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."

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