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."

News
A 1930 image of the Karl Albrecht Spiritousen and Lebensmittel shop, Essen. The shop was opened by Karl and Theo Albrecht’s mother; the brothers later founded Aldi
people
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmA cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Arts and Entertainment
Flora Spencer-Longhurst as Lavinia, William Houston as Titus Andronicus and Dyfan Dwyfor as Lucius
theatreThe Shakespeare play that proved too much for more than 100 people
News
exclusivePunk icon Viv Albertine on Sid Vicious, complacent white men, and why free love led to rape
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
Stir crazy: Noel Fielding in 'Luxury Comedy 2: Tales from Painted Hawaii'
comedyAs ‘Luxury Comedy’ returns, Noel Fielding on why mainstream success scares him and what the future holds for 'The Boosh'
Life and Style
Flow chart: Karl Landsteiner discovered blood types in 1900, yet scientists have still not come up with an explanation for their existence
lifeAll of us have one. Yet even now, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Arts and Entertainment
'Weird Al' Yankovic, or Alfred Matthew, at the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival Screening of
musicHis latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do our experts think he’s missed out?
Sport
New Real Madrid signing James Rodríguez with club president Florentino Perez
sportColombian World Cup star completes £63m move to Spain
Travel
Hotel Tour d’Auvergne in Paris launches pay-what-you-want
travelIt seems fraught with financial risk, but the policy has its benefits
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe best children's books for this summer
Life and Style
News to me: family events were recorded in the personal columns
techFamily events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped that
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

Sustainability Manager

Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Scheme Manager (BREEAM)...

Graduate Sustainability Professional

Flexible, depending on experience: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: T...

Programme Director - Conduct Risk - London

£850 - £950 per day: Orgtel: Programme Director - Conduct Risk - Banking - £85...

Project Coordinator/Order Entry, SC Clear

£100 - £110 per day: Orgtel: Project Coordinator/Order Entry Hampshire

Day In a Page

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

A land of the outright bizarre
What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

The worst kept secret in cinema

A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

The new hatched, matched and dispatched

Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
Why do we have blood types?

Are you my type?

All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

Honesty box hotels

Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn