Among the large Catholic cathedrals in Santiago, of which there are a few, I found the Basilica de Nuestra Señora de Lourdes to be the most interesting. The sheer size of the basilica’s dome and its medieval appearance command attention. But it is more than just the basilica’s architecture that make it fascinating. There is a man-made grotto on the grounds of the basilica. The grotto is modeled after a famous grotto in Lourdes, France. The grotto in France is a site of religious significance.
In 1858, in the town of Lourdes, France, a fourteen year old girl named Bernadette was out collecting firewood when an apparition appeared in a grotto near a spring. Bernadette described the apparition as a small, young lady wearing a white veil and gown with a blue girdle. In the weeks following the initial encounter, Bernadette returned to the grotto on a daily basis. The apparition revealed itself to her a total of eighteen times.
During these encounters, Bernadette said that the apparition requested that a chapel be built near the grotto. The apparition also instructed Bernadette to drink the spring water seeping from the ground as an act of penance.
Naturally, many villagers were reluctant to believe Bernadette’s visions. Villagers who watched Bernadette kneeling before the grotto and scooping muddy water into her mouth believed her to be mentally ill.
On the eighteenth and final appearance, the apparition revealed her identity to Bernadette, saying “I am the immaculate conception.” Men of the cloth in the area began giving credence to Bernadette’s visions. People started joining Bernadette at the spring near the grotto to drink the water. Soon there were cases of miraculous recoveries among ill people who had drunk the spring water. Doctors reviewed these cases and concluded that there was no scientific reason that could explain these miraculous recoveries. From then on, the grotto in Lourdes became a pilgrimage site for millions of Catholics, and Bernadette was branded a saint.
A replica of the Lourdes grotto was built outside the Basilica de Nuestra Señora de Lourdes. The replica was fitted with taps that dispense holy water. Santiaguinos visit the mock grotto to drink the holy water, hoping for the same rejuvenating effects as the spring in Lourdes. You can see some video of the grotto here, at the 1:30 mark.
Inside the cavernous basilica are large stained glass windows and a vast assorted of statues of Saints. When I was there, some of the older, devout Catholic worshippers didn’t appreciate people taking pictures inside the basilica. Case in point, a plump, gray-haired Chilean woman saw me taking pictures and barked at me in angry, slurred Spanish. She was so incensed that her adult daughter had to restrain her from physically accosting me. I gave the old woman a smile and wished her well.
The basilica is located in the Quinta Normal section of Santiago. To get there, take the subway to the Quinta Normal station. The basilica is across the street from the northern border of Quinta Normal Park, one of the largest parks in Santiago.