Dazed by a series of light-filled spiritual apparitions in a remote southwestern French grotto, a teenager named Bernadette dressed in mid-19th century peasant garb hesitates for just a moment.
She then glides to the edge of the stage where she lifts her head and bursts into an emotion-drenched ballad that would make Celine Dion proud.
“I was born in the mud,” she sings, trying to understand why she was chosen for these religious visions. “With my feet on the ground. I had nothing to give, and no words in my mouth. I was born in the mud, and it’s where I belong. So why me?”
It is the signature song from an elaborate and unlikely Broadway-style musical, “Bernadette de Lourdes,” based on the life of a 14-year-old girl who in 1858 said she experienced multiple apparitions of a young woman believed to be Jesus’ mother, Mary, and discovered a stream with miraculous healing powers.
Thanks to the original Bernadette, this town in the foothills of the Pyrenees mountains became a major Roman Catholic pilgrimage site, drawing millions of people each year and boasting a hotel capacity in France second only to Paris. A 1940s movie version of the story, “The Song of Bernadette,” starred Jennifer Jones.
But in recent years the number of visitors to Lourdes had declined substantially, creating an economic strain and leaving the town struggling to find solutions. How does a town reinvigorate a tourism industry based on religious visions?
The Bernadette musical may not miraculously fix the town’s tourism woes; nevertheless, it has generated a well-timed frenzy of publicity about Lourdes.
In addition to the lavish musical that premiered July 1, local boosters have cheered the release of a major documentary about Lourdes in French theaters, and a National Geographic special narrated by Morgan Freeman. For a town that wants to expand its appeal and reinvent its image, this turn in the spotlight — though still largely tied to its religious history — is most welcome.
“These are not things we solicited,” said Joël Luzenko, spokesman for Notre Dame of Lourdes Sanctuary. “These are projects by people who discovered Lourdes themselves. They felt called by the grotto and we’re pleased.”
The centerpiece of Lourdes, a town of fewer than 15,000 residents that sees an estimated 5 million annual visitors, is the Gothic Notre Dame cathedral, built atop the grotto where Bernadette had her visions.
Visitors can walk through the grotto, touching the walls, sometimes as a priest conducts Mass in front. They then pass a series of fountains to fill jugs full of water or wait in line to bathe in the water from Bernadette’s stream. The Catholic Church says Lourdes has been the source of 70 medical miracles.
The sanctuary is surrounded by blocks of hotels and souvenir shops that for decades targeted a flux of tourists who arrived as part of large, organized pilgrimages.
About 10 years ago, the rate of those group pilgrimages began to plummet, mirroring changes in the Catholic Church, which has seen the percentage of its congregations in Europe fall and those in places like South America, Africa and Asia rise. Instead of busloads of pilgrims from places like Italy, Lourdes is seeing small groups of pilgrims from farther away.
In 2009, the town’s hotels reported 3,260,022 “nuitées,” a unit of measure in France’s tourism industry to count the number of nights a person spends somewhere. (For example, three people staying four nights makes 12 “nuitées.”) By 2017, the number of nuitées had fallen to 2,005,732, according to the French government’s official statistics agency.
Hotels and restaurants struggled. The Notre Dame sanctuary ran a budget deficit for almost a decade as donations fell, piling up $11.2 million in losses. The sanctuary hired a former Renault executive in 2017 who slashed spending and managed to get its $34.4 million budget in the black last year.
Meanwhile, progressive Josette Bourdeu was elected mayor in 2014 and worked with the tourism board to develop a turnaround strategy. Part of that plan was to attract more people from within France.
“During my travels to other countries, I found that Lourdes is very well known and loved,” Bourdeu said. “But our mission was to reconquer the spirit of the French, and reconvince them to come to Lourdes.”
Officials began presenting Lourdes as a gateway to the Pyrenees with its spectacular scenery, year-round outdoor activities, and local culture. Hotels began offering packages with bike rentals, and other amenities. The town struck deals for more direct flights with a budget airline and Bourdeu embarked on an international promotional tour.
After staging year-long celebrations in 2018 marking the 160th anniversary of Bernadette’s visions, the town declared 2019 to be the “Year of Bernadette” with continuous events planned around the 175th anniversary of her birth and the 140th anniversary of her death.
“Our goal is to promote Lourdes as a spiritual place,” said Corine Laussu, who is in charge of promotion and communication for the Lourdes tourism board. “But this regional strategy is becoming more important.”
Last year there were signs of progress. Nuitées increased 9% to 2,191,171, including more visitors from within France. But with tourism boosted by one-time events and the regional strategy still a work in progress, the recovery remained fragile.
Local enthusiasm received a boost in the fall after Freeman was spotted in the Pyrenees filming an episode of his National Geographic TV series “The Story of God.”
The town saw another gift in early May with the release of “Lourdes,” a documentary by filmmakers Thierry Demaizière and Alban Teurlai.
The musical, however, seems to have the most potential to draw tourists. It traces the story of Bernadette Soubirous as she sees 18 apparitions between February and July 1858. What started as just light and wind, eventually took the form of a woman who called herself the “immaculate conception.” This figure told Bernadette that she would find a healing spring under the dirt, and that a chapel should be built over it.
In songs that were alternately heart-tugging and rousing, Bernadette’s mother begged her to forget the visions, her father agonized over their crushing poverty, legal officials threatened her family with prison, doctors considered institutionalizing her, and church officials condemned her. One by one, they were all swayed by her persistence.
“What she did was extraordinary,” Bourdeu said during a recent interview. “She was a young girl who changed the destiny of Lourdes.”
That is precisely what struck Roberto Ciurleo, the show’s producer, when he first visited Lourdes nine years ago.
While rehearsing a musical he produced based on Robin Hood at a theater in southwest France in 1990, Ciurleo gave the cast a day off and took some of them to nearby Lourdes. After visiting the grotto, he told the story of Bernadette he had often heard from his Catholic grandmother. Though the cast consisted of people of different religions and backgrounds, they seemed thoroughly mesmerized.
“From that moment, we had the idea to create a show that was even for people who are not Catholic,” Ciurleo said during an interview. “There will be people coming to Lourdes for the first time. And that is our goal, that people discover what really happens at Lourdes and at the sanctuary.”
O’Brien is a special correspondent.