The Little Flower’s Lisieux
Travel feature: Walk in St. Thérèse’s footsteps in her hometown.
According to Frances Parkinson Keyes, in her book Written in Heaven, nearly every French soldier in World War I went off to battle with a picture of St. Thérèse in his wallet. They called her their “second guardian angel.”
“Entire regiments were dedicated to her,” wrote Keyes, “and pilots even named their planes after her!”
As I waited at the St. Lazare station in Paris for my train to Lisieux, I could not help thinking about these young soldiers. They could have been waiting in this very same train station all those years ago, probably terrified of what awaited them at their destination — yet comforted, nonetheless, by the promise of the intercession of St. Thérèse, who Pope Pius X reportedly once told a missionary was “the greatest saint of modern times.”
The first sight you see when you get off the train at Lisieux (population 20,000) is the Basilica of St. Thérèse. It is so enormous it dominates the skyline. Pope Pius XI, for whom St. Thérèse was “the star of his pontificate,” wanted it this way. He told the local bishop that he wants a new basilica, “very big, very beautiful and as soon as possible, ” according to the basilica website. He certainly got his wish — on all counts. The cornerstone was laid in 1929. The majestic neo-Byzantine basilica can accommodate up to 4,000 people. It is the second-largest pilgrimage site in France (after Lourdes), attracting up to 2 million pilgrims a year.
A mural of St. Thérèse’s parents, Sts. Louis and Zélie Martin, adorns the façade over the entrance of the church. The interior is so cavernous, with its soaring heights, that I could relate to Thérèse’s statement “I felt like an ant” when she visited the bishop’s large palace in Bayeux. Soon however, during my October 2016 visit, I noticed that the reds and ochres and golds of the mosaics, which cover much of the interior, created a warm atmosphere that I found very conducive to prayer and contemplation.
The reliquary of Mr. and Mrs. Martin is found in the crypt of the church, which is adorned with mosaics depicting events in the Little Flower’s life as well as a portrait of her holy parents. The basilica was consecrated in 1954.
A few blocks away is the Carmelite convent founded in 1838. When Thérèse entered the convent at the age of 15, there were 26 sisters living here. Its interior is almost Scandinavian-modern, in its airy and immaculate “minimalist” style. The convent exudes serenity and peace. St. Thérèse’s remains are in the Chapelle de la Chasse (Chapel of the Tomb). The casket has a statue of the Little Flower “asleep in death” dressed in her Carmelite habit.
Last on my walking itinerary was Thérèse’s childhood home, Les Buissonnets, which she described as “the scene of tremendous family happiness.”
Ida Goerres, in The Hidden Face, described it as a “downy nest,” “all plush and mahogany.” The house is larger than I had imagined and gives the impression of considerable affluence and wealth, but not in an ostentatious way. The style is classic and understated.
Inside, the rooms are small, giving an intimate, cozy atmosphere. With sunshine streaming in all the windows, it is lovely. The furnishings seem to represent the finest in 19th-century elegance and comfort. One room is devoted to a display of the Little Flower’s books and toys: wooden puzzles, a doll in its crib, a doll house, a toy boat and a checkerboard, as well as her first Communion dress and a collection of small statues and religious medals. In Thérèse’s bedroom visitors see a replica of the statue of Our Lady (Our Lady of the Smile) that smiled at her and instantly cured her of a serious illness when she was a child. The original statue resides over the casket of the saint’s remains in the convent. A statue in the back garden depicts a poignant scene: that in which Thérèse asks her father’s permission to enter the Carmelite convent.
Everything is exactly as it was when Thérèse was living here, giving the impression that she has just ducked out and will be back any minute. During my visit, I thought about how Thérèse suffered grievously during her school years. The shy but excellent student had trouble making friends and was bullied horribly by the older girls in her class. How they resented her high marks! And the rest of the girls? They ignored her. According to her autobiography, The Story of a Soul, she experienced intense loneliness during this period. “Jesus was my only friend,” she said. She longed for the end of each day when she could return to Les Boissonnets.
When she returned from her school day, she was welcomed to a snug, welcoming oasis, full of warmth and sunshine. I could picture the family sitting around the fireplace, playing checkers and reading to each other. And I couldn’t get over the irony: The rejected, neglected schoolgirl became the most popular saint of modern time. Millions of copies of her autobiography have been published in 38 languages. “Everybody loves Thérèse,” notes Bishop Patrick Ahern, former auxiliary bishop of New York and a Theresian scholar, in Maurice and Thérèse: The Story of a Love about the Little Flower’s correspondence with a struggling priest. “She gave us a spirituality full of simplicity, accessible to everyone.”
During my visit to the Martin home, I felt so close to Thérèse (and so happy for her that she had such a lovely place to come home to) that I couldn’t resist saying: “Way to go, Thérèse ! You showed them all!”
Thérèse, the humblest of souls, said that we must avoid “all that glitters.” And this she did, literally. She grew up in a home that was, by any standard, very well-to-do indeed. How easily she could have become centered only upon herself and her charms and on the world. Yet the Little Flower chose a different path. All she wanted was to enter the Carmelite convent — and save souls.
Shortly before she died, as recounted in St. Therese of Lisieux: Her Last Conversations, Thérèse responded to a sister who was talking about someone receiving honors: “Ah, this doesn’t dazzle me at all. Only speak to me about God, the example of the saints, about everything that is the truth.”
IF YOU GO
To get to Lisieux from Paris, take the train from St. Lazare station. The pleasant trip takes less than two hours, and there are many trains during the day. Most people in France speak English. The Sanctuaire de Lisieux website provides additional information: Therese-de-lisieux.catholique.fr/en/home/.
Mary Hansen writes from
North Bay, Ontario.