Looking through my collection of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux ephemera recently (yes, I’ve got loads of the stuff), I found a postcard that I’d never noticed before. Some 88 years ago it was sent from the town of Yerville, Haute-Normandie, to a Madame Gaston Louis of Mesnil-Saint-Laurent, a village in Picardie. Both sender and recipient had been at the celebrations in Lisieux for the saint’s first ever feast day on 1st October 1925, five months after her canonisation in Rome. The postcard gives a personal view of the first official devotions to this Carmelite nun, dead at 24, who went on to be known across the world as Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, Patroness of the Missions, Patroness of France and Doctor of the Church.
The postcard was printed by the Office Central de Lisieux, the business arm of the Carmelite convent in Lisieux where Thérèse had lived. It was from the Carmel of Lisieux that Thérèse’s three biological sisters – fellow Carmelites in the same religious community – promoted her cult for the six decades after her death, and the postcard is itself an artefact of the commercial cult they created. It carries one of Thérèse’s most famous sayings, which is highly likely to have been a posthumous invention by the sisters – ‘Je veux passer mon ciel à faire du bien sur la terre’ (‘I will spend my Heaven in doing good on earth’) – and the portrait it bears was drawn by the saint’s sister, Céline (Sœur Geneviève de la Sainte-Face), who dedicated her life to Thérèse’s cause (my PhD thesis told the story of Céline, the Carmel of Lisieux and Thérèse’s rise to fame). Thanks to Céline’s efforts, today the town the sender wrote so enthusiastically about nearly ninety years ago is one of the largest pilgrimage sites in France, second only to Lourdes, and the Fêtes thérésiennes are still marked with great pomp in Lisieux at the beginning of October each year.