Therese Martin entered the Carmelite monastery in Lisieux, France, in 1888 as a teen-ager and remained there until her death from tuberculosis at age 24.
Her fellow sisters saw nothing extraordinary about her life. She was just a good sister who practiced "the little way," which she described as doing the ordinary things of life with extraordinary love.
But a century later, millions of Roman Catholics are venerating the relics of St. Therese of Lisieux as they travel on a worldwide tour. The reliquary containing some of her bones arrived in Baltimore yesterday afternoon as part of a four-month U.S. tour and continues its journey tomorrow, departing for Philadelphia.
The simplicity and spirituality of St. Therese, also known as The Little Flower, strike a deep chord in Roman Catholics. Her "Autobiography of a Soul," which was first published the year after her death in 1897, has been translated into 60 languages. Two years ago, Pope John Paul II named her a doctor of the church, only the third woman to receive such an honor, placing her in the same company with St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas.
What is the attraction?
"She stresses the love of God and the mercy of God and she made the spiritual life sound like it was achievable for people," said Sister Colette Ackerman, prioress of the Carmelite Monastery on Dulaney Valley Road in Towson.
"Something it shows us is the desire of people to experience God, and the desire of people to touch God, and therefore the desire of people to touch Therese, to whom they feel so close," said Sister Constance FitzGerald, an authority in Carmelite spirituality who lives at the monastery. "It's the need people have to be assured that God is near."
St. Therese lived in a time when a spiritual current called Jansenism, which conceptualized God as a vengeful judge, was prevalent.
"She really moved away from the Jansenism of her time, that God was a just judge in a sense, and she believed that God was a God of mercy," Sister Colette said.
The relics are encased in a box called a reliquary, made of Brazilian jacaranda wood and silver gilt. It is encased in Plexiglas and weighs 300 pounds.
The relics have traveled throughout Europe, as well as in Brazil and Argentina before coming to the United States. "At the last Mass in Argentina, there were 30,000 people," said the Rev. Donald Kinney, a Gervais, Ore., Carmelite priest who chairs the St. Therese Relics Committee and who is accompanying the reliquary on its tour through 90 cities in 25 states.
As the Carmelite sisters awaited the arrival of the relics at their chapel yesterday, Kinney called ahead to inform them that more than 15,000 people had come to venerate them over two days in Washington.
"He said, 'Be prepared, Hurricane Therese is on its way,' " said Sister Robin Stratton.
The relics arrived shortly after 4: 30 p.m. in a blue van organizers have dubbed the "Theresemobile," after the "Popemobile" used by John Paul II. It took 11 people to carry the reliquary from the van into the chapel.
"Therese, our sister, our model and friend, we welcome you to our Carmel and embrace you with great love," intoned Sister Colette as the nuns and guests prayed before the reliquary. One by one, the sisters venerated St. Therese's relics with a low bow.
One of the first members of the public to arrive was Linda Veno, who drove with a friend from Harrisburg, Pa. "I live St. Therese. She's my little sister," Veno said. "So I came here she showed us a simple way to get to God."
Respect, not worship
The Catholic tradition of venerating saints' relics goes back to the earliest days of the early church, to the period of the Christian martyrs, said the Rev. Albert H. Ledoux, a church historian at Mount Saint Mary's Seminary in Emmittsburg.
"The martyrs exerted a tremendous effect on other Christians who didn't get martyred," Ledoux said. "The ones left behind felt a need not only to preserve these bodies but to show them respect. Someone who was thrown to the lions, whatever was left behind was considered precious because this person had gone the full distance and had given his all for the Lord.
"With the end of active persecutions against Christians in Europe, the availability of martyrs' remains diminished, and so room was made in the practice of veneration of relics for the remains of saints who had not died a violent death," he said.
The practice of venerating relics is easily misunderstood as worship, and the church is careful to enunciate its theology on the matter. It is understood in much the same way as Catholics pray to saints, who they believe can intercede with God on their behalf.
The relics will remain at the Carmelite monastery at 1318 Dulaney Valley Road for a 9 a.m. Mass today. At noon, they will be transferred to the Basilica of the Assumption, Cathedral and Mulberry streets, where there will be a 4: 30 p.m. vespers service led by Cardinal William H. Keeler, followed by a 5: 30 p.m. Mass. Tomorrow, the relics will be available for veneration between Masses, which begin at 7: 30 a.m., 9 a.m. and 10: 45 a.m.