( dpa ) - The Catholic shrine at the French city of Lourdes celebrated on Monday the 150th anniversary of the appearance of the Virgin Mary to a 14-year-old peasant girl named Bernadette Soubirous.
On February 11, 1858, the Virgin Mary appeared to Bernadette at the entrance of a grotto near Lourdes. This was the first of 18 apparitions of Mary to the young girl.
Asked to describe her, Bernadette said, "She has the appearance of a young girl of 16 or 17. She is dressed in a white robe, girdled at the waist with a blue ribbon which flows down all along Her robe.
"She wears upon Her head a veil which is also white. This veil gives just a glimpse of Her hair and then falls down at the back below Her waist."
As a result of the visions, Lourdes has become one of the most popular pilgrimage destinations in the world, with an average of 5 million visitors a year, many of them coming in the hopes of being cured of a variety of ailments.
Although it has a population of only about 15,000, Lourdes contains the second-largest number of hotels of any French city, behind only Paris.
Some 8 million visitors are expected to stream into Lourdes this year to take part in the celebrations commemorating the anniversary of Saint Bernadette's visions.
Pope Benedict XVI is expected to travel to Lourdes later in the year, probably in September.