In the summer of 1987 I was living in England and had three months free between jobs so I decided to go on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem–hitch-hiking and staying at monasteries across Europe.
One of the place I wanted to visit was the monastery of St Gildard in Nevers, France. This is where the incorrupt body of St Bernadette is still on display to be venerated by the faithful. So I arrived at Nevers and the place was full of mentally handicapped pilgrims from Ireland on their way to Lourdes. The nun at the front desk found me a place in the guest house and I came down to a bustling refectory for dinner. I was seated at a table by myself when a softly spoken American woman sat down next to me. She smiled and said in a Southern accent, “Ah hope you don’t mahnd if ah sit here with you because I speak English too.”
It turned out that Betty Sue was from Mobile, Alabama. She was a convert to the Catholic faith from being Southern Baptist and claimed that her conversion was a result of a vision of St Bernadette. She spent every summer in Nevers to “spend time with Bernadette”. Well, Betty Sue had the keys to the place. She took me to Bernadette’s cell, showed me the tomb where she had been exhumed, told me the story of the wonder of the saint’s incorrupt body and how it all happened. The next morning after breakfast before I set out for my next destination Betty Sue said I should “spend a few minutes with Bernadette.”
So I knelt in the side chapel of the chapel of the convent where the saint’s relics are preserved in a glass coffin. While I was praying there was a wonderful fragrance of flowers. But there were no flowers. None anywhere. Nor was there anyone with a potent perfume and there were no cleaning ladies spraying air freshener around. I eventually got up from my prayers and went outside to see Betty Sue. She said, “How was it?”
“I was skeptical, but, well, it was pretty amazing. There was a strong smell of flowers.”
“Praise the Lord! You have been granted a grace from Bernadette. That is the odor of sanctity. You will be greatly blessed on your journey.”
To this day I don’t know if it was a miracle from heaven or not, but the incorrupt body of Bernadette is surely some kind of a miracle, and I’m happy to accept that the odor of sanctity was a little gift to my own as yet un-Catholic doubting heart.
There is a post script to the story. I was in San Francisco a few years ago, having now been a Catholic for some years. I told the story at a speaking engagement. Afterwards a man came up and said, “Father. I had exactly the same experience. At Nevers a woman with a Southern accent came up and introduced herself and showed me around. I also experienced the odor of sanctity. When I got home to the USA I wrote to the sisters at the convent at Nevers and asked for the name and address of the American woman who shows pilgrims around and they wrote back saying there is no one like that, and never has been. They didn’t know what I was talking about.”
Cue theme tune from Twilight Zone…
Check out The Anchoress’ thoughts on St Bernadette here.