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A Heroine Without Heroics: The Little Flower of Jesus and Her Times

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 July 2009

Barbara Corrado Pope
Ms. Pope is director and associate professor of women's studies in the University of Oregon, Eugene, Oregon.


Pope Pius X called Thérèse of Lisieux (1873–1897) “the greatest saint of modern times.“ For anyone who grew up in the pre-Vatican II church, she was the most popular model of virtue. Her “little way of spiritual childhood” showed Catholics how each of them could practice their faith and gain salvation. The “Little Flower of Jesus” was, above all, a saint for the ordinary person, a heroine without heroics, a mystic who did not soar but through her language brought God and her relationship to him down to earth.

Research Article
Copyright © American Society of Church History 1988

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The research for this article was aided by a summer research grant from the University of Oregon. I also would like to thank Father Theodore N. Centala, O.C.D., Brookline, Massachusetts, for his generously offered information and insight.

1. This statement is frequently quoted; for example, see Laurentin, René, Thérèse de Lisieux. Mythes et Realite (Paris, 1972), p. 13.Google Scholar

2. Although there is now some question about whether or not Thérèse ever used this phrase, it is inextricably identified with her name. See Laurentin, René and Six, Jean-François, Thérèse de Lisieux. Dialogue entre René Laurentin et Jean-François Six (Paris, 1973), p. 96.Google Scholar

3. Day, Dorothy, Thérèse (Springfield, Ill., 1960),Google Scholar and Sackville, Vita, The Eagle and the Dove (London, 1943).Google Scholar

4. “Bulletin d'histoire de la spiritualité: L'Epoque contemporaine,” Revue d'histoire de la spiritualité 50 (1974): 190.Google Scholar

5. For example, The Story of the Canonization of S. Thérèse de Lisieux (London, 1934);Google ScholarProcès de Béatification et canonisation de Sainte Thérèse de l'Enfant-Jésus et de la Sainte-face, 2 vols. (Rome, 1973, 1976);Google ScholarO'Mahoney, Christopher, ed., St. Thérèse of Lisieux by Those Who Knew Her (Dublin, 1975).Google Scholar

6. The best-known works dealing with the reconstruction of Thérèse are Görres, Ida F., The Hidden Face: A Study of Thérèse of Lisieux, trans. Winstor, Richard and Winstor, Clara, 8th rev. ed. (New York, 1959);Google ScholarRobo, Etienne, The Two Portraits of St. Thérèse of Lisieux (Chicago, 1959);Google Scholar and Six, Jean François, La Véritable Enfance de Thérèse de Lisieux (Paris, 1972)Google Scholar and Thérèse de Lisieux au Carmel (Paris, 1973).Google Scholar

7. Henri Petitot quoted such an accusation at length in Saint Theresa of Lisieux: A Spiritual Renascence, trans. Benedictines of Stanbrook (London, 1927), pp. xiii–xv.Google Scholar Maurice Privat accused the businessmen and the sisters in Saint Thérèse de Lisieux (Paris, 1932).Google Scholar Pierre Mabille's contention that Thérèse had a case of schizophrenia fostered by her social and religious milieu is perhaps the most famous attack: Thérèse de Lisieux (Paris, 1937); new ed. (Paris, 1975).Google Scholar

8. Martin, Thérèse, The Autobiography of Thérèse of Lisieux: The Story of a Soul, trans. Beevers, John (Garden City, N.Y., 1957), pp. 6263.Google Scholar

9. Introduction to Beevers's translation, Autobiography, p. 15.

10. Merton, Thomas, The Seven Storey Mountain (New York, 1948), p. 353.Google Scholar This rejection of Thérèse as uninteresting and puerile certainly has been one reaction I have received while doing this research. See also Görres, , Hidden Face, p. 11;Google ScholarHonoré, Hippolyte, “Sondage d'opinions,” Le Message d'une femme: Thérèse de Lisieux (Mulhouse, 1968), p. 11;Google Scholar and Conn, Joann Wolski, “Thérèse of Lisieux from a Feminist Perspective,” Spiritual Life 28 (1982): 233.Google Scholar

11. Introduction to Martin, Thérèse, Autobiography of a Saint, trans. Knox, Ronald (Glasgow, 1958), p. 22.Google Scholar

12. Laveille, August Pierre, Life of the Little Flower; St. Thérèse of Lisieux, According to the Official Documents of the Carmel of Lisieux, trans. Fitzsimons, M. (New York, 1952), p. 333.Google Scholar This book was originally a best-seller in 1925.

13. Görres, , Hidden Face, p. 2.Google Scholar

14. Garesché, Edward F., The Teachings of the Little Flower (New York, 1925), p. 20.Google Scholar

15. Two famous converts were the American writer Williams, Michael, who speaks about his conversion in The Book of High Romance: A Spiritual Autobiography (New York, 1924),Google Scholar and Chinese magistrate Wu, John, who tells his story in The Science of Love: A Study of the Teachings of Thérèse de Lisieux (Hong Kong, 1941).Google Scholar

16. “The Little Flower,” The Messenger of the Sacred Heart 41 (07 1915): 248.Google Scholar

17. Williams, , Book of High Romance, pp. 274275.Google Scholar

18. See The Apostolate of the Little Flower, published since 1922; Wilson, Stephen, “Cult of Saints in the Churches of Central Paris,” in Saints and their Cults: Studies in Religious Sociology, Folklore and History, ed. Wilson, Stephen (London, 1983), pp. 233257.Google Scholar

19. Görres, , The Hidden Face, p. 391.Google Scholar

20. Delooz, Pierre, Sociologie et canonisations (Liège, 1969), pp. 27, 183, 352353.Google Scholar

21. These notables include François Veuillot, the French journalist who “broke” the story of the canonization in 1906, and Monsignor Thomas Taylor, a Scottish Sulpician priest who promoted her cause in the British Isles and in Rome.

22. See especially Welter, Barbara, “The Feminization of American Religion, 1800–1860,” reprinted in Dimity Convictions (Athens, Ohio, 1976),Google Scholar and Douglas, Ann, The Feminization of American Culture (New York, 1977).Google Scholar

23. Much recent research is summarized in Lebrun, François et al. , Histoire des catholiques en France du XVe siècle à nos jours (Paris, 1980), pp. 321452,Google Scholar and in Hufton, Olwen, “The Reconstruction of the Church, 1794–1801,” in Beyond the Terror: Essays in French Regional and Social History 1794–1815, ed. Lewis, Gwynne and Lucas, Colin (Cambridge, 1983).Google Scholar

24. Quoted in Savart, Claude, “A Recherche de l'‘art’ dit de Saint-Sulpice,” Revue d'histoire de la spiritualité 52 (1976): 282.Google Scholar

25. For a similar interpretation, see Kselman, Thomas, Miracles and Prophecies in Nineteenth- Century France (Rutgers, 1983),Google Scholar and McSweeny, Bill, Roman Catholicism: The Search for Relevance (Oxford, 1979).Google Scholar

26. For an excellent summary and analysis of new and revitalized nineteenth-century devotions, see Taves, Ann, The Household of Faith: Roman Catholic Devotions in Mid-Nineteenth-Century America (Notre Dame, 1986).Google Scholar

27. Jean-François Six gives the most details about Guérin's political connections in his two-volume biography. See especially La Vèritable Enfance, pp. 151–172.

28. Delarue-Mardrus, Lucie, St. Thérèse of Lisieux: A Biography, trans. Chase, Helen Y. (London, 1929), p. 34.Google Scholar

29. Many authors described childhood scenes or asked their readers to imagine them. One nonreader who daydreamed about her image of Thérèse-as-a-girl was Madame Lucie, who spent her teenaged years in Lisieux before and during World War I. Smith, Bonnie, Confessions of a Concièrge: Madame Lucie's History of Twentieth-Century France (New Haven, 1985), pp. 2831.Google Scholar

30. Kamph, Konstantin, as quoted in Görres, , Hidden Face, p. 12.Google Scholar

31. Daley, Joseph, A Saint of Today (New York, 1936), p. 55.Google Scholar

32. Douglas, , Feminization of American Culture, pp. 36.Google Scholar

33. Daley, , A Saint of Today, pp. 1011.Google Scholar

34. The cause for their canonization is still alive; conversation with Theodore Centala, July,1985.

35. For concern with her virility, see Hutting, Albert M., The Life of the Little Flower (Royal Oak, Mich., 1942), p. 4;Google ScholarPhilipon, Marie Michel, Sainte Thérèse de Lisieux, “Une Voie Toute Nouvelle” (Paris, 1946), p. 144;Google ScholarVièrge, Victor de la, Spiritual Realism of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, trans. Discalced Carmelite Nuns (Milwaukee, 1962), p. 11;Google Scholar and Rohrbach, Peter, In Search of St. Thérèse (New York, 1961), p. 13.Google Scholar All these authors are priests; the word virile has the same significance in French as in English.

36. Joann Conn, “Thérèse of Lisieux from a Feminist Perspective,” speaks of Thérèse's autonomy. I would not go so far, however, as to label this female strategy “feminism.”

37. See Flandrin, Jean-Louis, L'Eglise et le contrôle des naissances (Paris, 1970),Google Scholar and Venard, Marc, “Popular Religion in the Eighteenth Century,” in Church and Society in the Eighteenth Century, ed. Callahan, William and Higgs, David (Cambridge, 1979), p. 150.Google Scholar

38. For an analysis of the interrelationship of female experience, religion, and anti-modernity, see Smith, Bonnie, Ladies of the Leisure Class. The Bourgeoises of Northern France in the Nineteenth Century (Princeton, 1981).Google Scholar