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 Saint Therese of the Child Jesus

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Entries in Basilica of St. Therese (3)

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.

_________________________________________________________________________

Footnotes:

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.

The Carmelites of Lisieux in the Summer of 1944: 80 Days and 80 Nights in the Basilica of St. Therese. Written for the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Lisieux on August 23, 1944

by Joseph Ritson, of Great Britain, and Maureen O'Riordan

At the beginning of June, 1944, the French city of Lisieux, in the heart of the Normandy countryside. had been living under the Nazi Occupation for almost four years. During this time Lisieux and its population had been spared much of the devastation other French towns and cities had experienced. But Lisieux was a vital center of communication with Paris, and, when the Alllies launched their campaign to drive the Germans from France, they pounded Lisieux mercilessly with bombs.  It would not be long until the people of Lisieux would see the German occupiers gone forever, but not before much suffering, death, and destruction came upon Lisieux.

D-Day, Tuesday, 6 June 1944 (in the evening)

The Allies bomb Lisieux at 8:30 p.m., aiming at the railroad yards.  The raid lasted 30 seconds.  The Carmelites were at evening prayer, and they continued their normal life as well as they could. 

D + 1, Wednesday, 7 June 1944

A second, much bigger raid came at 2:00 a.m. during the night of June 6-7.   Thousands of bombs destroyed many of the buildings in Lisieux.  The Benedictine Abbey of Notre Dame due Pre, where Therese had been a student for five years and where she made her First Communion, had a direct hit.  The souvenirs of Therese’s schooldays and of her First Communion disappeared. Sixty-three or more religious sisters in Lisieux died in the bombing.  The number of deaths reported varied only slightly:  contemporaneous accounts said that 21 Benedictines of the Abbey of Notre Dame du Pre, where Therese studied for five years; 20 Sisters of Providence, a nursing order; 10 Little Sisters of the Poor, who maintained a home for elderly men; 10 Sisters of Charity of the Refuge (a home for girls in trouble); and four Sisters of Notre Dame were killed. 

Most buildings near the Carmel were destroyed.  During the 2:00 a.m. raid, “while everything seemed crumbling and burning around them,” the Carmelite nuns gathered in little groups in the cells and prayed.  Fire destroys the chaplain’s house at Carmel and the bookstore, Office Central, threatening the Carmel and the chapel. 

At 2:00 p.m. a third aerial bombardment destroyed the esplanade of the Basilica and all the shops near the Basilica.  Incendiary bombs fell in the courtyard of the Carmel, which “disappeared in a flash of flame and smoke."

modern color photo of street entrance to Carmelite chapel in Lisieux

Carmelite Monastery, Lisieux.  Photo credit: Joseph Ritson

The Carmelite nuns decide to remain in their cloister no matter what.  But in the evening, the superior of the Mission de France urges Mother Agnes (the prioress, St. Therese’s sister Pauline) to lead the community to the Basilica, where the Carmel’s chaplains had already taken refuge.  Mother Agnes at first feels that the nuns cannot leave the Carmel, but the whole city around the Carmel is burning, and the superior urges her not to stay there alone with the nuns, whose lives were in extreme danger; he says “You have only a few moments to decide.”  Mother Agnes says “If it is our duty, we will do it.”  The nuns took the Blessed Sacrament from their tabernacle and took it with them to the Basilica.  Passing through the door, Mother Agnes blesses her Carmel with the sign of the Cross, and then leaves it for the first time since she had entered it 62 years before (October 2, 1882). 

The nuns make their way through the devastation of Lisieux and up the hill to the Basilica of St. Therese.  With the few other townspeople who had not evacuated, they shelter in the crypt. They take their place at the front of the crypt, on the right, before the statue of Our Lady of the Smile.  They are surrounded by refugees and even by the wounded, whom the brave seminarians of the Mission of France had just dug out of the rubble.  The number of refugees is about 80-100, of whom at least 40 were priests and nuns.  At certain times in the summer, when refugees came form the countryside, there are more.

Later in the night, the roof of the house of the extern sisters at the Carmel is burned. There is a risk that the chapel containing the reliquary of St Thérèse might be destroyed by the fire. Then the direction of the wind suddenly changes.  The chapel is spared.  Some people attribute the saving of the chapel to the intercession of St Thérèse.

D + 2,  Thursday, 8 June 1944

At daybreak, the fires of the night before are still burning. Most of the town has been evacuated, and few people are left to fight the fires.  Priests and seminarians from the 'Mission de France' manage to extinguish the fires that threatened the Carmel.  They rescue both the documents in the Carmel’s archive and the reliquary of St Thérèse, and transport them to the Basilica.

Many civilians from Lisieux and its surroundings seek shelter in the Basilica.

The weekend of Saturday 10 June and Sunday 11 June 1944

During the nights of June 10 and June 11, the Allies bomb Lisieux again.  The Carmelite monastery and garden are slightly damaged.  Three or four Masses are offered in the Basilica every morning all summer, with rosary and Benediction in the evening.  In their corner of the crypt, the Carmelites continue to recite the Divine Office.

D + 7, Tuesday, 13 June 1944

A message reaches Mother Agnes from Emmanuel Cardinal Suhard, archbishop of Paris, stating that on May 3, 1944, Pope Pius XII had declared St. Therese secondary patron of France.  (St. Joan of Arc is the other secondary patron.  The principal patron of France is the Blessed Virgin).  To their evening prayer the nuns add the invocation (in Latin):  “St. Therese, patron of France, pray for us.” 

June and July 1944

The Allies continue to bomb Lisieux and its environs.  More civilians seek shelter in the Basilica.

Tuesday, 11 July 1944

By July 11, about three-quarters of the buildings in Lisieux had been destroyed.  The priests and nuns in the crypt of the Basilica organize a novena to ask for the intercession of St Thérèse.

Wednesday, 12 July 1944

The first day of the novena to St Thérèse. 

Sunday, July 16, 1944

In the crypt, Mother Agnes receives the vows of a young Carmelite nun.

On various days when the military situation permitted it, Mother Agnes visits the Carmel several times to inspect it. She and Sister Genevieve also visit the town cemetery to pray before the tombs of their parents, other members of the family, and other Carmelites.  They pray near the spot where Therese’s body had been buried before its return to Carmel in 1923.

 

color photo of Basilica of St. Therese taken from some distance

Mgr Germain, Director of Pilgrimages, invites the saint’s sisters to climb up to the cupola of the Basilica to see what remains of the town.  Mother Agnes, at 82, surprises everyone by climbing fastest of all.  

Thursday, 20 July 1944

The Basilica is crowded with refugees, including those from nearby villages.  Many had already seen their homes and churches destroyed.  The clergy make a vow that, if they are delivered, each year they will bring the relics of St. Therese in procession from St. Pierre’s Cathedral to the Basilica.  Since the end of the war, this procession has taken place every year on the feast of St. Therese.

   Sunday, 6 August 1944

A “perpetual rosary” begins in the crypt of the Basilica.  It continues until August 27.  At every moment at least three persons were praying this rosary,.

Monday, 7 August - Tuesday, 15 August 1944

In early August 1944 the 'Secours National' (National Relief) offers to transport the Carmelite nuns by truck to Paris.  There was talk of a forced evacuation of Lisieux.  Reluctant to leave the townspeople, the Carmelites organize a novena of adoration to help them decide.  Mother Agnes invites them to pray fervently for light. She gives permission to any Sisters who might want to leave, but they all decide to stay and wait for the outcome of the battle for Lisieux.  To prepare for the Feast of the Assumption on August 15, a second general novena is organized in the crypt to pray for the deliverance of Lisieux, the end of the war, and the coming of peace.

Wednesday, 16 August 1944

In Rome, the Pope requests that the religious buildings of Lisieux be respected. The German 'Kommandatur' asks the civil authorities for precise details about the buildings. For some unknown reason, the 'Kommandatur' suddenly leaves, never to return! 

Saturday, 19th August 1944

The battle for Lisieux begins in earnest. Artillery fire is aimed at Lisieux. One artillery shell hits the wall of the Carmelite cloister.  The doors and windows of the monastery are blown in, and the roof is blown off the wash house.

Monday, 21 August 1944 - Wednesday, 23 August 1944

The battle for Lisieux.

On the night of  August 21-22, about 200 German soldiers arrive at the Basilica asking for a place of peace for a few hours so they can sleep. The crypt is crowded with civilian refugees, and the Germans are directed to the upper part of the Basilica.

Tuesday, 22 August 1944 (evening)

The first Allied tanks arrive. They meet strong and determined resistance from German machine guns positioned in the town square.  The two sides exchange fire. Some German artillery shells fall in the yard which gives access to the crypt. The religious community and the civilans fear that the Basilica may be destroyed in the fighting. Nevertheless, they continue to pray for deliverance and for the intercession of St Thérèse.  One of the Carmelites, Sister Anne of Jesus, writes, on September 8, 1944, this description:  “The final battle lasted for 48 hours, and we were between the two fires.  I cannot tell you what an uproar it was.  It was sinister.  Finally on August 25 the last Germans left, and we were able to breathe a little easier . . . .”

Wednesday, 23 August 1944 (evening)

One way or another, the end is in sight with the arrival of British troops. They ask to set up an observation post from the lantern inside the dome of the cathedral and also to install a machine gun. However, this position is abandoned within a few hours as the Germans have departed.

After 48 hours of fierce fighting Lisieux had finally been delivered! Liberation at last and the Basilica has remained largely unharmed.

According to the Basilica archives, the saving of the Basilica from further damage is attributed to Major George Warren of the 1/6 Battalion, Queen's Royal Regiment:

"The Basilica, it was to be knocked down! We were given the order to destroy it because we were told it was protecting Germans. It was already aimed at when we were guaranteed that there were no soldiers. Not wanting to foolishly destroy such a monument we asked on numerous occasions to check if there were no troops hiding here. There was a counter-order but you were very lucky!”

Sunday, 27th August 1944

 At the Basilica there is a religious ceremony of thanksgiving. Afterwards, Mother Agnes and the Carmelite nuns, carrying the coral trunk with the relics of St. Therese, return in procession across the ruins of the liberated city to their monastery.  They are accmpanied by a crowd of the lay persons with whom they had lived for eighty days and eighty nights. The relics of St. Therese are restored to the chapel.   

All the Carmelites of Lisieux survive the battle.  Their monastery is slightly damaged, but not destroyed.  Les Buissonnets, St. Therese’s family home, remains intact.

The Carmelite nuns return to their usual monastic way of prayer and silence. With the ending of the Battle of Normandy and the liberation of France, many more people from the surrounding countryside come to Lisieux to give thanks for their deliverance.

[Note: Part of this article is drawn from information in Joseph Ritson's "The Deliverance of Lisieux in August 1944." Sources included the Tourist Information Office at Lisieux; the Pilgrimage Office at Lisieux; and the Carmelite Monastery at Lisieux.  Information for this 70th anniversary article was also drawn from documentation furnished by the Carmelite Monastery of Philadelphia; from Celine: Sister and Witness of St. Therese of the Child Jesus by Stephane-Joseph Piat, O.F.M. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1997); and from the sites listed as references to this blog entry.  Our sincere thanks to all those who furnished information].

"Residents of Lisieux View as 'Miracle' Sparing of Carmelite Convent and Basilica of 'The Little Flower' - September 30, 1944 - two Canadian war correspondents interviewed Carmelites at Lisieux

 Lisieux basilica.jpg

"Lisieux basilica". Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Immediately after the liberation of Lisieux on August 24, 1944, two Canadian newspapermen interviewed the Carmelites and other townspeople and cabled the story to Canada.  See substantial excerpts from both stories about the "miracle of Lisieux" in the Southern Cross, September 30, 1944.

 "[On the night of June 8, 1944] [f]lames roared and crackled over blocks of the town, creeping nearer and nearer to the convent.  At the edge of the convent, perilously close to St. Therese's own chapel, the fire mysteriously slackened, then died out completely.  The townsfolk observed this, and today they are convinced that St. Therese herself intervened .  . . .

Devout brown-clad nuns of the Carmelite Order, to which Saint Therese belonged, today told me they believed the Saint had also intervened to spare the Basilica which bears her name. . . . I talked to Sister Anne of Jesus, aged 65 . . . to my surprise, I discovered the stooped, pale little nun was a Canadian, formerly Anne Goyer of Montreal . . . .

Tomorrow, a silent brown-garbed procession will walk quietly through the ruins of Lisieux, and the Carmelite nuns will once more step into silence and invisibility, which most will never leave again.

               Richard Sanburn, writing from Lisieux for the Ottawa Citizen

I found the nuns eating a simple meal on benches in one of the little side chapels, the chapel of the Virgin of the Smile.  In this and other side chapels of the crypt they have slept while men, women, and children have also been living and sleeping in close proximity, very different from the seclusion these women have known for years.  There were mattresses even on the flagged floor on each side of the altar.

                              Frederick Griffin, writing from Lisieux for the Toronto Star