The miracle of Saint Thérèse

We rarely go to church, yet tens of thousands of us have flocked to see the remains of a 19th-century nun as they tour Britain. Why? Paul Vallely looks for answers in Preston

It is an unprepossessing, Victorian brick-built chapel in a nondescript suburb of Preston in Lancashire. The only indication that there might be something unusual about the place is a plain sign by the door bearing the words Carmelite Monastery. But it was the large crowds that were the giveaway.

In less than four hours, some 4,000 people materialised to file solemnly through the door of the anonymous little building. They were there to place themselves momentarily in the presence of the bones of a young woman who died in obscurity a century ago, but who is now one of the Catholic Church's best-loved saints.

The relics of Thérèse of Lisieux were passing through the town as part of an unprecedented tour of the UK, visiting 28 venues in a single month, in an extraordinary world tour of more than 40 countries. Tens of thousands have turned out to see them since their arrival in Portsmouth two weeks ago.

If there was something exotic about the reliquary – the few bones from her right leg, thigh and foot are held in a silver container inside a casket shaped like a temple – its reception was decidedly British. This was an undemonstrative affair where quiet reverence mixed with an understated polite excitement.

The casket stood on the altar of the little chapel with its plain cream walls and school-hall laquered parquet floor. The long queues of people shuffling slowly forwards were made up predominantly of women with grey or white hair, but there were men in business suits, and several black and Asian faces along with a group of children from the local school.

When they reached the reliquary most stopped and stood reverently for a few silent seconds. Some pressed their hands against the Perspex dome covering the casket. One or two kissed it.

Why had they come? "St Thérèse was a simple person, she didn't do anything spectacular," said Bridget Hilton, who had travelled from Clitheroe up on the Pennines. "She lived in a convent in Normandy and died when she was 24. But she showed that through simple, everyday things you could do God's will."

"When she died she had done so little that the nuns had nothing to put in her obituary," said another pilgrim, Marie Gardner. "But then it was discovered she had written her memoirs." The book was published as The Story of a Soul. It became an international bestseller. "She became a saint for ordinary people."

There is nothing ordinary, however, about her namesake, Sister Thérèse, the 75-year-old Reverend Mother of the convent that hosted Monday's gathering.

A hooped figure in a brown scapular, black veil and cream cloak, she has spent the last 47 years inside the monastery. Until recently she had hardly ventured into the outside world, though relaxed rules mean the nuns can now leave to visit the optician or dentist, or even an infirm close relative.

"She didn't have visions or anything like that," the old nun said, explaining why her namesake is such a draw. "But she made people look at God in a different way. People in her time saw God as a distant figure to be feared, but she saw God as a friend." So much so that she used tu to address God in her writing – although her nuns changed this to the more formal vous in early editions for fear of shocking a general readership.

Some of those in the long queue were hoping for a miracle. "We want to have a baby," said Chantal Henkison, a nurse in her early forties who was there with her husband, John, a joiner.

Others were there because they believed they had already had one. Rosalind Lumby, 32, credited the saint with arresting her mother's breast cancer. "We'd been told she won't live 'til the end of 2008 and that we should bring Christmas forward," she said. "But we prayed to St Thérèse and my mother is still with us, and her tumour has shrunk. We think it is a miracle."

Some Catholics are uneasy with this sort of talk, which they fear smacks of superstition. Cardinal Hume refused to give permission for the tour of St Thérèse's bones when he was the leader of the nation's Catholics.

But even those who do not hold with the healing power of relics would have been struck in Preston yesterday by the gentleness of the atmosphere, the care taken of the old and infirm, and the healing properties of the cups of tea which were offered all round. "St Thérèse encapsulates the gospel message in a very simple way," said Fr Frank Gallagher, a Carmelite friar who runs a retreat house nearby.

Yesterday, Sister Janet Fearns, who has been involved in planning the relics' tour in the North-west said that she hoped the tour's success would continue.

"We have been very surprised by the turnout, particularly since it has been publicised almost exclusively by word of mouth," she said. "I have heard that 27 bus-loads of people are planning to come down from Scotland to see the relics when we stop in Lancaster. The level of devotion is astonishing."

She added: "I think that St Thérèse has had such an impact on people's lives because she suffered so much and yet talked about being a loving person."

"There was a sense of peace in there," said Maria Robinson as she left, after praying for help with her arthritis. "I feel strengthened now."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Accounts Assistant - Fixed Term Contract - 6 Months

£15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the largest hospitality companies...

Recruitment Genius: Electricians - Fixed Wire Testing

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As a result of significant cont...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Advisor

£16575 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An excellent opportunity is ava...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Executive

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading and innovative con...

Day In a Page

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

One day to find €1.6bn

Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

Historians map out untold LGBT histories

Public are being asked to help improve the map
Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

This was the year of 24-carat Golden Oldies
Paris Fashion Week

Paris Fashion Week

Thom Browne's scarecrows offer a rare beacon in commercial offerings
A year of the caliphate:

Isis, a year of the caliphate

Who can defeat the so-called 'Islamic State' – and how?
Marks and Spencer: Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?

Marks and Spencer

Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?
'We haven't invaded France': Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak

'We haven't invaded France'

Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak
Isis in Kobani: Why we ignore the worst of the massacres

Why do we ignore the worst of the massacres?

The West’s determination not to offend its Sunni allies helps Isis and puts us all at risk, says Patrick Cockburn
7/7 bombings 10 years on: Four emergency workers who saved lives recall the shocking day that 52 people were killed

Remembering 7/7 ten years on

Four emergency workers recall their memories of that day – and reveal how it's affected them ever since
Humans: Are the scientists developing robots in danger of replicating the hit Channel 4 drama?

They’re here to help

We want robots to do our drudge work, and to look enough like us for comfort. But are the scientists developing artificial intelligence in danger of replicating the TV drama Humans?
Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

'Heritage' is a loaded word in the Dixie, but the Charleston killings show how dangerous it is to cling to a deadly past, says Rupert Cornwell
What exactly does 'one' mean? Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue

What exactly does 'one' mean?

Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue