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A visit to Lourdes, the site of mystery and medical miracles

Lourdes’ medical miracles
Scrutinizing the medical miracles of the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes | 60 Minutes 05:01

Over the last 160 years, bishops from the Catholic church have recognized 70 medical miracles connected to The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes in southern France. Each year, more than 3 million pilgrims visit the small town. Many make the journey to Lourdes because they've heard the stories of the miraculous medical recoveries that have taken place there. 

This week on 60 Minutes, correspondent Bill Whitaker reports on the Lourdes Office of Medical Observations where world-renowned doctors and researchers conduct decade-long investigations into the countless claims of cures. They determine which cases can be medically explained and which cannot according to current medical knowledge. The office is overseen by Dr. Alessandro de Franciscis, a former pediatrician and Harvard trained epidemiologist, who serves as the office's president and residing physician. 

Dr. Alessandro de Franciscis and 60 Minutes correspondent Bill Whitaker in the archives of the Lourdes Office of Medical Observations.

"We [are] looking for a diagnosis and if that diagnosis is a diagnosis of a severe disease with a severe prognosis," Dr. de Franciscis told 60 Minutes. "And then, we want to make sure that that person is a person that was cured in a way that one would say suddenly…in an instantaneous way, in a complete way, in a way lasting in time. And…my seventh criteria that has to match is there must be no possible explanation to that cure."

What separates the more than 7,000 recorded claims of cures from the 70 that church officials have recognized as miracles, is a tremendous amount of medical documentation and a patient's willingness to put their life under a microscope.

The medical cases classified as miracles in Lourdes have been scrutinized for decades. Skeptics point out medical science was not as rigorous in the late 1800s and wonder how strictly the office's criteria have been interpreted over the years. Yet, no one has been able to disprove its conclusions.

Dr. Esther Sternberg is a leading scholar on the mind body connection and the Research Director at the University of Arizona's Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine. She and two outside colleagues analyzed the reliability of the Lourdes medical records and published their findings in 2014 in the Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences.

"As medical science and rigor in diagnosis progressed…determining whether something was an unexplained cure progressed as well," Dr. Sternberg said to 60 Minutes. "They [Lourdes Office of Medical Observations] kept adding these different layers of evaluation…and more diagnostic measures. And then following them up for a longer time."

Dr. Sternberg told 60 Minutes her analysis found the office made their determinations to the best of their ability and she found their conclusions to be credible.

While reporting on the story, the producing team of Nichole Marks and John Gallen tracked down the four living people whose cases have been recognized as miracles. 

Vittorio Micheli recovered from osteosarcoma in his hip in 1963. In 1965, Sister Luigina Traverso was cured of near total paralysis. In 1976, Delizia Cirolli's cancerous tumor vanished from her right knee. And, in 2008, Sister Bernadette Moriau was cured of Cauda Equina, a disorder of the nerves and lower spine. All four people told 60 Minutes that they are healthy and free of their original disease.

The video above was produced by Keith Zubrow and edited by Sarah Shafer Prediger.

Photos of Vittorio Micheli and Sister Traverso courtesy of the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes Archives

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