Lisieux, France: Relics of Thérèse

The veneration of saint's relics largely died out after the Reformation, but the bones of one 19th-Century nun inexplicably attract millions of pilgrims from around the world today

The nuns in the chapel of the Carmelite convent at Lisieux are out of sight as pilgrims join them for morning Mass. Only their voices can be heard from behind the grille that divides off the church. Their singing adds a vigour and sweetness to the otherwise faltering and occasionally flat responses of the rest of us. 

They are not the only ghosts at this feast. Alongside the nave, next to the nuns’ enclosure, is another area, this time plainly and by design open to view by the whole congregation. It is dominated by an elevated and elaborate gold casket with plate windows, like the rear part of an outsized hearse. This extraordinary object contains something bizarre — a life-size model of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, the nun who died here at the age of 24 in 1897, and whose cult within Catholicism has spread around the globe from this otherwise undistinguished small town in the Pays d’Auge region of Normandy. 

The plaster Thérèse is dressed in the brown and white robes of a Carmelite. Her left hand lies on her chest, clutching a crucifix, while her head rests on a grey pillow and turns towards the main body of the church. Undistinguished, even saccharine as a work of art, this statue does nevertheless have an extraordinary life-like quality about it, never more so than during Mass when I repeatedly glance over at it and Thérèse’s smile, though her eyes are closed, seems to be directed at each and every person in the pews. 

Underneath the memorial lies a reliquary containing the bones of the saint, placed here after her grave was exhumed in 1923. Or, to be more precise, some of her bones. Others, taken from her coffin, are elsewhere. Her right arm, for example, is on display in a glass case at the other end of Lisieux, in the great white basilica with its mosaic interior that was opened in the 1930s to accommodate the 800,000 pilgrims who come here each year. One tiny fragment of bone was carried into space in 2008 by the American astronaut, Ronald Garan, on the space shuttle Discovery. And other, more substantial portions of her limbs have been placed in two separate reliquaries — one bigger than the other — which after the Second World War began touring France, and which, since 1996, have travelled to more than 40 other countries, from Iraq to Australia. Later this month, one of them is coming to England, where it will go on display as the centrepiece of prayer vigils in various Catholic cathedrals, Carmelite churches, one prison chapel (Wormwood Scrubs) and — an ecumenical first for Thérèse — the Anglican York Minster. 

The veneration of saints’ relics was commonplace in pre-Reformation Europe. An abbey keen to thrive in medieval times benefited from the possession of relics which helped to draw pilgrims in search of miraculous cures. Lindisfarne, for example, put on display the incorrupt remains of its seventh-century bishop, Cuthbert, while Canterbury housed the shrine of the murdered Thomas à Becket. 

However, post-Reformation, the practice — labelled a corrupt and ungodly trade by Luther and his Protestant followers — largely died out. Where relics are on show today, they tend to belong to an earlier generation of saints, dead for many centuries. The eyeball of Edward Oldcorne, a Catholic Recusant martyred under James I, was in an exhibition in Liverpool last year, but as a historical curiosity rather than an object of veneration. There are rare exceptions — one of them the perfectly preserved remains of the seer of Lourdes, Bernadette Soubirous, which lie in a glass coffin at Nevers in southern France. But they stay in one place. It is only Thérèse’s relics that go on tour.

What makes the whole process even stranger is that she is such a recent saint — at least in the context of 2,000 years of handing out haloes by the Church. Canonised in 1925, Thérèse of the Child Jesus and of the Holy Face, to give her official title, belongs in fact and in spirit to the contemporary age. There are, for example, photographs of her, while her writings speak to an age of uncertainty, with their frank admission of prolonged dark nights of the soul and doubt that God even existed. 

Yet this modern saint is venerated in such a medieval way. And that peculiar combination of old and new that is at the heart of the cult of Thérèse finds eloquent expression in Lisieux in the Carmel chapel itself. Built in the early 19th century, when the convent was first established, its exterior is very much of its time-imposing, dignified, elaborate in its stained glass and swooping carved white stone angels. Yet the interior has been given a very up-to-the-minute facelift. An inner shell of honey-coloured wooden screens, all attached at irregular intervals to a bare metal shell, sits as a skin within a skin in the chapel. As a shrine it has one foot firmly planted in the present and the other unmistakably in the past.

Marie Françoise Thérèse Martin was born in Alençon, not far from Lisieux, in January 1873. Her father Louis was a watchmaker, but a dreamer who hankered after a hermit’s life before eventually succumbing to a form of madness, while his more practical wife, Zélie, was a lacemaker. Devout Catholics both, they typically for their times produced nine children, of whom Thérèse was the youngest. Four — two boys and two girls — had already died when Thérèse came along. She was just four when her mother was killed by breast cancer. Her older sister, Pauline, initially took on mothering Thérèse before entering the Carmelite convent in Lisieux, where the family had moved after Zélie’s death. The maternal void was then filled by another sister, Marie, until she too decided to follow Pauline into the enclosure. Thérèse, unsurprisingly, suffered an acute sense of abandonment as a youngster and was plagued by a series of what may have been psychosomatic illnesses, which included a violent trembling so severe that, at one stage, the doctors told her father to prepare for the death of another of his children.

“She certainly had a fairly troubled childhood,” says Father Michael McGoldrick, the head of the Carmelites in Britain and one of the organisers of the forthcoming visit by her relics. “That is one of the aspects of Thérèse that people today can relate, especially those with difficult family backgrounds. She is like many of us. Until she was 13, I’d say she had a neurotic aspect to her personality. She found it hard to relate to other girls at school, where she was bullied.”

At 15, Thérèse tried to rejoin Marie and Pauline in the Carmel, but was rejected as too immature — and possibly too damaged. However, she would not take no for an answer and persuaded her father to take her and another sister, Céline (also subsequently to join the Carmelites — the fourth sister Léonie also taking the veil but opting for another religious order) to Rome where she managed to snatch a few words with Pope Leo XIII to ask for his help. The nuns back in Lisieux yielded and she joined in 1888.

Her almost ten years in the Carmel were outwardly undistinguished. Though she yearned to go off to Vietnam to become a missionary, Thérèse died young of intestinal tuberculosis in 1897. When the sisters came, as remains the Carmelite tradition, to compile an obituary of her to circulate to other monasteries, they struggled initially to find anything but platitudes to say about her. It was only when Pauline — by then Mother Agnes and the prioress — remembered that she had set Thérèse the task of writing down her memories of childhood and more recently her thoughts about vocation, that they unearthed the manuscript which was to become Story of a Soul and sell in its tens of millions around the world. In place of an obituary, the Lisieux Carmel had the text of this autobiography printed in book form. After it had been distributed to other convents, there were a few left over, so these were handed out to locals. Soon requests came in for additional copies, and then more and more. The cult of Thérèse was born as a word-of-mouth phenomenon.

The 24 sisters at the Lisieux Carmel rarely give interviews. It is not part of their vocation. And they are equally reluctant to open the doors of their enclosure to many visitors lest it disturb their daily routine of prayer, contemplation and labour (in their case, bookbinding). However, it is a day of celebration when I visit — a sister from Réunion, a French overseas territory in the Indian Ocean, has made her final profession and so Sister Marie Lucille, in her late eighties and able to remember, as a young nun, the last years of Thérèse’s sisters at the Carmel, agrees to meet me. 

Bird-like, with pale, almost translucent skin, she wears the modern, cut-down version of the habit that clothes the statue of Thérèse, but still in the same brown and white. She seems genuinely at a loss to know why Thérèse has become such a global figure. “Some people who come here,” she suggests, practising the English that she has started to study in recent years, “know very little about her and are attracted, I don’t know why, perhaps because she is a woman, or perhaps because they read her book,  Story of a Soul, and as a result they are very in love with her.” What is it, though, I press her as we sit in the Carmel’s parlour, about the autobiography that chimes so much with the modern reader? “It must be Thérèse’s spirituality. The important thing is her love for Jesus and for the simple life, to serve the world. Everybody can understand her book.” She says it less as a compliment, I can’t help thinking, than as an observation.

Thérèse called her approach to finding God in the everyday the Little Way. “When I read certain treatises,” she wrote in Story of a Soul, “where many obstacles to perfection are shown, my poor mind grows tired very quickly. I close the learned book that wearies my head and dries up my heart and I take instead the Holy Scripture. Then everything appears to me in a clear light. A single word opens out infinite horizons to my soul. Perfection seems easy to reach.”

During the First World War, many French soldiers in the trenches would carry with them a copy of Story of a Soul. Those who survived travelled to Lisieux to donate their medals, which sit in rows in a display case in the museum next to the Carmel. Miraculous cures thanks to Thérèse’s intercession with God began to be reported. “I had been diagnosed with a tumour,” reads one of the marble plaques, originally in the chapel, now on the wall of the museum, signed GR and dated 1921, “Sister Thérèse saved me.”

There may well have been a political dimension to Thérèse’s elevation to sainthood in the post-First World War years — a tonic for a nation exhausted by war, or even a poke in the eye from the Vatican for the dominant secularism and anti-clericalism of the French government. Yet Thérèse is not simply the product of church-state machinations. 

She became genuinely popular as soon as people read her book. By the time of her canonisation in 1925, 410,000 copies of Story of a Soul had been printed. Rome’s endorsement merely served to unleash a second wave of interest around the world. By the early 1930s, more than two million copies of an abridged version of the autobiography had been sold. 

Pilgrim numbers peaked at two million in 1997, Thérèse’s centenary, when she became only the third woman to be declared a Doctor of the Church. It was in preparation for this anniversary that the first overseas tour by her relics was agreed — a short hop to Belgium in 1996. Next up was Italy, a bit further but still over land. Brazil and then the US, though, moved the whole operation on to a different scale altogether.

Sister Monique Marie works with the rector of Lisieux Basilica to organise the tours and often accompanies the reliquary. Although she wears a brown and white habit like the Carmelites, she belongs to a small, recently founded French congregation of sisters whose mission is in the world rather than in the enclosure. “It is not bones that people meet when they come to see the reliquary,” she explains in a formula of words that I hear repeated every time I broach with officials at Lisieux the ghoulish aspect of touring Thérèse’s remains. “It is a reaction. They are meeting a friend. Sometimes there is something difficult in their lives and they can leave all these difficult things to Thérèse as a friend.” 

The reliquary remains closed at all times and is displayed behind a glass screen. What precisely do people do when they approach it? “It depends on the culture,” says Sister Monique Marie. “In South America, you can’t see the reliquary because everybody is crowding round it, wanting to touch it. We had to call the policemen, but in China, they are all standing one metre away and no one touches. For me, we are not angels. It is important to touch, just as you touch the arm of a friend.”

And that intimate experience of the reliquary has, Sister Monique Marie reports, caused many to return to the practice of their faith. “It is very beautiful. Afterwards, people go to confession having not done it for years. They rediscover the Eucharist, the word of God and even the Church.”

Outside the Carmel after morning Mass, I bump into Patricia Kelly, an Irish-born nurse in her sixties from Bromley, south-east London. She has, she says, a photographic memory for faces and thinks I am someone else. She has been coming to Lisieux for three decades, sometimes three or four times a year. “Thérèse is very good for young people,” she tells me. “She always answers your prayers. She will give you many roses if you ask for them.” The metaphor of flowers is one that Thérèse used often in her writings — even referring to herself at one point as the “Little Flower”, a nickname that has stuck with her admirers. As she approached death, she told her sisters not to grieve for her. “You will see, after my death, I will let fall a shower of roses.”

I ask Patricia about the bones coming to England. “It will be very nice for people who can’t get here,” she answers carefully. Clearly, she believes that you really need to come to Lisieux to enjoy the full experience. Mightn’t the English, in their rather reserved way, and after 500 post-Reformation years as an officially Anglican country, find the presence of a reliquary peculiar? “Perhaps,” she laughs. “But it is just like if your young brother or sister died and you had something in memory of them. With the relics it is just a connection.”

The late Cardinal Basil Hume was one of those who feared the reaction that bringing Thérèse’s relics over the Channel might prompt. In the late 1990s, he blocked efforts to arrange a visit (all requests must be supported by the leader of the Catholic Church in that country). The official reason given was that the time wasn’t right ecumenically to welcome Thérèse, but some suspect there was another reason for Hume’s opposition. The veneration of relics was precisely the sort of traditional “peasant” Catholicism he had spent years spurning, in an effort to dispel any remaining suspicions that Catholicism was odd or foreign in its practices and so move it into the mainstream of national life.

It may be that his very success in doing this made it possible for his successor, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, to give his endorsement to the visit. “There is a different atmosphere now,” says Father McGoldrick. “We’ve moved on. We’re more multi-cultural, more tolerant.” But mightn’t the progress of the reliquary round England make some at least think that Catholicism remains, at heart, a superstitious, medieval credo? “Yes, I suppose, realistically, that may happen, but there has been such a response around the world to her visits — such a totally unexpected response — that it makes sense to bring her over now because she is clearly doing something for people, bringing them spirituality and meaning, for some mysterious reason that we don’t quite understand but have witnessed elsewhere.”

When I head, after morning Mass, up to the Basilica, I am shown round by Melanie, a 21-year-old student from Bordeaux who is volunteering there during her summer holidays. For her, Lisieux isn’t just about Thérèse but about the saint’s whole family. “There are many problems in the world with the family today that make good Christian families very important,” she says. “Lisieux is a chance to celebrate how the family should be.”

It is, at first glance, an illogical thought. After all, for many, it is the very dysfunctionality of the Martin family that makes Thérèse so attractive as a role model for modern times. But the Church, too, seems anxious to place Thérèse’s parents on a pedestal as presiding over an ideal family, despite the facts and the clear wishes of Thérèse’s sisters, one of whom lived on in the Carmel until the 1960s, that there should be no attempt to promote veneration of their mother and father. Last year, Louis and Zélie Martin were beatified by Pope Benedict XVI — one step short of canonisation. And in the crypt of the basilica is a reliquary, donated by the people of Ireland, containing their bones. There are plans being made to send it too out on tour. 

There is much in the cult of Thérèse that is explicable — principally her appeal to a contemporary audience, struggling to reconcile faith with modernity. Yet there is so much more than makes no sense at all to our secular, sceptical age. Indeed, the crowds that have paid homage to her relics — it is estimated that in Ireland in 2001, the 14-day tour attracted 75 per cent of the country’s population — have left even those who treasure her example struggling for an explanation. Sisters Marie Lucille and Monique Marie and Father McGoldrick all admitted frankly that the modern phenomenon of Thérèse had left them mystified. 

They would, of course, point to God’s hand. Others, less devout, might liken the cult of Thérèse to the myths that grow up around other (mainly female) characters in history, such as St Joan of Arc, Cleopatra or more recently Diana, Princess of Wales. Facts are discarded and emotion takes over as a version of a life makes such an impact on a wide audience that the myth grows to eclipse what lies behind it. At Lisieux, to be fair, strenuous efforts are made to root Thérèse in a place and in her writings, which, for example, are the basis for all decorations in the interior of the basilica. However, once her relics are on their travels, it seems that pilgrims, in the uncertain times we live in, make of them what they will. 

Underrated: Abroad

The ravenous longing for the infinite possibilities of “otherwhere”

The king of cakes

"Yuletide revels were designed to see you through the dark days — and how dark they seem today"