In 1923, a quarter-century after the death of ThérËse in the Carmel of Lisieux, a new parish was formed in the northwestern corner of Rhode Island. Although ThérËse had not yet been canonized, the bishop of Providence, William Hickey, suggested that the church be placed under her patronage, and offered special permission for a shrine to be established to her honor.
“We're sure it's the first shrine dedicated to St. ThérËse in the Americas,” says co-director Jerry Finelli, who shares administration duties of the shrine in Nasonville with his wife, Shirley.
Immediately following ThérËse's canonization in 1924, the current brick combination church-school, one of three new buildings on the grounds dedicated by the bishop, officially became St. Theresa Church—using the American spelling of her name, which the shrine has retained. An outdoor shrine and altar were added in 1927, and a Scala Sancta and outdoor Stations of the Cross in the mid-1930s. By the war, pilgrimages and events drew as many as 7,000 people to the shrine each year.
One more event in the birth of the shrine happened just after the parish was formed. A parishioner named Olivier Faford, who had been ill for years, became bedridden, unable to speak or eat, and was considered incurable by Boston doctors. The first pastor of the parish, Father A.P. Desrochers, brought her Communion and told her to turn to the saint. That very afternoon, the woman got out of bed by herself and ate a hearty meal. Her doctors called her recovery a miracle.
Today, the thriving parish has 550 families, including relatives of Faford. With the last decade bringing a renewal to the shrine, with renovations and expansions establishing new devotional sections, it continues to grow and flourish on the grassy, woodsy acres around the church.
As the shrine unfolds toward the outdoor chapel, the first stop for pilgrims is the Scala Sancta. These granite and limestone Holy Stairs, which replaced wooden ones in 1956, rise nearly three stories to a marble Crucifixion scene under an open chapel. The Holy Stairs are wide enough to accommodate at once those making the journey on their knees, with or without cushions, and those unable to do so. The stone courtyard before the Scala Sancta boasts new outdoor pews, for those who wish to linger in prayer. The canopy of trees continues to extend outward, toward the stations.
These unique Stations of the Cross form a huge semicircle around the Holy Stairs. The stone relief scenes, begun in 1941 by internationally known sculptor Amedeo Nardini, are sheltered within tall arched wayside shrines. These arches were patterned of stones gathered from the 48 states of the continental United States, to reflect the devotion of the whole nation; the stones used are different sizes, colors, and textures, from smooth, to craggy and coral-like. Shades of red and white predominate in the 11th station, while black stone is used in the 12th station. The 13th mixes granites and marbles. Five of the stations have had to be entirely reconstructed, and volunteers from the church and the area worked painstakingly on the process.
The shrine extends to the outdoor altar and stone sanctuary with statues of Mary, Joseph, and St. Thérèse. The large sanctuary of Vermont granite, marble, and Tennessee stone replaced the original wooden altar at midcentury. Everything from the tabernacle to Communion rails are made of stone.
Parish workers have recently built wood and cement pews, under twin canopies arched to resemble a chapel roof. They protect pilgrims—up to 1,500 at a time—during services celebrating the feast of the Little Flower, which the shrine conducts about six weeks before her feast, on the third Sunday of August, when weather is more predictable.
Italian-made stations line the outdoor “side aisles” of the nave, and the “center aisle” is paved. Many of the faithful have offered donations for memorial plaques for the pews, just as they have for each bead of the monumental rosary which hangs beyond the shrine to St. Michael the Archangel.
Preceded by a rose garden and a statue of the Sacred Heart, and over-spread by countless leafy boughs, the 15-decade rosary was blessed and dedicated in 1994. The large beads were shaped from timbers; each decade drapes between the “Our Father” beads resting on top of posts. A rosebush adorns each, and the particular mystery is illustrated. Outdoor pews with kneelers accommodate visitors.
In the great circle of the rosary, a flower-lined walk leads to a stone pool and fountain overlooked by a statue of Our Lady of Peace. The paved path also follows around the rosary itself. The director, who designed this rosary, aims to make the entire shrine completely accessible to all visitors.
Across the lawns and parking area, a section of the former convent is being readied as a gift shop. The brick parish church itself has been enlarged and renovated. The crutches, wheelchairs, and ex-votos which had been stacked around the sanctuary for years were removed, and the church's white interior, trimmed in blue, is simple and soothing. By the statue of St. Thérèse, a relic is displayed for veneration. For major celebrations, a larger reliquary with multiple first-class relics is used.
Bus groups and carpools can call ahead to arrange to meet the shrine directors for a personal explanation; groups with a priest can arrange for a Mass. Besides weekend Masses, there is 8:30 a.m. Mass Monday through Friday, and first Saturday Mass in the rectory chapel.
The only official shrine in Rhode Island, this first shrine of St. Thérèse in America is a bough from which the Little Flower continues to “let fall from heaven a shower of roses.” For the 50-mile drive from Boston, use Interstates 95W to 295W. Take exit 8, Route 7, a few short miles north, to the intersection with Route 102. The shrine is just past the corner in Nasonville. From New York, use I-95E to Route 146N, to Forestdale/Slatersville exit, to Route 102N.
For information on the shrine and Confraternity of St. Thérèse, write the Shrine at 35 Dion Drive, Nasonville, RI 02830, or phone (401) 766-0917, or (401) 568-8280.
Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.