Music History #22: "Song of Bernadette"
“Song of Bernadette”
Written by Jennifer Warnes, Leonard Cohen, and Bill Elliott (1986)
Performed by Jennifer Warnes
One of the great overlooked albums of the 1980s, Famous Blue Raincoat by Jennifer Warnes features the singer covering the songs of Leonard Cohen. Warnes had toured with the Canadian poet-musician as a background vocalist for years, and had a deep feeling for his dense, lyrical songs.
Warnes even ended up co-writing one of the album's tracks, based on the life of a modern-day Catholic saint. She explained, “I was given the name Bernadette at birth. But my siblings preferred the name Jennifer so my name was changed. In 1979, on tour in the south of France with Leonard, I began writing a series of letters between the Bernadette I almost was, and Jennifer—two energies within me. One innocent, and the other who had fallen for the world. So the song arose in a bus nearby Lourdes. I was thinking about the great Saint who held her ground so well, and was not swayed from what she knew to be true. But the song is also about me longing to return to a place that was more pure, honest and true.”
Here's Warnes performing the song live:
In 1858, near Lourdes, France, 14-year-old Bernadette Soubirious had visions of a lady believed to be the Virgin Mary. Soubirious was later canonized as a saint by the Catholic Church, and Lourdes became a destination for religious pilgrims from around the world.
Marie-Bernarde Soubirious was born in 1844, the eldest of four children. Though her family was initially well-off, a series of misfortunes plunged them into poverty. At the lowest point, they lived together in a dank one-room basement that was once used as a prison cell. Marie-Bernarde, nicknamed Bernadette, was a cheerful, kind-hearted girl who always pitched in with the chores to help her family.
On February 11, 1858, she was out collecting firewood when she came upon a grotto filled with debris. It was there that she had the first of her 18 visions. As she described it: “I saw a lady dressed in white, wearing a white dress, a blue girdle and a yellow rose on each foot, the same color as the chain of her rosary; the beads of the rosary were white.”
Bernadette said that initially she felt confused by the vision, but was soon overcome with a peaceful feeling. When she told her parents about what she'd seen, her mother forbade her from returning to the spot. But Bernadette couldn't stop thinking about the lady in white.
A few days later, back at the grotto, she had another vision. On her third visit to the grotto, the lady in white spoke to Bernadette, requesting that the girl keep returning over the next month. Soon, hundreds of people were accompanying Bernadette to the grotto. While no one else could see the the lady, the witnesses claimed that when the visions occurred, they felt a change in the atmosphere and that Bernadette's face took on an otherworldly look, as if she was in ecstasy.
Bernadette described the lady as being “so lovely, that when you have seen her once, you would willingly die to see her again.”
In her ninth vision, Bernadette was asked by the lady to drink from the spring. But there was no spring. Bernadette began to dig with her bare hands in a muddy patch near the grotto and drank a few drops of dirty water. In the days after, a clear spring began to flow from this hole. And this was the beginning of the healing waters that have become one of the main attractions for miracle seekers at Lourdes.
During one of her final visions, Bernadette asked the lady her name, and was given the answer: “I am the Immaculate Conception.” Though the idea of the Virgin Mary's conception by her mother Saint Anne had been part of Catholic doctrine for centuries, it had had only been formally proclaimed by the Pope a few years before the Lourdes visions. Some believe that as an uneducated child, Bernadette would not have known the phrase Immaculate Conception.
In the years after the visions, Bernadette's life was a constant parade of uninvited visitors, skeptics and religious pilgrims, all curious to hear her recount her tale over and over. Though she always answered questions with sincerity and humility, she grew weary of the attention.
In 1866, Bernadette escaped into the convent at Nevers, and as Sister Marie-Bernarde, assumed the simple, quiet life of a nun. With her positive attitude and patience, she was an inspiration to the other sisters. But over her 13 years there, she had ongoing respiratory problems. Often confined to her bed for months at a time, she never complained. She said her function was to “suffer” and to offer her own “feeble prayers” to God. When asked why she didn't return to Lourdes for healing, she replied, “It is not for me.”
In 1879, Sister Marie-Bernarde died from complications of tuberculosis. She was 35.
After her death, there was a Papal investigation and examination of the evidence surrounding her visions. The Catholic Church believes that one of the signs of a saint is a person whose body remains intact after death. Bernadette was exhumed 30 years after her burial. Though she hadn't been embalmed, she was remarkably well preserved. In 1925, her body was transferred to a glass shrine at Nevers. Thin wax masks were laid over her face and hands, which had begun to discolor.
In 1933, she was canonized by Pope Pius XI, for both her visions and the simplicity of her life. The little girl from Lourdes became Saint Bernadette, the patron saint of the sick and also of the family and poverty.