NEWS FEATURE: New Documentary Captures Popularity of St. Therese of Liseux

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c. 2000 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) Last year, the 126-year-old bones of a 19th century French nun caused such a stir among U.S. Catholics that crowds blocked New York’s Fifth Avenue and police cruisers escorted the relics almost everywhere they went.

More than 1 million people in 85 U.S. cities turned out to pay homage to the relics of St. Therese of Liseux, a French Carmelite nun whose humble, accessible faith took the world by storm after she died in 1897 at the age of 24.

The flurry of attention to the simple saint and her relics is the subject of a new 55-minute documentary airing on PBS and NBC stations beginning at the end of September (check local listings.)

“Therese: Living on Love” was produced and directed by Frank Frost, a Virginia filmmaker who previously documented the life of Cardinal Joseph Bernadin, the beloved late cardinal of Chicago.

Frost, who has been making films for 25 years, said he first approached the Therese project “reluctantly” because he figured it would only appeal to a small audience. Raised Catholic, he had heard of St. Therese, but felt no special connection to her.

For Frost as with millions of other Catholics, as he got to know St. Therese her message began to resonate.

“The notion that her God was a God that she could be comfortable with and experienced total trust in was not a God I was familiar with,” Frost said.

The film follows the saint’s relics as they travel around the country to grand cathedrals and small retreat houses. Local organizers were caught off-guard by the interest in St. Therese, and many struggled to grasp her popularity.

“There’s something about Therese that does this to people,” Mother Mary Joseph, a Carmelite nun, says in the film. “I don’t think you can explain it.”

Her story is really quite unremarkable. After pleading with the pope and a local bishop, Therese was allowed to enter the local Carmelite convent at age 15 along with two of her sisters. She worked quietly for nine years, and by the time of her death from tuberculosis she was barely known outside her small village.

Therese’s autobiography, “The Diary of a Soul,” was published soon after her death and quickly became an international best-seller. Just 28 years after her death, Therese was canonized by Pope Pius XI, and in 1997 Pope John Paul II named her a Doctor of the Church, a title reserved for Catholicism’s most influential thinkers.

Beyond her rather mundane life, Therese possessed a spiritual connection to God that was both profound and simple. Millions of Catholics have looked to Therese as a model of reachable personal piety.

As her relics toured the country, Therese led Catholics on a collective inner journey toward a deeper connection with God. As Ken Woodward, religion editor at Newsweek, pointed out in the film, “It’s as if this woman’s story sunk deep in the Catholic psyche of this country, and the power simply emerged when the relics arrived.”

In many ways, learned theologians and ordinary parishioners still struggle to pinpoint just why St. Therese captured the Catholic imagination. Perhaps it was her message, perhaps it was her life, but most agree it was a mysterious spiritual connection that continues to simply speak _ quietly and powerfully _ across time.

As Auxiliary Bishop Patrick Ahern of New York observed, “She was one of us. No saint I can ever think of was ever more one of us.”

(“Therese: Living on Love” will air on PBS through Oct. 30. Most broadcasts will probably be around Oct. 1, Therese’s saint day. After Oct. 10, the film will air on NBC, and then shift back to PBS after Jan. 1.)


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