Some 50,000 pilgrims are expected in the southwestern French town of Lourdes Monday to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the reported sighting of the apparition of the Virgin Mary by a 14-year-old shepherd girl. Lisa Bryant reports from Paris the event will be celebrated throughout the year, with a visit by the Pope expected in September.

Lourdes is usually filled with pilgrims year round. But many more are gathering now to mark the beginning of the months-long period in 1858 during which Bernadette Soubirous, 14, is said to have seen the Virgin Mary no less than 18 times.

The Roman Catholic Church was initially skeptical about the appearances, but Bernadette was eventually canonized in 1933.

Today, the place where Bernadette is said to have seen the Virgin is a sanctuary run by the Catholic Church. Millions of pilgrims, and not only Christian ones, flock here each year to seek spiritual and physical healing. Because Lourdes is also considered the source of miraculous cures.

At a televised mass Sunday at Lourdes, the bishop of Lourdes and Tarbes, Monseigneur Jacques Perrier, drew connections between the celebrations and the start of Lent, the Christian period of fasting before Easter which began last week.

Monseigneur Perrier says Lent is a time for Christians to deepen their faith that should be seized and not be allowed to disappear.

The celebrations are expected to last all year. But the highlight will likely be in September, when Pope Benedict is expected to pay his first visit to the holy sanctuary as pontiff.