Battle Brews in France over the Remains of Saint Bernadette of Lourdes

Are they fighting over heritage or tourism revenue?

A fiery dispute has erupted between two French towns over the remains of Bernadette Soubirous, better known as Saint Bernadette of Lourdes, AFP reports.

While her visions of the Virgin Mary made Lourdes a major Catholic pilgrimage site, the remains of Saint Bernadette are preserved in a shrine in the town of Nevers, 700 kilometers north of Lourdes.

Now, the town of Lourdes is campaigning together with Bernadette’s descendants to bring the saint’s remains back to her birthplace.

In 1858 Bernadette Soubirous claimed to see visions of the Virgin Mary in a cave outside of Lourdes. Since then, the southwestern town has become a pilgrimage site for Christians of all denominations, drawing up to six million visitors a year.

In 1880, Bernadette joined the convent in Nevers, where she is buried, to escape attention from pilgrims and media.

“Its absolutely logical that this local girl, our idol, returns to Lourdes,” said one of the saint’s descendants, Benoit Casterot.

According to another distant relative, Francis Bayoumeu, Bernadette “never wanted to leave Lourdes.” He insisted she “left under duress because of the media pressure.”

“Our intentions are pure,” said Jose Marthe, a regional councillor who formed an association to lobby for her return.

But the Mayor of Nevers, Denis Thuriot, disagrees. “It’s obvious that the association, even if it denies it, is only looking to draw more tourists.”

He argued “neither the association nor the descendants of Saint Bernadette have the heart to defend her memory, of the wish of a woman who wanted to remain simple and anonymous, and found in Nevers a refuge that today is being disturbed.”

A study conducted in 2012 estimated that the town of Nevers would stand to lose 170,000 visitors and €2.5 million in revenue if Saint Bernadette’s remains were to be transferred to Lourdes.

Nuns at the convent where Saint Bernadette is interred dismiss any financial motivations. The convent’s Mother Superior Elisabeth de Tonquedec said that Bernadette made the choice to come to Nevers, and that the Catholic church supported the convent’s position.

“In 1957 Pope Pius XII definitively ratified the Church’s position by confirming that Bernadette would be kept in Nevers” she said.

Yet Lourdes councilman Marthe remains optimistic. “We don’t know if it will take six months or six years but Bernadette will be back.”

Another important Catholic relic has recently gone on display again (see Mysterious Shroud of Turin Is On View for First Time in Five Years).

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