Keeper of the ‘Christmas Conversion’

The Church celebrates the feast of St. Thérèse of Lisieux in October, but two months later many hold her memory close again because of a life-changing conversion experience she underwent interiorly on Christmas Day of 1886. An Advent visit to St. Teresa’s Church in Lincoln, Neb. By Kimberly Jansen.

Lincoln, Nebraska

This humble diocesan church in Lincoln, Neb., was probably one of the first in the United States to claim St. Thérèse of Lisieux as its patroness. The small Midwestern community it serves was established on Feb. 3, 1926 — just nine months after Pope Pius XI canonized the “Little Flower” (who is more properly known as Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus and of the Holy Face).

The Church celebrates her feast in October, but two months later many hold her memory close again because of a life-changing conversion experience she underwent interiorly on Christmas Day of 1886. She described this in her journal, now widely read as The Story of a Soul.

“St. T’s” keeps watch over a leafy neighborhood that could have inspired a Norman Rockwell painting. It’s a place where charming American bungalows sit amid old-fashioned lampposts and brick streets.

Thanks to a generous donor, every fourth house or so displays a statue of the Blessed Mother in the front yard.

It is not uncommon to see religious sisters in long, flowing habits walking from their small convent to the school across the street as the church bells ring out Ave Maria and other hymns.

St. Teresa’s wasn’t always a slice of Catholic paradise, however.

In the beginning, various religious orders attempted to run the parish. But the community of just 20 families was burdened by debt. The Oblates of Mary Immaculate left during the Depression; soon after, the parish’s Dominican pastor (and only priest) fell ill.

When diocesan priest Father Mitchell Kaczmarek arrived in 1936, the parish was on the verge of bankruptcy.

The enthusiastic young priest, who would go on to serve here with great love for 45 years, immediately led the congregation in novenas to their patroness for assistance. Through these prayers and the generosity of many families who pledged their personal property against the debt, the community gradually achieved financial freedom.

Remarkably, each subsequent addition to the church or school has been completely paid for at the project’s completion.

Most recently — in the Year of the Eucharist 2004 — the church’s tabernacle was moved from a side altar to the center of the sanctuary.

The tabernacle’s new resting place was created with a combination of black and white marble from Italy and Turkey to match the existing altar of sacrifice. Two angel statues kneel in worship on either side under the gaze of a lovely stained-glass window of St. Thérèse.


A Cell’s Story

My favorite part of the church’s interior is the collection of statues scattered about for private devotion.

In addition to the usual Blessed Mother and St. Joseph, visitors can pray before the Infant of Prague, the Sacred Heart and a life-size Pietá. Paintings of Our Lady Thrice Admirable (patroness of the Schoenstatt movement) and the Divine Mercy are also prominently displayed.

Of course, the platform of St. Thérèse’s statue almost always holds a bouquet of fresh roses. But the congregation’s devotion to their patroness is highly evident in other ways, as well.

Every Tuesday evening parishioners are invited to St. Thérèse devotions with Eucharistic exposition and Benediction, a short homily about the Little Flower’s “Little Way” and several hymns about her. One of these was composed by the current pastor, Father Joseph Nemec.

To encourage further devotion to the parish’s patroness, Father Nemec has led five pilgrimages to France, stopping at Lourdes and, of course, the Carmelite convent in Lisieux where St. Thérèse spent her religious life.

After the October 1998 trip, the sisters there donated a group of items that were used during St. Thérèse’s lifetime but not necessarily by her. The Nebraska parish used these to set up a small museum in the church’s rectory.

It shows a tiny cell, roughly the size of St. Thérèse’s living quarters, holding only a twin bed, a lap desk, a small pitcher for washing and pair of sandals (worn by the discalced, or barefoot, sisters only in severely cold weather). It can be both consoling and exhilarating to imagine one of the Church’s most popular saints sitting at that little desk, writing private journal entries that would inspire millions of readers to follow Jesus more closely.

Out in the hall stand three curio cabinets filled with mementos, pictures, holy cards, rosaries, medals and dolls of the Little Flower.

In the gardens both to the north and south of the rectory grows a special variety of rose developed in Canada at the parish’s request. The varying shades of pink in “St. Teresa’s Rose” can be observed throughout the summer. (Now that the cold weather is here, you’ll have to use your imagination or plan a return visit next year.)

Following the sidewalk around the back of the church, I spent a moment at a marble statue of a young Thérèse and her father, whom she loved so dearly she called him her “king.”

The statue depicts the moment when Thérèse — the youngest of five daughters all of whom eventually entered religious life — asked her father’s permission to enter Carmel at the tender age of 14.

The sculpture, a replica of one on display at Thérèse’s childhood home in France, captures the mix of sorrow and joy that surely attended that poignant moment.

Finally, out on the corner beyond the rectory stands an image of the Little Flower crafted by a local bricklayer. The work of art, which faces a rather busy street, reminded me of the paradox that a cloistered Carmelite nun could be named co-patroness of missions.

St. Thérèse is a fitting model, then, for this small parish that seems “hidden,” in a sense, from the bustle and confusion of a growing modern city. Only through prayer and “Christmas conversion” can its members, like Thérèse, hope to change the world for Christ.


Kimberly Jansen writes from

Lincoln, Nebraska.


Information

St. Teresa Church
735 S. 36th St.
Lincoln, NE 68510
(402) 477-3979

thelittleflower-lincoln.com


Planning Your Visit

The parish community prays the Rosary before all Sunday Masses and at 7:50 a.m. Monday through Saturday. Lauds are said weekdays at 6:15 a.m. A full schedule of devotions and Masses is posted on the parish website.