May 2019 Print


The Basilica of St. Thérèse (1873-1897, Canonized 1925)

by Dr. Marie-France Hilgar


The basilica was begun in 1929. My aunts remember seeing vast collection baskets made available to the visitors when it was under construction and Americans throwing dollars in them by the handful.

A Magnificent Exterior

The exterior: the bell tower is separate from the building at the far end of the esplanade. Here are the dimensions of the basilica: height of the dome: 312 feet from the level of the esplanade; length east-west, from the entrance to the apse: 312 feet; width of the aisle, 90 feet; width of the transept 164 feet high under the dome; the total area of 48,438 square feet make the Basilica of Lisieux one of the biggest churches built in the 20th century. The grand façade is flanked by two towers and surmounted by a triangular pediment. In the center, St. Thérèse, hands clasped in prayer, looks upon the pilgrims who have come to pray. The pediment divided into two levels, expresses the great triumph of St. Thérèse: on the upper level, the angels who welcomed her into Heaven; the lower level depicts the people who contributed to the glorification on earth of Thérèse; from left to right, the builder of the basilica and a group of pilgrims including children. The words inscribed horizontally give us the sentence: “O my God, you have surpassed all my expectations, and I will sing your mercies forever more,” the antiphon of the Magnificat: “Blessed be the Lord for He has so glorified thy name today that your praise will always be on the lips of men.” Lower down, the virtues are shown: faith, hope and charity between, on the left, justice and prudence and on the right fortitude and temperance.

Between the arch and the gallery, the text gives the essential idea which runs through all the iconography: “Whoever exalteth himself shall be humbled, and whoever humbleth himself shall be exalted.” Around the arch, the months of the year, using familiar scenes, teach us that these lessons are valid in all circumstances. Immediately after the great west door is shown the classic scene from the Gospel: Jesus amid His apostles showing them the child as an example that everyone must follow if he wishes to enter the kingdom of Heaven. On each side of the main door, imposing statues of the Blessed Virgin and St. Joseph, protectors of the Carmelite Order. The bas-reliefs show, on the left tower, St. Agnes; on the right, St. Cecilia; under the arch, on the left, the Annunciation; on the right, the Presentation of Jesus in the temple. On the side walls, we note the coat of arms of the nations in which the devotion to St. Thérèse has been the greatest. At the summit of the transept we find the Ark of Noah and St. Peter’s boat. In the south courtyard is the main sacristy. On each side of the façade, a cloister runs along the top of the supporting walls. The south cloisters, on the right, are a place for meditation for those who wish to pray in silence. In the north cloister, to the left is a souvenir shop.

Inside this huge edifice, no part of the architecture, no columns obstruct the view: the sanctuary is elevated, 4,000 people can take part in the ceremonies. If we start with the right aisle, we see in the southern transept the monumental ciborium which holds the precious reliquary offered by Pius XI to the basilica. It contains a precious relic: two bones from the right arm of the saint. In the center of the balustrade there is a small relic that pilgrims particularly like to venerate. Following the aisle, one comes upon the sanctuary. The Blessed Sacrament is kept in the tabernacle on the high altar. On the tabernacle is a crucifix in bronze. An altar has been added between the stalls. The basilica holds 18 minor altars, each offered by a nation in ex-voto to St. Thérèse and dedicated to its respective patron. The names of the chapels are: United States, Portugal, Columbia, Argentina, Great Britain, Brazil, Scotland, Chile, Germany, Ukraine, Cuba, Italy, Ireland, Spain, Canada, Mexico, Belgium-Netherlands, and Poland.

The Basilica’s Mosaics

Mosaics are ever-present in the basilica. At the top of the triumphal arch, God the Father stretches out His arms in a gesture of creation and providence. On each side are the Biblical scenes that relate the numerous divine acts of God’s mercy toward those who placed their hope in Him: in ascending order on the north wall, the archangel Raphael leads Tobias, the angel of God, comforting Agar and her son Ismael in the desert, Abraham’s sacrifice, Jesse’s tree. On the south wall: Daniel in the lion’s den, Elias comforted by the angel, Moses and his people led by the angel of God toward the promised land. In the half dome that rises above the sanctuary, the theme of God’s mercy is repeated; In the center, Christ is wearing a wide cloak held open by the Virgin Mary, standing, and St. Thérèse, kneeling. Christ is calling His followers, represented by the sheep, to shelter under His protection. Encompassing this scene, two architectural motifs make up the composition of divine love: Bethlehem over which there shines a star, and Jerusalem presenting the Cross.

We can ascend the dome by steps found on the right of the main door. The four pillars are in commemoration of the Evangelists. On the roof surface is shown the triumph that the heavenly Father reserves for those who have shown themselves to be His children within the Blessed Trinity, the eternal source of love. Christ as King and Mary as Queen of all Saints welcome and crown little Thérèse while the choir of angels surround her with an enormous crown of roses. Below the windows each of the Beatitudes is recalled in a text from the Gospels and the image of a saint whose life illustrated this teaching. Starting with the picture that is in the center of the aisles toward the choir, and following on the right: The beatitude of the poor in spirit: theirs is the kingdom of Heaven. It is illustrated by St. Francis of Assisi, talking to the birds and surrounded by the sheep and the wolf. The beatitude of the merciful: they will obtain mercy: St. Vincent de Paul is seen freeing the galley slaves, then with a nun belonging to the order of St. Vincent de Paul [The Sisters of Charity] looking after some orphans.

The beatitude of those who suffer persecution in the name of justice: theirs is the kingdom of Heaven. It is personified by Joan of Arc at the stake. A priest holds out the Cross to her. In the background is shown the old market square of Rouen. The beatitude of those who weep: they shall be comforted: St. Mary Magdalen is seen before Christ’s tomb. The beatitude of those who hunger and thirst for justice: St. Teresa of Avila symbolically presenting the rules of the Carmelite Order that she revised, calms the angel of destruction who already has his sword raised over the world. In the background is shown St. John of the Cross. The beatitude of those who are meek: they shall inherit the earth. St. Francis de Sales in the mountains of the Chablais, behind him, St. Jane de Chantal. The beatitude of the peacemakers: they will be called children of God: St. Pius X is shown with on either side the horrors of war and the superior results of peace. The beatitude of the pure of heart: they shall see God. St. Cecilia receives a crown of roses from her husband Valerian; behind them one can see the executioner. Each of the eight scenes is 20 feet wide by 14.27 feet high. An elegant colonnade borders the round gallery. Right up to her celestial triumph, St. Thérèse demonstrates her loving generosity. She is never idle. She has only one idea in mind: To return to earth again to spread the word of love. This is the reason for the inscription of her celebrated promise on the tympanum of the dome: I wish to spend my time in Heaven doing good on earth. Her promise that she will cause a shower of roses to fall from Heaven in transformed in images. On the pendentive is found her other promise: I will redescend (angel of goodness), I will help priests (angel of vocations), the Missionaries (angel of missions), the whole church (angel of the church). Above the west gallery, the middle panel shows St. Thérèse surrounded by four popes who contributed to her glorification: the panel on the left shows the French provinces, recalling the fact that St. Thérèse was proclaimed the second Patroness of France; the panel on the right reminds us that St. Thérèse is the Patroness of Missions.

The fatherly attitude of God should inspire one’s soul to respond as did St. Thérèse by praising and singing His mercies. This is the theme inscribed on the great windows in the lateral bays which give, using the text that is richly illustrated and varied in its composition, the verses from the Psalm Benedicite, the Psalm of joy and praise. The soul should above all respond to the gift of God by the giving of oneself in return. This is illustrated in the great stained-glass window in the southern transept. An effort has been made here to translate the most significant page from the book The Story of a Soul: To be your spouse, O Jesus! To be a Carmelite...but I feel the desire for other vocations: warrior, priest, apostle, vocation is love...thus I will be everything.” The main theme in the center shows St. Thérèse kneeling at the foot of the Cross, receiving the shining light of Christ’s love and transmitting it to other souls, thus resembling the fountain of life. In this way, she carried out all the vocations she wished to follow and so, there above from left to right, the virgins (Cecilia and Teresa of Avila), the warriors (St. Louis and Joan of Arc), the priests (St. Vincent de Paul and St. Jean Marie Vianney), the doctors (St. John of the Cross and Francis de Sales), the martyrs and missionaries (St. Stephen and St. Agnes, St. Francis Xavier and Theophane Vénard). Alongside this central scene have been accentuated the fundamental vocations of the saint: on the left, her desire to be a missionary (the scene from the Gospel showing the sending of the disciples), on the right, her desire for martyrdom (the massacre of the Innocents). You will have no difficulty noticing that the choice of people and scenes followed the known preferences of the saint. The great stained-glass in the northern transept contributes a new and important development to the main theme of God’s paternal Providence toward man, using the Psalm 23, The Lord is my shepherd, which is known to have played a significant role in St. Thérèse’s life. The chapel windows are devoted to the Stations of the Cross.

Inside the Crypt

The entrance to the crypt is on the right at the bottom of the basilica steps. One hundred sixty-four feet long and ninety-eight feet wide, the crypt is entirely covered in marble and mosaics. All the iconography is directed towards expressing God’s love for man and the love of men for God. The scriptural texts on the vault and on the floor, repeat this message repeatedly. The main altar is dedicated to St. Thérèse. The statue of the saint shows her eyes and arms raised toward the assurance of God’s fatherly love. She seems to be rushing, with her arms outstretched like a child who runs trustingly into her father’s arms, toward the divine Person who is beckoning to her. On the right of the main altar, the altar of the Virgin Mary is seen the bronze statue of the Virgin of the Smile, who was so dear to St. Thérèse.

On the left, in the opposite aisle, stands the altar of the Child Jesus, overlooked by an exact copy of the statue of the Child Jesus to be found in the Carmel that the Saint used to decorate with flowers. Twelve small altars are further dedicated to St. Joseph, St. Joan of Arc, St. John the Evangelist, St. Paul, St. Francis de Sales, St. Teresa of Avila, the Blessed Théophane Vénard, St. John of the Cross, St. Agnes, St. Cecilia, St. Augustine and St. Mary Magdalene. In 1958, the decoration of the crypt was finished with the laying of the five large mosaics in the tympanum. On the north side, above the porch, St. Thérèse’s baptism; above the sacristy door: the miracle of the Virgin of the Smile. On the south side, above the porch, the First Communion, the Chapel of the Infant Jesus, St. Thérèse’s religious profession, St. Thérèse’s death.

On leaving the crypt, pilgrims may want to visit the permanent exhibition, “The Carmel as St. Thérèse knew it,” under the north cloisters on the left. The film, Vrai visage de Thérèse de Lisieux, is shown in the hall leading of the square, under the cloister on the south side of the basilica. Then, immediately at the back of the basilica are the Stations of the Cross. An altar, dominated by a huge Cross, overlooks the scene.

The Town of Lisieux

Lisieux is a town of 27,000 inhabitants, according to the 2007 census. We recommend that you visit Les Buissonnets, where St. Thérèse lived as a child. It is still furnished as it was at the time. The remarkable unity in the structure of the Cathedral of Saint-Pierre (12th-13th centuries) makes of this church one of the most beautiful examples of the Gothic Norman ogival style. St. Thérèse attended Mass there daily with her family. In the northern ambulatory, near the main entrance, is the chapel where St. Thérèse made her first confession. The church of St. Jacques, in the Flamboyant style, was almost destroyed by bombs in 1944. Since then, it has been restored by the Department of Historical Buildings. When one enters the church, on the left, in the first chapel, is the baptistry.

This is where St. Thérèse was baptized on the 4th of January 1873. The baptismal font is made of marble, the altar surmounted by a statue of the saint. A stained-glass window represents the ceremony. One can see some relics: bones of the saint and half of her baptismal robe. The main nave, remarkable for the architecture of its triforium and its vault, lacks the complement of its stained-glass windows which are in store and have not yet been put back in their original place by the Beaux Arts. The magnificent organ case hides part of the big stained-glass window belonging to the same period as the other missing windows. This is the church where St. Thérèse’s parents were married. Another place of interest is the Lace School, guardian of the famous traditional “point d’Alençon,” with its museum of lace.