Blog: An Angel in the Trenches, A Bestseller in the Shops – Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, Commercial Religion and the First World War

When Thérèse Martin died at the Carmelite convent at Lisieux in 1897 aged 24, she left behind an autobiography and three sisters, all nuns of the same community. Marie, Pauline and Céline Martin were convinced of their little sister’s sanctity and determined to promote her as a saint, and the readably romantic autobiography, published as Histoire d’une âme (‘Story of a Soul’), became the major promotional weapon in their arsenal. But it was only one of many publications they would produce over six decades of work on Thérèse’s devotional cult (the rise of this cult was examined in my PhD thesis for the University of Liverpool). The First World War saw some of the richest (and kitschest) pieces of material devotional culture produced by the Carmel of Lisieux, where Céline in particular, as an amateur artist and overseer of all the iconography produced by the convent for the growing cult, worked tirelessly to portray her sister in the trenches themselves as her rapidly increasing fame resulted in accounts of miracles on the battlefield. The timing of the war was crucial in this saint’s rise to fame, and less than seven years after the armistice Thérèse was canonised and became Saint Thérèse of Lisieux –  ‘the greatest saint of modern times’, according to Pope Pius X. Here I look at Thérèse’s wartime promotion by the Carmel of Lisieux through material goods, underscoring the importance of the commercial in popular Catholic devotion in this time and place.

Consoler, Protector, Saviour  Thérèse’s Wartime Roles
While I’m less interested in social or psychological explanations for Thérèse’s popularity than how that popularity was encouraged by the work of the Carmel, it is worth briefly considering what function Thérèse may have played for soldiers on both sides of the conflict (indeed, the Carmel produced books and other printed material in German too).¹ Annette Becker puts Thérèse’s wartime appeal down to her offering ‘protection and consolation’, ‘the certainty of miracles’ and ‘belief in the reversibility of suffering’ – from her ‘death at twenty-four came the lesson that the greatest sorrow gives birth to the highest bliss.’² Antoinette Guise-Castelnuovo agrees that ‘Thérèse is not only a figure of compassion… she could equally be praised for her conceptions of death and the afterlife, and her promise, spread abundantly, to ‘spend my heaven doing good on earth’… The popularity of tales of graces, but also of apparitions and supernatural phenomena, in a context of omnipresent violent death, reveal an uncontrollable need to put a positive face on the shattering of the natural order’.³ Looking at Thérèse’s case in the context of the history of devotional culture, Jay Winter has seen her growing popularity during the war as part of a wider explosion in enthusiasm for religious devotions, both traditional and new, showing that vivid religious images and material devotionalia were common currency:

The popular art of all combatants included images of saints or Jesus on the field of battle, and a brisk business in religious bric-a-brac grew during the conflict… In 1917 the cult of Fatima was born, after a sighting of the Virgin Mary in Portugal. Such veneration of the Virgin was a feature of popular piety in the period surrounding the war, and soldiers shared in its imagery, and its fervour. Some ‘adopted’ St Thérèse of Lisieux, ‘the little sister of Jesus’ as their protector; others returned to Joan of Arc… Religious almanacs provided dozens of tales of miracles on the battlefield. The almanac of the French society of the ‘Trois Ave Marias’ is but one example. In 1917 it reported one German soldier’s belief that the German army had Paris at its mercy in 1914, until the Virgin blocked their way.⁴

Thérèse’s story was part of a larger trend, but the Carmel of Lisieux made unusually good use of the opportunity the war offered them, producing a host of books, images and ‘religious bric-a-brac’ aimed at the war market, participating in the conservative Catholic interpretation of the war as punishment for the militantly secularising Third Republic in the process,⁵ and writing a unique chapter in the history of European popular religion.

Books, Bracelets and Bombs – The Carmel’s Commercial Project
The Carmel had already established a substantial body of work in terms of images of and books on Thérèse by the eve of the First World War and they quickly moved to promote this work further, eventually founding the Office Central de Lisieux, a commercial arm to the convent, in early 1917. For the Carmel, capitalising fully on the missionary potential of the war meant fully embracing the commercial capital of their fledgling saint. While in 1913 the items sold by the convent bearing images of Thérèse included calendars, postcards, souvenir albums, exercise books, writing paper and blotters, by the end of the war they were offering a far greater choice of these paper-based items plus lockets, charms, badges, brooches, scarf pins, necklaces and bracelets – the war had seen an explosion of devotional materialism.⁶

Of the Carmel’s myriad éditions de propagande illustrée (heavily illustrated, cheap paperbacks, aimed at the promotion of the cult), Sœur Thérèse de l’Enfant-Jésus, sa vie; depuis sa mort was particularly important for the spread of Thérèse’s fame during the First World War. First published in 1913, the book’s 1916 edition showed how aware the Carmel was that the war was a time when the cult might make headway, adding to this edition a picture of soldiers making a military pilgrimage to Thérèse’s grave in Lisieux (complete with Thérèse’s statement melding faith and patriotism: ‘J’aime la France, ma Patrie. Je veux lui conserver la Foi’), a crudely-drawn image of medals sent to the Carmel as ex-votos and eleven pages of extracts from letters thanking Thérèse for her miraculous interventions in the trenches. Finally, an article from the French Catholic daily La Croix titled ‘Du Carmel aux tranchées’, commenting on the growing devotion to Thérèse at the Front, was included, a clever contribution to the book’s attempt to present Thérèse as the soldier’s saint.⁷ The back cover image, by one of the many professional artists who worked under Céline’s direction, showed Thérèse showering roses on a battlefield (below), echoing her deathbed promise to ‘let fall a shower of roses’ from heaven. The image created a powerful association between Thérèse and salvation from the perils of war (the burning cathedral and broken calvary also added an anti-Republican piquancy), also the function of the 1915 depiction of Thérèse ministering to a dying soldier (see above). The popular impact of this book is made clear by the copy on display at the exhibition about Thérèse that can be seen at the Carmel of Lisieux today – reflecting a classic trope of the war, it bears a bullet hole and was sent to the Carmel by a soldier who said it had saved his life.

‘Pluie de roses’ – The Miracle Account as Devotional Product
The Carmel directly solicited miracle accounts from the faithful from the very beginning of the war, with the July 1914 commercial catalogue  produced by the convent’s publishers calling for news of such supernatural events.⁸ The huge number of letters the Carmel began to receive from devotees who claimed they had been the beneficiaries of Thérèse’s miraculous interventions subsequently became the foundation of dedicated volumes of miracle accounts. Stories like this were characteristic of these publications:

I had left the Church after my first communion. Still, when I departed for the front, I accepted a relic and an image of the Little Sister, and each time I found myself in danger in battle, I instinctively called on her for help, noticing that every time she was protecting me … It was at a very hard moment, for the guns were roaring at each other full blast. I was thinking with great sorrow of my little family and I said to Sister Thérèse: ‘My sister Thérèse, bring me back, I beg you, to my wife and my children, and I promise you I’ll go to your tomb . . .’ Scarcely had I uttered this prayer than I saw a cloud open above me and the face of the saint stood out against the blue sky. I thought I was the victim of an hallucination. I rubbed my eyes over and over, but I could not doubt what I saw, for her face got clearer and more resplendent as I gazed … Since that time, I have no longer felt alone. I also felt the strongest hope of seeing my family again and I kept alive the unshakable resolution of returning to the God of my childhood.⁹

When illustrated by images produced under Céline’s direction, often showing Thérèse peering out of a frame of billowing clouds, the stories had great immediacy (the depiction of the story above, as later published in Quelques miracles et interventions de Sainte Thérèse de l’Enfant-Jésus (1928), is below).

Already a volume of miracle accounts had appeared in 1910, and it was to become the first of seven volumes of such stories, all titled Pluie de roses.¹⁰ Thérèse’s rehabilitationist biographer of the 1940s, Ida Friederike Görres, remarked that this series was made up of ‘badly printed volumes, cheap in their format, virtual museum-pieces of tasteless book-making’,¹¹ but they sold nearly four hundred thousand copies by 1932.¹² The covers of the Pluie de roses books cast Thérèse strongly in the role of thaumaturge, the showering of roses being promoted as a universal symbol of her favours.¹³ The cover of the fourth edition, published in June 1914, the month of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was eerily prophetic, showing a mass of lambs caught in a thicket of brambles. No doubt originally intended to show the saving of imperilled souls in general, the relevance of the image to the slaughter in the trenches became clear as the war began.

The fifth volume of Pluie de roses capitalised on the war more fully, carrying the subtitle ‘Conversions, Guérisons. Interventions de Sr Thérèse de l’Enfant-Jésus pendant la Guerre’ and showing rows of medals on the cover. However, the highlights of the wartime miracles had already appeared in Quelques extraits des nombreuses lettres reçues au carmel de Lisieux pendant la guerre (1916), which was the ultimate Theresian product for the soldier. It bore a version of the image of Thérèse on the battlefield on the front, and ran to only thirty-two pages. The inclusion of a very short biography of Thérèse on the back cover allowed the saint to be learned about without even having to open the book as it was passed from hand to hand. Little more than a pamphlet, and costing only 15 centimes to Pluie de roses’ 2 francs 50 centimes, it was cheap, cheerful and a powerful promotional tool. To encourage further investment in the cult by interested readers, four pages of merchandise was listed in the back, including medals bearing Thérèse’s image, available in five different metals and four different sizes – starting at just 10 centimes each, this was the ideal devotional item for the soldier’s pocket in more ways than one. The promotion of Thérèse’s image in a number of formats in this way saw its proliferation, and she became a familiar face to those at the Front.

The Image and the Miracle
The ultimate success of the Carmel’s iconography can be seen in the fact that it influenced the miracles as they were experienced –  Thérèse was appearing to people in the form of Céline’s most famous image of her sister, 1912’s ‘ Thérèse aux roses’:

In 1924 the Bishop of Bayeux and Lisieux stated in reference to ‘Thérèse aux roses’ that ‘Saint Thérèse de l’Enfant-Jésus appears to understand herself in this way and uses it to her credit, since, most often… she appears under this form to her favoured people.’ Thérèse was appearing in visions with the false ‘celestial, smiling beauty’ of ‘Thérèse aux roses’,¹⁴ and sometimes with the crucifix and roses Céline had invented as a symbol for her. This was a wholly fanciful conception, but the image had gained such popular power that it didn’t need to be legitimised and was in fact legitimising the visions themselves. In this case ‘The image authenticates the vision more than it is authenticated by it, because consensus is based on the image, and it is from the image that a collective imagination springs, which is simply confirmed afterwards by the imagination of the visionary or the dreamer.’¹⁵ Indeed, this is confirmed by the descriptions of the saint in the First World War miracle testimonies – ‘Thérèse aux roses’ had already become a true icon, ‘telling the faithful under what form [they] will see the saint appear, and the saint what face [she] must assume and what clothes [she] must wear in order to be recognized.’¹⁶ Tellingly, in some of the Carmel’s visual representations of the miracle accounts, images of Thérèse were depicted in the hands of the favoured, implying that possessing such items might lead to the future saint’s intervention, as in the plate below from Histoire de l’avion sœur Thérèse, 1917-1918 (1919) – a priest mobilised as a pilot in the war miraculously survives a crash and is shown emerging from the wreckage holding an image of Therese aloft. In a circular process, the taking up of the Carmel’s commercial offer, and the further circulation of the image, was thus encouraged, making further ‘appearances’ by Thérèse all the more likely.

Thomas Nevin has stated that ‘What counts in the military context is that ‘Thérèse aux roses’ became a well-marketed icon which furthered not only Histoire d’une âme but itself as an incalculable, supra-national cultic force… Cultism allowed [Thérèse] to transcend all cultural boundaries…Thérèse…is not occupied with nor by anyone. She is poised to dispense flowers to everyone’.¹⁷ Indeed, the wartime images of Thérèse took her out of the biographical context in which she had been pictured by the convent thus far, instead emphasising her mobility and potency as an intercessor after her death, and their circulation through the huge range of products offered by the Carmel, as they actively and enthusiastically engaged in commercial religion, meant that ultimately ‘No other woman in any modern war has carried so powerfully talismanic an image’.¹⁸

‘Thérèse dans la tourmente de la guerre 14-18’, an exhibition on Saint Thérèse and the First World War, is at Église Saint-Jacques, Lisieux, until 11 November. 

¹ On this see Antoinette Guise-Castelnuovo, ‘Entre catholicisme et patriotisme: Thérèse de Lisieux, patronne des Poilus ou thaumaturge universelle?’, in Xavier Boniface and Bruno Béthouart (eds.) Les Chrétiens, la guerre et la paix. De la paix de Dieu à l’esprit d’Assise (Rennes, 2012), pp. 37-52.

² Annette Becker, War and Faith: The Religious Imagination in France, 1914-1930 (Oxford, 1998), p. 79.

³ Guise-Castelnuovo, ‘Entre catholicisme et patriotisme’.

⁴ Jay Winter, Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History (Cambridge, 1995), pp.65-67.

⁵ On this see Raymond Jonas, The Tragic Tale of Claire Ferchaud and the Great War (Berkeley, 2005).

⁶ See August 1913 commercial flyer, S24B, env. 1, Archives du Carmel de Lisieux; July 1917 commercial catalogue, S24B, env. 2a, Archives du Carmel de Lisieux.

⁷ François Veuillot, ‘Du Carmel aux tranchées’, La Croix, 27 September 1916, p. 1.

⁸ See July 1914 commercial catalogue, S24B, env. 1, Archives du Carmel de Lisieux.

⁹ Quoted in Becker, War and Faith, pp. 84-85.

¹⁰ Vol. II (1912), III (1913), IV (1914), V (1920), VI (1923), VII (1926). There were also several books of extracts from these volumes, including: Carmel of Lisieux, Pluie de Roses, extraits des tomes I et II (Bar-le-Duc, 1912); Pluie de Roses, extraits du tome VI (Bar-le-Duc, 1923).

¹¹ Ida Friederike Görres, The Hidden Face: A Study of St. Thérèse of Lisieux (San Francisco, 2003) 8th edition [original English publication 1959], trans. Richard and Clara Winston, pp. 10-11.

¹² See chiffres de publications, Archives du Carmel de Lisieux.

¹³ On this see Antoinette Guise, ‘Les miracles de Sœur Thérèse de l’Enfant-Jésus entre 1898 et 1926. Genèse d’un culte’, unpublished MA thesis, École Pratique des Hautes Études, Sorbonne, Paris, 2000, pp. 36-8; ‘Thérèse de Lisieux et ses miracles. Recompositions du surnaturel (1898-1928)’, unpublished PhD thesis, École Pratique des Hautes Études, Sorbonne, Paris, 2006, pp. 98-100.

¹⁴ Carmel de Lisieux, Quelques miracles et interventions de Sainte Thérèse de l’Enfant-Jésus (Paris, 1928), p. 186.

¹⁵ Gilbert Dagron, ‘Holy Images and Likeness’, Dumbarton Oaks Papers, vol. 45, (1991), pp. 23-33, p. 31.

¹⁶ Dagron, ‘Holy Images and Likeness’, p. 33.

¹⁷ Tom Nevin, ‘“Je veux lutter comme un guerrier vaillant”, Thérèse of Lisieux in the Trenches of the Great War’, in Françoise Le Jeune (ed.), Paroles de Femmes dans la Guerre (1914-1918) (Nantes, 2005), pp. 141-51, pp. 145-46.

¹⁸ Nevin,  ‘“Je veux lutter comme un guerrier vaillant”’, p. 151.

All images: Archives du Carmel de Lisieux.