Fifty five thousand pilgrims turned out in the southwestern French town of Lourdes on Monday to mark the 150 anniversary of the Virgin Mary appearing to St. Bernadette Soubirous, who was 14 years old at the time.
The feast of Our Lady of Lourdes is expected produce the largest number of pilgrims in a single day for all of 2008.
The celebration culminated in a Mass concelebrated by 29 bishops and 800 priests for a crowd of pilgrims from all over the world. In his homily, Bishop of Lourdes and Tarbes Jacques Perrier connected the celebrations to the start of Lent, saying it was a time for Christians to deepen their faith.
St. Bernadette is said to have seen the Virgin Mary at least 18 times over several months in 1858. Though at first greeted with skepticism by Church authorities, she proved sincere and was canonized in 1933.
The place of the apparition is now a sanctuary for physical and spiritual healing, its waters considered to bestow miraculous cures.
Anniversary celebrations will take place at Lourdes throughout the year and include a papal visit from Pope Benedict possibly in September.