sanctuaries located through Lourdes. Consecrated in 1876, a mere 18 years after Bernadette first told of her encounter with the Virgin, this massive church illuminates how quickly Lourdes became a major pilgrimage site. An international mass at the Rosary Basilica precedes the start of the International Military Pilgrimage.

Explore the Basilica

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Use the Google maps controls to take a close up look at the Rosary Basilica.

Bruce Feiler's Notes from the Field

Lourdes NFTF Healing Waters

The Healing Waters

Like many pilgrimage sites, a chief lure of Lourdes is what many consider the healing power of its waters. Those waters come from a spring where Bernadette said she encountered the Virgin Mary. Before entering the Rosary Basilica, many pilgrims drink the spring's healing waters or fill up a bottle to bring home to a loved one.

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The Underground Basilica

Following the international mass in the Rosary Basilica, pilgrims gather for the formal grand opening of the International Military Pilgrimage. The ceremony takes place in a vast underground basilica beneath the plaza, one of the largest underground churches in the world. After the ceremony ends, the lights go down on the church and come up in the town as the soldiers flood the streets of Lourdes for night-long celebrations.

Bruce Feiler's Notes from the Field

Lourdes NFTF Underground Basilica

The Underground Basilica

Take a look inside one of the world's largest underground basilicas—big enough to hold 25,000 people—to see the festivities that mark the beginning of the International Military Pilgrimage.

"It's amazing, because if you look around you, every branch of service, every country's branch of service is about here. We've all been fighting against each other and now we're drinking beer together."

—Will Fisher, pilgrim to Lourdes


The Grotto

Bathe in the waters at the site where Bernadette encountered the Virgin Mary.


Silent Procession

Walk silently with thousands of military pilgrims.

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The Grotto

Behind the Rosary Basilica is the spring from which Bernadette says the Virgin told her to drink, referred to as the grotto. For many pilgrims, the highlight of their stay is when they enter the private baths called piscenes and bathe in the water of the grotto. While some wish to be cured of a physical ailment, others hope for a general blessing of good health or relief from psychological burdens.

Bruce Feiler's Notes from the Field

Lourdes NFTF Bathing at the Grotto

Bathing at the Grotto

Take a look inside the baths at the grotto and hear how American pilgrims feel before and after taking part in this ritual.

"I'm glad I [bathed at the grotto]. You feel you can breathe; after you get out of that cold icy water, you feel something's out of you."

—Zach Herrick, pilgrim to Lourdes

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Silent Procession to the Grotto

This final leg of the International Military Pilgrimage is the most communal. On the last night of the journey, thousands of soldiers march in a silent, candlelit processional beginning at the Grotto, winding out and all around the sanctuary to end in front of the Rosary Basilica. When the crowd is especially large, the procession can last more than two hours, winding around the street beside the river before coming back into the front of the sanctuary to end at the Basilica.

Bruce Feiler's Notes from the Field

Lourdes NFTF Medical Observations

Office of Medical Observations

Many may find spiritual healing in the rites and rituals of the pilgrimage to Lourdes, while others believe they find physical healing. Whenever someone claims they are physically cured by the waters of Lourdes, the case is evaluated by an international committee of medical professionals. Get an exclusive look at the records of the Office of Medical Observations.

"Each one of us has gone through something totally different and yet we're all the same."

—Will Fisher, pilgrim to Lourdes

"There's a misconception out there that by talking about things, by expressing things... it is somehow weak for a professional soldier to do that. I'm sorry, I don't see any weak professional soldiers here."

—Hugh Fisher, pilgrim to Lourdes

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