SAN ANTONIO, TEXAS-The Great Depression of the 1930s forced an entire nation to re-focus its priorities. Turning away from the high living of the previous decade, Americans adopted a more austere lifestyle, with many eschewing materialism and turning to basic values of faith and family.
The National Shrine of the Little Flower in San Antonio, Texas, witnesses to that time. Its community combined meager resources with ample faith to produce a monument to simplicity and trust in God, in honor of the saint who exemplified those virtues.
Though founded in 1926, at the height of a prosperous decade, upon the shrine's completion in 1931 the Depression was in its “darkest years,” said Discalced Carmelite Father Louis Scagnelli, the shrine's bursar who also serves as provincial procurator for missions of his order. Built with money from “a lot of poor people, a lot of women scrubbing floors,” the church is one of the first to be dedicated to St. Therese of Lisieux (known also as St. Therese of the Child Jesus and the “Little Flower”), who died in 1897 and was canonized in 1925.
The Spanish Colonial-style church-the largest of its kind in San Antonio-initially served to meet the needs of southern Texas's Mexican Catholic population. Beneath the traditional red tile roof, alongside the Italian marble altar and pillars, visitors can behold the shrine's most treasured possession: a life-sized oil painting of the saint by her sister and fellow Carmelite Celine. The work was also featured during the canonization ceremony of St. Therese.
The “shrine was built by people who gave all they had during the Depression, which proves that people basically want God and prayer in their lives,” said Father Scagnelli. The culture at-large, he says, increasingly recognizes of the importance of spirituality, if not necessarily organized religion. He also believes that as the centennial year of her death-which officially begins Oct. 1, the day after the 99th anniversary of her death-approaches, St. Therese is the perfect saint for the modern age, claims the priest. “Her message is one the world badly needs today,” he said. St. Therese's childlike love for and trust in God stands in sharp relief to a world “where people overestimate their exploits,” are preoccupied with themselves and “cannot listen to the promptings of God's grace in prayer.”
Even before entering a French Carmelite convent in her mid-teens, Therese Martin prayed and fasted for the soul of an infamous murderer due to be executed. She saw her prayers answered when the man kissed a crucifix before his death. Her cloistered life and early death from tuberculosis afforded her no opportunity for active evangelization or other feats. Still, the Church recognizes her as co-patroness of missionaries (with St. Francis Xavier) for her diligent and humble acts of sacrifice for the conversion of souls. Rome is also expected to pronounce her a Doctor of the Church.
Father Scagnelli tells the story of how a Carmelite sister came upon St. Therese, nearly dead from the tuberculosis that had been eating away at her lungs for years, walking around vigorously in her sick room. Ordered to return to bed, St. Therese refused, insisting that she was walking so that “a missionary in a foreign land would be able to get up and minister to souls.” Denied her wish to travel to a mission in Vietnam because of her poor health, St. Therese spiritually adopted missionaries around the world.
Reinforcing walls, overall structural repair and a badly leaking roof are top priorities for Father Scagnelli, who hopes to complete repairs in time for the end of the centenary year.
The Shrine of the Little Flower attracts 46,000 visitors annually. Recently a petition was sent to Rome to grant the church status of minor basilica.In addition to welcoming pilgrims with tales of St. Therese's so-called “little way” of love, Father Scagnelli likes to cite Pope John Paul II: “Let them go to the shrines and they will return to the parishes.”
The restoration of the Shrine of the Little Flower is estimated to cost $2.5 million. Donations to help the Discalced Carmelites of the Southwest Province of St. Therese may be sent to: Little Flower Shrine Restoration Fund; PO Box 5280; San Antonio, TX 78201-0280.
Father Scagnelli also publishes a bimonthly 32-page magazine for the Apostolate of the Little Flower. All requests to be receive the magazine or to join the apostolate, may be sent to the address above, with the heading “Apostolate of the Little Flower.”
Todd Aglialoro is based in New York.