The National Shrine of St. Therese in Darien, Ill., is a hidden treasure you won't want to miss if you're ever in or around Chicago — one of the greatest “college towns” in the United States, based on number of schools alone.

After all, it houses one of the most extensive collections of St. Therese memorabilia and relics outside of Lisieux. Students with some free time on Saturday would do especially well to stop in on Oct. 1, her feast day.

And speaking of feast days, it was by chance that I first visited the shrine on July 20, feast of Elijah the prophet. Carmelites claim him as the spiritual father of their order, since hermits and holy men are said to have been living on the slopes of Mount Carmel from the time right after Elijah to the present day. (The official founding of the Carmelites as a Catholic monastic order is dated in the late 1100s). Famous Carmelites include St. Simon Stock, originator of the brown scapular devotion; Sts. John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, the two great Spanish mystics; St. Edith Stein, the nun who converted from Judaism and was martyred by the Nazis; and Blessed Titus Brandsma, who also died in a Nazi concentration camps.

And then there's dear little St. Therese of Lisieux.

Despite the shrine's location near a major highway, the grounds are sheltered and peaceful, with a Rosary walk and Stations of the Cross that are open to the public. The main attractions of the shrine, though, are inside, in the chapel and museum.

“I am filled with a jealous zeal for God!” proclaimed the priest during his homily that day, quoting the Carmelite motto, which is taken from the words of the prophet Elijah. More than 100 people were present at the weekday Mass in the recently renovated chapel, which is about the usual headcount for daily Mass. I noted that the attendees included a surprising number of families with children, and that the ambience was reverent and prayerful.

Touches of Therese

Behind the altar, covering one entire wall and serving as a visual focal point during Mass, is the largest religious woodcarving in the United States; it measures 12-feet high by 27-feet wide. It is a gorgeous piece, hand-carved in Italy, showing the major events in the life of St. Therese.

Beneath the carving is a reliquary containing five relics: a portion of her uncorrupted flesh, a fragment of bone, a lock of her hair, a pinch of dust from the coffin, a particle of her habit.

The museum, adjacent to the chapel, is remarkable. On display is the actual chair from Therese's cell in the convent at Lisieux, swatches of her bedspread and habit, letters she wrote, toys she played with as a child, pictures she drew, a little tambourine of hers. Every time I came to a new item I couldn't believe our good fortune to have it here instead of across the Atlantic in her homeland.

Before visiting the shrine I didn't realize that it was her sister Celine who made Therese so instantly recognizable: The shrine has in its collection numerous familiar paintings and photographs by Celine depicting her sister from age 8 until just before her death at 24. Celine painted the famous portrait that serves as a model for the most recognizable devotional images of Therese, and also a less well-known “oval portrait” that many consider a better likeness than the classic and more familiar image.

The shrine also has a nice display of Celine's photographs arranged to depict a visual chronology of Therese's short life.

Force of Habit

Other items of interest in the museum include a series of oil paintings on the life of St. Therese, statuary that includes a miniature reproduction of Therese's casket, a collection of Our Lady of Mount Carmel statues from cultures all over the world and a wall of rosaries, the oldest of which was made in 1704.

There is also a photo gallery on the life and death of Bl. Titus Brandsma, a Dutch Carmelite priest who was an outspoken critic of the Nazis, so much so that he had a nickname: “that dangerous little friar.” Eventually the Nazis sent him to Dachau, where he died in 1942. Pope John Paul II beatified him in 1985.

When you go, be sure to ask a staff member to show the video on the life of St. Therese. It is a well-made documentary with particularly moving footage of people venerating her relics during the 1999 tours in the United States, glimpses into a modern Carmelite convent and touching commentary from Patrick Ahern, Auxiliary Bishop emeritus of New York.

“She hasn't an enemy in the world,” he says in the film. “Everybody loves St. Therese of Lisieux.”

I think people love St. Therese not in spite of the fact that she didn't really “do” anything, but because of it. She was a normal little girl with big dreams who ended up, like most of us living an ordinary life dominated by mundane little tasks performed amidst people who sometimes annoyed her.

The fact that she achieved extraordinary sanctity in such an ordinary environment should give hope to all — college students included.

Clare Siobhan writes from Westmont, Illinois.

Planning Your Visit

The chapel, museum and gift shop are open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. seven days a week except for holidays. A Carmelite priest offers Mass Monday through Friday at 11:30 am in the chapel. Groups of 20 or more people can arrange special tours, programs, and days of reflection. For group reservations call (630) 969-4141. Individuals are free to attend Mass, visit the grounds, museum, and gift shop, and may ask a staff member to see the video presentation. For more, go to saint-therese.org on the Internet.

Getting There

The shrine is located in the southwest suburbs of Chicago, easily accessible from Interstate 55 (the Stevenson Expressway). From I-55, take the Cass Avenue North exit. Turn left at Frontage Road which is the first stoplight. Turn right on Bailey Road. Enter the shrine at the second driveway on the right.

The United States headquarters of the Society of the Little Flower is also located here (littleflower.org). It is part of the Carmelite Province of the Most Pure Heart of Mary. The province covers a vast geographical area, including most of the continental United States.