A window into St. Bernadette, CNA speaks to film star, Sydney Penny


On February 11th, Ignatius Press will host a nationwide re-release of the classic film, The Passion of Bernadette, which is based on the later life of Saint Bernadette Soubirous, a young girl, to whom Mary repeatedly appeared in Lourdes, France. 

The film, originally released in 1989 is a sequel to the 1988 Movie “Bernadette”, which garnered considerable acclaim from the Vatican and today, plays continually for pilgrims in the church in Lourdes.

The sequel follows St. Bernadette’s life after she entered the convent in Nevers, France, where she lived until succumbing to tuberculosis at the age of 35.

Recently, CNA spoke to actress Sydney Penny, who currently stars on the soap opera “All My Children” and has appeared in numerous television and film roles, about portraying young Bernadette in both films and about the role she thinks this famous Saint still plays in today’s world. 

CNA: You were 15 during the filming of Bernadette and 18 during the Passion of Bernadette. What was it like for you portraying such an intense story at such a young age?

PENNY: I was very fortunate to have Jean Delannoy as a director. He really understood Bernadette, and telling her story correctly was a passion for him. He guided me through, and it felt effortless, all I had to do was try to understand the character. When the writing is good and the directing is good, it’s effortless.

CNA: Most people (even Catholics) have only vaguely heard of Lourdes, if at all. As a non-Catholic, did you know much about the story of Bernadette prior to filming?

PENNY: The closest association I had was that a Catholic friend of mine growing up went to Our Lady of Lourdes Parish, but I never thought anything about it.

I think that not really knowing much about Bernadette gave me fresh eyes. I was just trying to portray her life--not that of a Saint specifically. What we tried to portray was just the human person. She was really just a simple girl, and considered herself a stupid girl. I think this simplicity made her accessible to everyone.

The role was so different from what I was doing at the time. I was on the beach in California filming the new Gidget movie…I had no clue until I got to Lourdes what an important person this was. And it wasn’t until the premier that I really started to understand the importance of this. 

CNA: After she entered the convent in Nevers, France, Bernadette developed tuberculosis and was given difficult, menial tasks to perform, which she did with great suffering. What was it like trying to portray the intense pain and suffering that she experienced in her later life?

PENNY: It was very hard. I felt so deeply for her because she had such difficulties. But despite, she was able to find something positive--even delightful--in every part of her life. There’s a strange psychosomatic thing that happens when you play a character like that. She was much older than I was, so they aged me…and I wore this heavy wool wrapping around my knee which honestly made me feel old. It was very difficult.

I visited the convent in Nevers during the fall when it was cold and damp and I couldn’t help but think of Bernadette and her tuberculosis performing the most medial tasks there, cleaning the latrine…This poor woman doing these menial tasks…just amazing.

CNA: Many would say that our culture is going through a profoundly dark time right now. How do you think the story of Bernadette can offer hope in today’s world?

PENNY:  We all have choices in every minute and we’re all presented with difficulties--big and small. For some, it’s family, for some it’s work…not to mention the huge, world political struggles that we all feel a part of.

But Bernadette had this simple truthful nature, this fantastic code of honesty and simplicity. I think her common sense approach to life and suffering is one that we can all learn from. We can try to change the world, but will we always succeed? Not necessarily. Really, all we can do is lead by example. That’s what Christ did, and that’s, I think, what Bernadette has to show us today.

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