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

  • Barbara Corrado Pope (a1)


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.



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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.

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.

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

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

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

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);Robo, Etienne, The Two Portraits of St. Thérèse of Lisieux (Chicago, 1959); and Six, Jean François, La Véritable Enfance de Thérèse de Lisieux (Paris, 1972) and Thérèse de Lisieux au Carmel (Paris, 1973).

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. Maurice Privat accused the businessmen and the sisters in Saint Thérèse de Lisieux (Paris, 1932). 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).

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

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

10. Merton, Thomas, The Seven Storey Mountain (New York, 1948), p. 353. 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;Honoré, Hippolyte, “Sondage d'opinions,” Le Message d'une femme: Thérèse de Lisieux (Mulhouse, 1968), p. 11; and Conn, Joann Wolski, “Thérèse of Lisieux from a Feminist Perspective,” Spiritual Life 28 (1982): 233.

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

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. This book was originally a best-seller in 1925.

13. Görres, , Hidden Face, p. 2.

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

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), 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).

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

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

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.

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

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

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), and Douglas, Ann, The Feminization of American Culture (New York, 1977).

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, 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).

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

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

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).

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.

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.

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

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

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

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

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;Philipon, Marie Michel, Sainte Thérèse de Lisieux, “Une Voie Toute Nouvelle” (Paris, 1946), p. 144;Vièrge, Victor de la, Spiritual Realism of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, trans. Discalced Carmelite Nuns (Milwaukee, 1962), p. 11; and Rohrbach, Peter, In Search of St. Thérèse (New York, 1961), p. 13. 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), 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.

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).


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