In one of the littlest towns, in the littlest state, stands America's first shrine to the saint known as the “Little Flower of Jesus.”
The Little Flower, of course, is St. Thérèse of Lisieux—newest Doctor of the Church. The shrine, in Nasonville, R.I., will be a wonderful place to pray on Oct. 1, her feast day.
Worship in this area began in an old schoolhouse, where a priest traveled by horse and buggy to celebrate Mass during the 1870s; 50 years later, Bishop William Hickey announced the opening of a new parish for the residents of rural Nasonville and nearby towns.
A small church was founded, but with no intention to make it a shrine dedicated to St. Thérèse. That designation followed the miraculous healing of a local woman, Mrs. Oliver Faford, who had been paralyzed. The healing came when the pastor, Father A.P. Desrochers, encouraged Mrs. Faford to devote herself to the newly canonized parish patron saint. Though physicians had diagnosed her paralysis as “hopeless,” she was soon back on her feet, cured completely.
The church was expanded in 1926 to include a school and a convent. Other pastors picked up where Father Desrochers had left off, establishing various devotions and making improvements to the shrine. For a time, it wasn't unusual for as many as 7,000 people to turn out for Mass.
In the early 1970s, the shrine was vandalized and, lacking resources for restoration and maintenance, it began to fall apart. That changed in the '80s, when Father Robert Carpentier set out to bring the shrine back to its former glory, and then some.
He was smashingly successful: As one drives up the hill to it today, pilgrims see the fruit of many volunteers and parishioners who have turned The Shrine of the Little Flower of Jesus into a beautiful little place of peace and spiritual refreshment—a place that lives up to the name of its great patron saint.
At the entrance, a large white-stone statue of St. Thérèse greets visitors, the main brick church rising behind her.
The day I visited, bright flowers surrounded the saint while, overhead, the American and Vatican flags waved in the wind. A birdbath next to a granite St. Francis was very busy.
In the church foyer, wide windows afford a long view of the rural countryside.
Turn your attention back inside, and you're alone with a statue of Our Lady of Grace in one corner and an antique crucifix above the windows. Step inside the sanctuary, and your eyes go immediately to the stunning stained-glass windows depicting the Way of the Cross, then to tapestries and murals of Old Testament stories. You can step over to a side altar dedicated to St. Thérèse; here, her statue towers over an altar railing where countless petitions have been placed in a basket.
Stepping outside, you can begin a walking tour of the lush, expansive grounds with the Holy Stairs. Built in 1934, and restored in the early 1990s along with the adjacent Stations of the Cross, these stairs were solemnly dedicated in 1956. It is traditional to kneel on each step of the “Scala Sancta,” if possible, praying while ascending the 28, in remembrance of the last stage of Jesus' walking trail to Pilate's judgment seat.
At the top of the staircase, figures of Our Lady, St John and St. Mary Magdalene keep vigil. There are two sets of Stations of the Cross, the original wooden Stations, now restored, as well as stone-relief tablets designed by Amedeo Nardini, a world-acclaimed sculptor.
Nardini used stone from Colorado, New Hampshire and Rhode Island; each station took more than five months to complete and stands 12 feet high. A stone kneeler rests in front of each stone station. The wooden stations rest on tall posts with images of the Passion inside glass casings, many which are set against a panoramic skyline of the shrine.
A staircase takes the visitor to the main outdoor altar, where yearly devotions and Masses have always been a part of the shrine's itinerary. Today, the altar is composed of Vermont granite and Tennessee crab orchard stones, with a statue of St. Thérèse above the tabernacle, flanked by those of the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Joseph. Another statue of Thérèse rises above the altar. Pilgrims light votive candles here. Inscribed above the altar is the saint's name, flanked by the words “Pray for us” on the left and “Priez pour nous” on the right. The latter has, no doubt, provided comfort for countless members of northern Rhode Island's sizable French-American population.
Each year, the Shrine celebrates the feast day of Saint Thérèse on the last Sunday of August, because of the possibility of inclement weather on her actual feast day, Oct. 1. The August event begins with the recitation of the Living Rosary at 11:30 a.m. in the Rosary Garden, which features a unique fountain with a statue of Our Lady of Peace as its focal point.
A giant cross marks the entrance to begin the recitation, with large wood blocks strung together on heavy chain leading on to an archway. From this point, the beads of wood—each nearly a foot long—wind pilgrims along a pathway, where they can stand or sit at nearby benches to complete the rosary.
Flower gardens and a statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus surround this area. Picnickers crowd the grounds for lunch, while other visitors flock to the St. Thérèse Gift Shop or buy tickets to win an oversized statue of the Little Flower raffled at the end of the day's festivities. Home-cooked food is sold, and you can have a lunch, visit a shrine dedicated to St. Michael (a high stone edifice graced by his statue), or practice the outdoor devotionals privately after the rosary.
A procession of St. Thérèse's statue is a high point of the day, as children strew rose petals in front of it as it makes its way to the altar for 2 p.m. Mass.
Today, the Shrine of the Little Flower has become a site where people can find solace in prayer and devotion to, as Pope St. Pius X called her, “the greatest saint of modern times.”
As I drove away from this marvelous refuge tucked away in the woods of northwest Rhode Island, I knew that this visit could never be my last, because my experience at the feast day celebration had been so inspiring. Recently, I simply walked and prayed in the devotional areas, and felt like I had been on an abbreviated retreat. The Shrine of the Little Flower now has another devotee who hasn't made her last excursion to this gem of peace and delight in God.
Regina Marshall writes from Hamden, Connecticut.