I grew up with the idea that St. Therese of Lisieux was a somewhat insipid saint.
There were images of her all over the place, and each tended to be some version of the middle section of the triptych above, a painting of St. Therese by her sister Celine, Sister Genevieve of the Holy Face.
During her long life, Celine cranked out paintings, watercolors and drawings that attempted to capture the ideal image of her younger sister. As Father Francois notes in the 1962 book The Photo Album of St. Therese of Lisieux, this was the style of religious art at the time.
In doing so, however, Celine hid Therese rather than revealed her.
Photos of a saint
Then, in 1997, during my long career as a Chicago Tribune reporter, I was out doing a story about interesting places throughout the suburbs and came across the National Shrine of St. Therese of Lisieux in Darien.
When it came time to put the story together, I wrote it in the third person, giving myself the nickname Sagittarius (stealing the idea from Norman Mailer who referred to himself as Aquarius in his 1970 book on the Apollo 11 flight, “Of a Fire on the Moon”). A writerly conceit, I admit.
The shrine, of course, is devoted mainly to St. Therese, a French nun known as the Little Flower, who died a century ago on Sept. 30, 1897, at the age of 24. Although she lived the quietest of lives, she is venerated around the world for her simplicity and holiness.
She is also, Sagittarius discovers, one of the few church-designated saints of whom photographs exist. This fascinates him. Instead of having to put up with some artist’s conception of what the holy person must have looked like — almost always heavily idealized — Sagittarius is able to see for himself. On one wall, he studies a large image of Therese, taken when she was 11, and notes the liveliness in her eyes. In another photograph, this time in the habit of a Carmelite nun, Therese has a playful half smile. A third photo — not up on the wall, but in many of the books for sale in the gift shop ¬— is of Therese, out of her nun’s habit and in the costume of Joan of Arc for a religious play she wrote for the sisters of her convent. A saint who enjoyed play-acting — Sagittarius likes that idea.
The image of Therese as Joan of Arc is the right hand side of the triptych above. She is wearing a wig and a handmade costume over her sisterly robes. For me, it was — and still is — an arresting image.
So is the photo that comprises the left side of the triptych — Therese holding a haying rake. This is from a group photo of the convent’s sisters out in their cloister’s meadow. They are not actually haying, just posing. The camera that was used to capture this and the other photos of Therese required subjects to hold still for as long as nine seconds. That’s why some of the photos, like this one, are somewhat blurry.
It is ironic that Celine who created all those idealized paintings, watercolors and drawings was also responsible for these photographs. It was her camera. She either snapped the shutter or set the camera up and focused it so that another nun could do so.
Yet, she and her sisters in the Lisieux convent — Marie (Sister Marie of the Sacred Heart) and Pauline (Reverend Mother Agnes of Jesus, the prioress for many years) — didn’t like the photos very much. They felt the images failed to capture the real-life Therese. So Celine spent decades trying to reproduce that real-life person with her paints and pencils.
Hinting at character
Pauline is both of the photos above — on the right side of the right photo, and on the left side of the left photo. She looks like a prioress. Also in the photo at left is Reverend Mother Marie de Gonzague, a complex personality who served as prioress in some of the years that Therese spent in the cloister.
Both photos show a Therese whose eyes hint at her character.
In 1893, when Therese was just 20, Mother Marie sent a photo of her to another convent and wrote on the back:
The jewel of Carmel, its dear Benjamin. She has the office of painter, in which she excels without having had any lessons other than observing our Reverend Mother [Pauline], her sister, at work. Mature and strong, with the air of a child, and with a sound of voice and manner of expression which veils the wisdom and perfection of a woman fifty years old. A soul which is always calm and in complete possession of herself at all times. A completely innocent saint, who needs no repentance to appear before God, but whose head is always full of mischief. Mystic, comic, she can make you weep with devotion, and just as easily die with laughter at recreation.
That mischief-making saint
That’s quite a description. Yet, despite the technical limitations of the camera used, the 47 photographs of Therese in The Photo Album of St. Therese of Lisieux, as well as enlargements of sections of those photos, do give glimpses of the person whom Mother Marie described — that mischief-making saint.
Consider these six:
A road to understanding?
I wonder if I am giving too much weight and attention to these photos. Yet, because of them, I’ve read a biography of Therese by Dorothy Day and a collection of religious plays that Therese wrote to be performed in the cloister. Also, I’ve ordered a copy of Therese’s autobiography, The Story of a Soul.
So maybe, for me, these photos are a road into an understanding of her spirituality.
There are a couple photos of Therese after death, one of which is particularly affecting. But I want to end this commentary with a different image — a photo of Therese washing clothes which is taken from a larger picture of almost all the nuns in the convent at the task.
Again, her eyes are lively. Her hands seem roughened by work. And she has a small smile on her face.
Not a holy card image. Not at all.
A very human image. I can almost hear her laugh.
Patrick T. Reardon