updated 5/4/2008 4:53:10 PM ET 2008-05-04T20:53:10

A Roman Catholic bishop said Sunday that the church has officially recognized that the Virgin Mary appeared to a teenage shepherd girl in the French Alps starting in the mid-1600s.

The announcement marks the first time the church has recognized apparitions of the Virgin Mary in France since those in southwestern Lourdes 150 years ago, the diocese of Gap and Embrun said.

Speaking at Mass in Laus in remarks broadcast nationally on France-2 television, Monsignor Jean-Michel di Falco Leandri said he recognized the "supernatural origin" of the apparitions to 17-year-old shepherd girl Benoite Rencurel starting in 1664 and running through 1718.

The bishop, in an interview on France-Info radio, said the decision meant the church "has committed itself in an official way to say to pilgrims 'you can come here in total confidence.'" The recognition process involved a panel of experts including two theologians and an investigating judge, he said.

Radio Vatican's Web site said some 30 cardinals and bishops from around the world were expected for the Mass in Laus, to attend the "celebration" of the recognition.

Officials at Notre-Dame-du-Laus church say that after four months of daily apparitions starting in May 1664, the Virgin Mary asked Rencurel to build a church and a house to receive priests.

The sanctuary, which was founded by Rencurel, today welcomes some 120,000 pilgrims a year — at times providing healing oils based on a method that the Virgin Mary was said to pass on to the shepherd girl, the officials said.

The recognition Sunday makes Laus an official pilgrimage site for the church — on a par with Lourdes, a site where Roman Catholic tradition holds that the Virgin Mary appeared before 14-year-old girl Bernadette Soubirous in 1858.

Thousands of people who have since prayed and bathed at a spring in Lourdes said they have been healed.

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