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."

Sport
Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi during Barcelona training in August
footballPete Jenson co-ghost wrote Suarez’s autobiography and reveals how desperate he's been to return
News
newsMcKamey Manor says 'there is no escape until the tour is completed'
Voices
Hunted: A stag lies dead on Jura, where David Cameron holidays and has himself stalked deer
voicesThe Scotland I know is becoming a playground for the rich
News
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Architect Frank Gehry is regarded by many as the most important architect of the modern era
arts + entsGehry has declared that 98 per cent of modern architecture is "s**t"
Money
Welcome to tinsel town: retailers such as Selfridges will be Santa's little helpers this Christmas, working hard to persuade shoppers to stock up on gifts
news
Arts and Entertainment
Soul singer Sam Smith cleared up at the Mobo awards this week
newsSam Smith’s Mobo triumph is just the latest example of a trend
News
Laurence Easeman and Russell Brand
people
Sport
Fans of Dulwich Hamlet FC at their ground Champion Hill
footballFans are rejecting the £2,000 season tickets, officious stewarding, and airline-stadium sponsorship
News
Shami Chakrabarti
people
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch has refused to deny his involvement in the upcoming new Star Wars film
filmBenedict Cumberbatch reignites Star Wars 7 rumours
Sport
football
News
news
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

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Senior Research Fellow in Gender, Food and Resilient Communities

£47,334 - £59,058 per annum: Coventry University: The Centre for Agroecology, ...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker