National Catholic Register


Home Town of the Little Flower

BY Kevin Wright

March 15-21, 1998 Issue | Posted 3/15/98 at 2:00 PM


Pilgrims traveling to Lisieux, France, can visit the house and old haunts of St. Thérèse and find a wealth of information on one of the Church's most beloved saints

Quickly becoming one of the world's most beloved saints, Thérèse of Lisieux recently earned her place in Catholic history. On Oct. 19, 1997, Pope John Paul II proclaimed her a doctor of the Church—distinguishing her not only as a person of outstanding holiness and sanctity, but an eminent scholar of the spiritual life as well. Only the 33rd person in the history of the Church to receive such an honor, she is also only one of three women to have ever earned this, the highest of ecclesiastical titles.

To get a sense of how remarkable and popular St. Thérèse of Lisieux is, consider the following she lived to be only 24 years old, whereas the previous 32 doctors of the Church lived on average to be 64 years old: her autobiography, Story of a Soul, has become a worldwide bestseller and has been translated into more than 60 languages and dialects; she's just over 100 years dead, more than 1,700 churches and chapels, two cathedrals, and five basil-icas have been consecrated to her in the world; hundreds of religious congregations have been placed under her patronage; Pope Pius X declared her the greatest saint of modern times; in the first 28 years following her death, the Lisieux Carmelites had sent out more than 30 million pictures and 17 million relics in answer to people's requests from all over the world; and today, her home and convent is one of the premier places of pilgrimage in the world—receiving more than 2 million pilgrims and visitors every year.

Popularly known as the Little Flower, St. Thérèse of Lisieux was born on Jan. 2, 1873. The youngest of nine children, Thérèse came from a devout and well-to-do family. A lively child during her early years, she soon experienced the tragedy of losing her mother at the age of four-an event that affected her deeply. The following 10 years were for her a period of extreme shyness and seriousness.

During this time she became inseparable from Pauline, her older sister. The bond between the two of them was so close that when Pauline left home to enter the Carmelite convent, Thérèse fell mysteriously ill. However, May 13, 1883, while praying a nine-day novena before the family's statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Thérèse went into a deep ecstasy. After a vision in which the Virgin smiled at her, little Thérèse was cured.

A profound conversion took place in the life of the saint on Christmas day 1886. After returning from midnight Mass, Thérèse heard her father talk of “being glad that this was the last year of filling Thérèse's Christmas stockings.” In a single moment, upon hearing these words, Thérèse experienced a sudden and complete transformation of heart. All her shyness and seriousness washed away in an instant and she received strength and peace of soul, which was to last the rest of her life.

With her conversion, at the age of 14, she felt ready to enter the Carmelite order. As the Rule of Carmel allowed only those 21 years and older to enter, Thérèse would need a special dispensation. In November 1887 her family went on pilgrimage to Rome. While kneeling before Pope Leo XIII, Thérèse asked if she could enter Carmel at age 15. The Holy Father responded, “If it be God's Will, you will enter.” One year later—with permission from the local bishop- Thérèse entered the Carmelite convent.

Throughout her life as a nun, she lived the faith of Christ in a most ordinary—yet extraordinary—way. On the eve of her profession, Thérèse declared, “I came to Carmel to save souls and to pray for priests.” For seven years, she fulfilled all her duties with exceptional love. At the age of 22, she declared her vocation to be that of “Love.” Her spiritual childhood and simplicity became known as the “Little Way.”

On July 17, 1897, as Thérèse was dying, she said, “I feel that my mission is just beginning, my work of making people love God as I love him.” Today, her promise is bearing fruit as millions around the world are adopting her way of spiritual childhood.

For those who would like to make a pilgrimage to Lisieux, the city offers a number of spectacular places related to the life of St. Thérèse. Among the most prominent are the Carmelite convent, Hall of Relics, Les Buissonets (family home of St. Thérèse), the basil-ica, the cathedral, and the International Center of Pastoral Reception.

In the Carmelite convent, pilgrims can spend time in prayer near the reliquary containing the sacred remains of St. Thérèse, and those of her three sisters, Pauline, Marie, and Celine. Above the saint's tomb is the statue of the Virgin Mary that smiled at St. Thérèse during her life.

Just outside the Carmelite chapel, in the courtyard, is the Hall of Relics. Pilgrims can tour the small museum which features a number of items relating to the life of St. Thérèse, while listening to an audio description of the relics in one of eight languages-including English.

Located within walking distance of the Carmelite convent is Les Buissonets, the family home of St. Thérèse. Often serving as the most memorable part of any trip to Lisieux, pilgrims can walk through the saint's house guided by a narrated tour in one of several languages, including English.

Home to a vast number of magnificent frescoes and chapels, the giant Basilica of St. Thérèse is the principal religious focus in Lisieux and serves as the chief gathering place for pilgrims and visitors. Built in 1929, the shrine has played host to many extraordinary events including the 100th anniversary of Thérèse's birth in 1973, the visit of Pope John Paul II in 1980, and the centenary of the saint's death in 1997.

Pilgrims can also visit the Cathedral of St. Peter, the site where St. Thérèse attended daily Mass until her entry into the Carmelite convent. It is also where she frequently received the sacraments as well as receiving a number of other graces.

Of great significance is the International Center of Pastoral Reception that was inaugurated Oct. 4, 1996. Designed to accommodate the millions of new pilgrims arriving each year, the complex provides opportunities for visitors to learn more about St. Thérèse and her teachings via films, videos, conferences, and exhibitions. The Center also contains a book department featuring the writings of the saint and the many works written about her.

Reaching Lisieux by road or train is easy. From Paris, head west on A13, exiting at Pont l'Eveque, and heading south to Lisieux. Another option is to take N13 due west to Lisieux. To arrive by train, there are frequent departures from the St. Lazare railway station in Paris.

With a side trip to Alenáon, one can also visit the house where she was born (located at 50, rue Saint-Blaise, opposite the Prèfecture) and the Church of Notre Dame where she was baptized.

For more information on making a pilgrimage to Lisieux, contact one of the many Catholic travel organizations offering guided tours to France or contact the pilgrimage office of St. Thérèse: (tel.) 011-33-231-4855-08 or (fax) 011-33-231-4855-26.

For information on city and hotel accommodations, contact the Lisieux tourist office: (tel.) 011-33-231-6208-41 or (fax) 011-33-231-6235-22.

Kevin Wright, author of Catholic Shrines of Western Europe, writes from Bellevue, Wash.

------- EXCERPT: The Catholic Traveler