Retreats: A saint in calvados country

A child nun, Sainte Therese of Lisieux has given her name to a festival that has been held each September since her death in 1897. Tony Kelly reports on a saintly centenary.
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The Independent Online
Lisieux, capital of the Pays d'Auge region of lower Normandy, is twinned with Taunton in Somerset. The connection is not obvious until you walk or drive through the villages that make up the district. Half-timbered farmhouses and barns are surrounded by orchards, weighed down in autumn with every conceivable variety of apple. The area is known throughout France for its cider and, above all, for its calvados apple brandy.

Unlike Taunton, though, Lisieux has another claim to fame - a saint. Therese Martin moved to Lisieux with her father in 1877 when she was just four years old, after her mother had died.

Five years later the child felt called to be a nun. At 14 she applied to join her two elder sisters in the town's Carmelite convent, but was told to wait until she was 21. Refusing to admit defeat, she travelled to Rome with her father to appeal direct to the Pope. Protocol required her to remain silent, but devotion prevented her from holding back. His Holiness declared that he was in the presence of an exceptional child; if it was God's will, he said, then it must be done.

Therese spent the next nine years of her life in penance and deliberate suffering, recording her daily prayers and meditations in a book which she passed on to friends shortly before her death from tuberculosis at the age of 24.

The book was published as The Story of a Soul; it quickly sold a million copies and a cult grew up around Therese. Catholics from Glasgow and Donegal reported visions of the child followed by miracle cures for cancer. By 1925 Pope Pius XI had declared Therese a saint, and reminded the world of Christ's observation that only by becoming like a child could we enter His kingdom.

A huge basilica, modelled on the Sacre-Coeur in Paris, was completed in 1954 on a hill overlooking the town; it has become the most visited French shrine after Lourdes. The road to the basilica is lined with souvenir shops selling tea-towels and plates bearing Therese's name - along with bottles of calvados. Somehow it didn't seem right to be selling spirits to pilgrims at 9am on a Sunday, but this was France, after all.

A pilgrim "train" tours the town taking in the basilica (where the bones from Therese's right arm are kept), the convent whose chapel houses her body, and the house where she grew up, now a museum containing her first communion robe.

The Festival of Ste Therese takes place each year on the last Sunday in September, to mark the anniversary of her death in 1897. Coaches from Portugal and Holland were parked outside the basilica and Mass was in progress when I arrived. There was barely room to squeeze through the doors so I headed instead for the 13th-century cathedral where I found more evidence of the cult of Therese. A plaque beneath her statue told of a vision - Christ peering out of her prayer book, shedding blood for the sins of the world - which came to her one day at Mass. The statue was surrounded by votive candles.

After a lunch of poulet vallee d'Auge (chicken cooked in cream and, inevitably, calvados), I returned to the basilica. A priest led the congregation of several thousand in hymns and prayer while another crowd stood outside in the sun, gathered around a large float bedecked with flowers. At 3.30pm a procession entered into the church, led by priests carrying ancient banners and religious relics. They emerged 10 minutes later, followed by two men carrying a solid gold casket, which they placed reverently on top of the float. Inside the casket was the precious right arm.

The procession moved off slowly down the hill, with the float guided by a dozen strong men to prevent it from running away. There were nuns in grey habits, priests in black and white robes, altar-boys holding lighted candles, and groups of boy and girl scouts acting as marshals. The street was lined with pilgrims; most of them kept to the pavement, leaving a dignified space on the road ahead of the saint, but curious onlookers and photographers kept running into the road. By the time we reached the foot of the hill we were in the centre of town and any distinction between pilgrims and passers-by had disappeared.

"Therese, pray for us," the crowd chanted, as they moved towards the cathedral. The casket was unloaded once more and carried carefully to the altar. The service of chanting and prayers was punctuated by readings from the saint's diaries, which revealed her to have been very much in love with her God.

"What sweet memories I cherish of that second visit of Jesus!" she wrote after her second communion, given before her confirmation as a special, and illegal, dispensation (an angry fundamentalist had defaced a reference to this, in a cathedral exhibition).

Another time: "On leaving the confessional, I was so content and light- hearted, never had my soul felt such joy."

She even came close to expressing a physical desire for her Saviour, designing a coat of arms for the pair of them, with her initials alongside His, and Jesus on a pillow toying with a bunch of grapes. It was just as well, I mused, that she died so young, before the image of the child saint could be shattered.

"We need more Thereses," said the bishop, calling on the congregation to give up their lives to the same cause. As he spoke, I wondered what the devout child nun would have made of all the fuss. Was she looking down on Lisieux and smiling? If she had been as selfless as they say, she would surely have deplored this posthumous personality cult.

I decided that she was either gazing down in sadness at the thousands chanting her name, or she wasn't gazing down at all, and the pilgrims were utterly misguided. If she smiled, it was probably at the idea of her face being painted on to cheap eggcups and heart-shaped brooches, and laser-beamed on to the columns of the basilica in a son et lumiere show each evening. That was surely worth a smile.

I was still lost in these thoughts as the procession moved off towards Therese's final resting-place at Carmel.