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Eightieth Anniversary of the blessing of the Basilica in Lisieux, by Cardinal Pacelli, July 11, 1937: Seven Things You May Not Know About That Day


Basilica of St. Therese, Lisieux. Photo credit: Dee Cursi

Tuesday, July 11 is the 80th anniversary of the blessing of the basilica of St. Therese at Lisieux by Eugenio Cardinal Pacelli, the future Pope Pius XII, on July 11, 1937.  At Lisieux today the anniversary is being commemorated with a special program. 

1.  The personal devotion of Pope Pius XI to St. Therese

In 1937, Pope Pius XI had been gravely ill for some time.  For many years he had had an intense personal devotion to St. Therese, whom he called “the star of my pontificate.”  When he fell sick, he prayed to St. Therese, and he believed that the improvement in his health which extended his life until 1939 was due to her intercession.  He publicly thanked the saint “who has so effectively and so obviously come to the aid of the Supreme Pontiff and still seems willing to help him: Saint Teresa of Lisieux.”1  To show his gratitude to St. Therese, Pope Pius had intended to come to Lisieux himself to address the Eucharistic Congress and to bless the basilica, but, as his health and his workload did not allow it, he missioned his Cardinal Secretary of State, Eugenio Cardinal Pacelli, who, as Pope Pius XII, would succeed him, to travel to Lisieux to speak to the Congress and to bless the basilica.  [This was not the basilica’s actual consecration, for in 1937 only the crypt was completed. The cornerstone had been laid in 1929.  World War II delayed the construction, and the basilica was not finally consecrated until 1954].  This basilica was close to the heart of Pope Pius XI; he had expresed the desire that it be “big, beautiful, and built as quickly as possible.”

2.  Cardinal Pacelli Blesses the Basilica and Speaks to the Eucharistic Congress, Denouncing Nazi Racism

The Eucharistic Congress at Lisieux that summer was of worldwide importance, and Cardinal Pacelli’s visit was very big news spiritually, ecclesiastically, and politically.  Please read a contemporary account in the Montreal GazetteThe “Papal Legate” was greeted by a quarter of a million people, including five cardinals, 80 archbishops and bishops, and 1,200 priests.  On Sunday morning, July 11, he blessed the basilica, sprinkling the foundations with holy water and blessing the interior walls. See this two-minute video of the blessing and the Eucharistic procession.

After the blessing, the Cardinal Legate stood on the esplanade outside the basilica and addressed the immense crowd for 90 minutes.  Read much of the text of Cardinal Pacelli’s address in The Tablet

His remarks included a clear condemnation of the actions of the fascist and communist governments which increasingly dominated Europe:

"Rise, basilicas of France, aged ancestors of the Middle Ages, and younger sisters of yesterday ! Rise aloft to greet a new-born sister, the Basilica of St. Teresa of the Child Jesus, the House of God among His own. Here . . .  it is the Word that speaks, Truth and Justice, in the threefold law and duty to God, to one's neighbour and to oneself, with a serene, yet clear condemnation of all unjust violence and all criminal cowardice.

At the foot of this pulpit and at the door of this church St. Ambrose stopped Theodore and forced him to his knees in the presence of a crowd, dumbfounded with wonder. From this pulpit, in all the churches of a mighty and noble nation, whom evil pastors would mislead into the idolatry of race, the indignant protest of an eighty-year-old Pontiff suddenly thundered forth, like the voice from Sinai, to recall the inalienable rights of God, the Incarnate Word, and the sacred magisterium of which he is the trustee. . .  .

All those who wish to live in Christ must suffer persecutions, but these weigh particularly hardly on the present Pontiff, drawing from him, as they afflict his children in various countries, cries of pain and of protest. Yet neither the revolutionary and sacrilegious violence of masses blinded by false prophets, nor the sophism of doctors of impiety, who would deChristianize public life, could break the resistance or fetter the words of this intrepid old man."2

“The Nazi press interpreted the cardinal’s words as a direct attack on National Socialist ideology . . . . the most direct attack Pacelli ever made on Nazi racism.”3

In a reference to the Pope’s gratitude to St. Therese for obtaining his healing from God, Cardinal Pacelli continued:

It is with a feeling of special gratitude to the wonderworker of Lisieux that His Holiness, unable to come himself as he would have wished, desired to be present by means of an Ambassador extraordinary and a messenger of his grateful heart.4

After his long speech, the Cardinal celebrated Mass.   The vast congregation was then informed that the Holy Father himself was about to address the congress by radio. 

3.  Pope Pius XI Speaks to the Congress at Lisieux by Radio

The Holy Father spoke from an armchair in the private study of his summer residence, Castel Gandolfo, with his eyes fixed on a marble bust of Therese and a relic of her that stood on his table.  The press reported at length that his voice was stronger and clearer than it had been for months; it echoed through the big basilica.  The Pope spoke for twelve minutes.  He spoke on the theme “Pray always and do not grow weary.” 

Living Basilicas

“Let us pray, well-beloved sons, so that, as the Divine King of the Tabernacle created our souls and gave for them all his precious blood, he also condescended thus to sanctify and save them, making of them henceforth, in the expectation of celestial glory, a living basilica where he pleases to reside, above all by the Holy Eucharist, today triumphant with its sanctifying grace and with its blessing on the beautiful and magnificent basilicas, to which no beauty in the world can be compared, not even the ravishing splendors of the new basilica of Lisieux.

Let us pray, well-beloved sons, for all those who have charge of and watch those living basilicas which are your souls, . . .

And now falls on you, on all and on each . .  .. the benediction of a  father, of an old father, whom your prayers have called back on the road of life for a new step, for how long and how far only God knows . . . 5

Read the full text of the speech of Pope Pius XI in the Montreal Gazette.

4.  St. Therese's Sisters Hear the Pope's Speech On Radio in Their Monasteries

As you read the Pope's speech above, you will read what the sisters of St. Therese heard.  The Pope had expressed the wish that the sisters of St. Therese should hear his address, so radios were set up in the Carmel of Lisieux and in the Visitation monastery at Caen, where Leonie lived.  Read Leonie's letter to her sisters sharing the indescribable excitement of the whole community at Caen; she tells her Carmelites that "your poor little sister watered the floor with her tears."  Read Celine's reply in which she describes her private conversation with Cardinal Pacelli and the community's exhaustion after the visits of so many ecclesiastical dignitaries.

5.  The Eucharistic Procession Closes the Day

More pilgrims were still pouring in, bringing the total to a reported 300,000.  The Eucharistic procession in the afternoon began at the Basilica and proceeded to Ouilly-le-Vicomte, where the Martin family used to go on outings. 

6.  Cardinal Pacelli Visits the Carmel of Lisieux

In the evening Cardinal Pacelli visited the Carmelite monastery and spoke to Mother Agnes.  The next morning he returned to the Carmel to offer Mass in the infirmary where Therese died.  That morning he met her sisters Marie and Celine; Celine photographed him in the cloisters.  See the photograph and a detailed account of his interactions with Marie and Celine in my article "Cardinal Pacelli's Visit With the Sisters of St. Therese at Lisieux Carmel, July 12, 1937."

7.  How You Can Observe the Anniversary Today

At Lisieux Mr. Emmanuel Houis, Secretary General of the Shrine, will speak on the history of the basilica. In the afternoon pilgrims may visit the dome of the basilica and participate in a time of prayer in the lower basilica, near the reliquary of Sts. Louis and Zelie. The day will conclude with Vespers at Carmel and a vigil of prayer for peace in the chapel of the Carmel. Let's unite ourselves with them in prayer so that we may become, as Pope Pius XI said that day in his radio address, "living basilicas [where the Divine King of the Tabernacle] chooses to reside."  From your own home, make a ‘virtual pilgrimage” to the Basilica at Lisieux, which itself has been a house of grace to so many for so long, by viewing this film with excellent narration in English:

Laurence Panontin of the Pilgrimage Office at the Basilica of Lisieux

 View "The Basilica of St. Therese at Lisieux" in the "Catholic Destinations" series at Catholic TV

On the anniversary of the blessing of the Basilica of St. Therese, let’s unite our prayers with the prayers of those celebrating at Lisieux today that we may continue to be drawn through St. Therese to the heart of Christ.



1. "The Popes and Little Teresa of the Child Jesus" in 30 Days in the Church and in the World.

2. "Radio Talk Shows Pope is Improved" in The Montreal Gazette, July 12, 1937.

3.  A Cross Too Heavy: Pope Pius XII and the Jews of Europe, by Paul O'Shea. Palgrave MacMillan: New York, New York, 2011.

4.  "Cardinal Pacelli at Lisieux" in The Tablet, July 17, 1937.

5.  "Radio Talk Shows Pope is Improved" in The Montreal Gazette, July 12, 1937.

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