The Little Flower on the Prairie

A generation ago, the area surrounding the National Shrine of St. Thérèse was still relatively rustic — a sprawling expanse of farms, woods and fields. Today the town of Darien, Ill., is, like so much of suburbia, a large, busy subdivision punctuated by strip malls, eating places and convenience marts. Yet the plot of land on which the shrine sits — the former estate of a wealthy Chicagoan — maintains the feel of the pre-commercialized era. On 50 acres, surrounded by lake, meadow and woodland, sit a priory, retreat house, retirement home, museum, gift shop and chapel operated by a local community of St. Thérèse's order, the Carmelites.

The shrine moved to Darien after a fire destroyed the original home of the shrine at St. Clara's Parish in Chicago in 1975. The architecture, though decidedly modern, exudes an atmosphere of serenity and reverence. The museum claims to house the largest collection of Theresiana found outside of France, as well as a diverse collection of statues of Our Lady of Mount Carmel and an eclectic collection of antique and jeweled rosaries.

There are dozens of photographs and portraits of St. Thérèse, from her early childhood until just before her death at age 24. In the early photographs, especially, visitors are struck both by the physical beauty of the saint as well as a certain playful expression in her face.

Many objects associated with Thérèse's girlhood in Le Buissonnets in Lisieux are on display, including her prayerbook, dinner plate, toy tambourine, play tea set, and even a map of North America drawn by her at age 12. Of course, there are many relics of her days in the Carmel as well, including a piece of the gown she wore when she professed her first vows and a small wooden chair, seemingly built for a child's use. This is in fact the chair from her convent cell. On this she sat to write, under obedience, the diary which later came to be published as The Story of a Soul — and which was instrumental in her canonization and elevation to the status of Doctor of the Church.

One of the most striking relics in the museum is a simple note written, in a fine, flowing script, by the saint in 1897 to one of her novices, Sister Martha. Translated into English, it reads: “My Dear Little Sister, I suddenly realized that I have not wished you a happy birthday. Ah, be assured it is an oversight which wounds my heart … (signed) Your little twin, who wouldn't be able to sleep if she hadn't sent you this little note.”

Missionary Zeal

Though Thérèse herself never traveled to mission fields, her prayers for Catholic missionaries were so efficacious, both during and after her life, that she was declared patroness of all missions. In commemoration of this distinction, the museum includes a collection of statues of Our Lady of Mount Carmel from throughout the world. There are dozens of handmade statues from such places as Africa, Korea, the Philippines, England, Ireland, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Peru, Mexico and the United States.

The heart and soul of the shrine is an austere chapel that invites contemplation. Stained glass windows line one of the longer walls, depicting the great lights of the Carmelite order: St. Simon Stock (who first preached devotion to the scapular), St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross (great mystics and reformers of the order), St. Edith Stein and Blessed Titus Brandsma (both of whom perished in Nazi concentration camps).

On the wall opposite the windows hangs a massive carving of lindenwood carved by the Demetz Studios in Ortisel, Italy; it is said to be the largest religious woodcarving in the United States. In the center of the carving stands the figure of St. Thérèse, who is sheltering people of every race and occupation in the folds of her habit and sending forth a shower of roses. On either side of this figure are depicted many of the important events in the saint's life, including her petitioning of Pope Leo XIII to be allowed to enter the Carmel, her writing, and her holy death. Beneath stands an old reliquary containing five first-class relics of St. Thérèse, including a particle of uncorrupted flesh and a small lock of her hair. This reliquary, flanked by two brass, candle-holding angels, was presented to the shrine in 1926 by Mother Agnes, prioress of the Carmel of Lisieux (and Thérèse's sister Pauline).

For Catholics, the chapel, with its veiled presence of our Lord in the tabernacle, is the true center of the National Shrine of St. Thérèse. But pilgrims will find other spots to pause and reflect on the mysteries of our faith as well.

Most memorable to this visitor was a painting hanging in a corner of the museum, easily overlooked by the casual observer, showing Thérèse at perhaps 7 or 8 years old. She is holding her father's hand as they walk back to their home one summer evening and pointing to the stars. One can meditate before the image — and in many other spots at the National Shrine of St. Thérèse — and consider who and what might have helped impart in the simple French girl a faith that would one day well up into glorious sainthood.

— Bob Horwath writes from Chicago.