Belfast Telegraph

Mum suffering from deadly infection and a shell-shocked soldier believed the saint known as the Little Flower cured them

Authors Colm Keane and Una O'Hagan, in their new book, describe the life, miracles and popularity of one of Northern Ireland's favourite saints, Thérèse of Lisieux

St Thérèse of Lisieux was born in Alençon, Normandy, on January 2, 1873. The first four years were the happiest of her life. Thérèse Martin had a sunny disposition from the day she was born. As she grew up, with her blonde hair, blue eyes, chubby face and affectionate demeanour, she charmed everyone who met her. She was the undoubted pet of the family. Her father called her his "little queen". "She is a child who delights us all," her mother said.

She grew up to be a stubborn child. One day, her mother tested how headstrong she was. Smiling, she said to her: "If you will kiss the ground I will give you a halfpenny."

Thérèse later said: "In those days a halfpenny was a fortune, and in order to gain it I had not far to stoop, but my pride was up in arms, and holding myself very erect, I said, 'No, thank you, I would rather go without it'."

She was also outspoken and direct. On one occasion, when Thérèse was four, she attended a Holy Hour and exclaimed: "It's lovelier than usual, but it's very long all the same." Later in life, she would candidly admit to falling asleep while praying and found it hard to concentrate during meditation. She even admitted: "I have not the courage to look through books for beautiful prayers. I only get a headache because of their number."

As a child, Thérèse adored flowers. She particularly liked the simple wild flowers that no one noticed. They were just like her, she thought - small and insignificant, yet as important as the great flowers in the eyes of God. Perhaps it was no surprise, then, that she later called herself the "Little Flower" and her promised "Shower of Roses" after her death brought many blessings and cures.

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A painting of the miracle cure of shell-shocked Londonderry soldier Private Francis Donaghy

Those early years were the most joyful Thérèse would experience in her life. They were the "sunny years of my childhood" as she put it - a time of "loving smiles and tender caresses". Unfortunately, those days would come to an end with the death of her mother when Thérèse was four. That day, she said, "was the most sorrowful of all".

When Thérèse was 15, she entered the Carmelite convent in Lisieux, where conditions were primitive and she was badly bullied.

Meagre rations of food, a bed made of three planks, no heat except for a small stove in one room, and constant prayer and penance, were all experienced by Thérèse on entering the convent.

The congregation prayed for up to seven hours a day. The physical work was tough - washing floors, cleaning laundry, caring for the dining room, kitchen and sacristy.

 

Matters weren't helped by a prioress who treated Thérèse harshly. One day, Thérèse overlooked a cobweb when cleaning a hall.

In front of other sisters, the prioress said: "The cloisters are obviously swept by a 15-year-old; it is a disgrace!"

There was no talking back, no arguing, disagreeing or contradicting. The rule was to accept criticism, even if falsely based, and offer up the sacrifice to God.

 

Out of all this came an extraordinarily simple, yet profound, set of insights that transformed religious thinking overnight. Great deeds, she said, are beyond most of us. Little deeds are what we do, instead.

If you can't be perfect, you can at least do your best and practice all the little things you do with love. Just do them well, and offer them up to God. This she described as her "little way".

In time, a succession of authors, statesmen and philosophers, along with millions of ordinary people, were influenced by Thérèse's "little way". The only sadness was that, by the time her philosophy was brought to public attention, she had suffered the ravages of pulmonary TB. She experienced "pure agony, without a ray of consolation", as she put it.

Thérèse died on September 30, 1897. As death approached, she turned to her sister Pauline, who was then prioress, and asked was she about to die. Pauline told her she was. She then uttered her last words, "My God, I... love... Thee", sank back in her bed and passed on to another life. She was aged 24.

A famous Co Donegal miracle, occurring in 1913, was attributed to the "Little Flower".

On January 27, 1913, trouble entered the lives of the McNelis family, from Glenties, Co Donegal. It came in the form of life-threatening medical complications following the birth of their latest child. The mother - Mary McNelis - had developed puerperal fever, an infection that occasionally arises after childbirth. In those pre-antibiotic days, when the infection developed into septicaemia, or blood poisoning, it was often fatal.

As devotees of the Little Flower, the family prayed for her help and intercession. They knew that she was busy and in high demand, having learned about her popularity from newspapers and by word of mouth. As a result, on more than one occasion, they remarked: "She is so busy, I wonder if she will think of poor Donegal."

At around 11 o'clock on that January morning, a strange thing happened. The family's four-year-old child, Kathleen, arrived in the house with a beautiful bunch of snowdrops in her hand. She told her father, Michael, that they had been given to her by a nun, who said they were for her mother and she would be cured. Given that the child was only four years old, and there were no nuns in the area - no snowdrops, either - it was understandable that the incident was dismissed for the time being.

That changed, however, when a sweet perfume filled every corner of the family home. All present were puzzled. They turned once more to the little child, asking her what had happened. She explained how a nun had come down from on high and handed her the bunch of flowers, adding that she should pass them on along with the message regarding how her mother would become well. The nun, she said, was beautiful and wore white.

Almost instantly, Mary McNelis recovered, surprising all concerned. Everyone was overjoyed. The event left the family believing the child's story of the nun. The Little Flower had, after all, remembered Donegal. "What a gracious way she has of doing good upon earth," the father concluded.

Another extraordinary recovery, concerning an army private from Londonderry, was reported in 1917.

A cure involving a shell-shocked First World War soldier, named Private Francis Donaghy, was reported in the summer of that year.

The 28-year-old had fought in the Battle of Messines, which took place in Flanders on the Western Front. A shell fell on top of the trench where he was stationed, tumbling the trench in. On recovering consciousness, he found he was unable to speak or hear.

Private Donaghy was eventually hospitalised at Dublin's King George V Hospital, where doctors concluded he was incurable. While there, he befriended another patient, a Donegal man by the name of William Joseph McDonagh, who was a former member of the Irish Guards. Both men prayed to Thérèse of Lisieux and placed their fate in her hands. One evening, the two patients were allowed a brief respite from the hospital and went in search of a church. They ended up at the Church of St Francis Xavier, Gardiner Street, where a retreat was being held by the Jesuit priest Thomas Murphy. It was there that a remarkable event occurred.

Around eight o'clock, his companion noticed that Private Donaghy was becoming restless and excited. Suddenly, Donaghy said, in quick breaths, "I can speak", and almost immediately murmured, "I can hear". He then showed signs of collapse. An ambulance was summoned and he was transported back to hospital. On arrival, his speech, which initially seemed inarticulate, returned to its natural state.

Later, he explained what had happened. "A flash of light came across my eyes," he told a newspaper reporter. "I felt a kind of choking at my heart. I reached up my two hands as the light was passing. It was a very, very silvery light. It made no heat or anything. It came gently past. It came from the left hand side where I was kneeling. I reached out my hand to grasp the seat, and called my comrade....I fainted then."

A Dublin newspaper made further inquiries to the hospital and was told that the patient was improving and "able to speak and hear quite well". It was also confirmed that his cure had "excited a good deal of interest at the hospital", where his case had been regarded as practically hopeless. Donaghy's joy was unbounded. "You can hardly understand what it means to be able to speak," he said. He added that it was no coincidence that he had been praying to Thérèse for some time. "This," he concluded, "is another cure for the Little Flower."

Relics of St. Thérèse arrived in Ireland in 2001. Scenes of euphoria were witnessed up to their departure on July 2. An outburst of euphoria greeted the Little Flower's relics during their visit to Ireland in 2001. Millions of people turned out for the event. The vast number was no surprise as, by then, Thérèse had become one of Ireland's most popular saints, standing alongside St Anthony of Padua, St Francis of Assisi and St Pio of Pietrelcina.

More than 1,000 people stood in wait at Rosslare harbour to welcome the arrival of Thérèse's relics to Irish shores. Few in attendance anticipated the national outburst of devotion that would follow. Encouraged by the fine weather, between two and three million people filled churches or lined streets to pay their respects to the saint.

A huge crowd gathered in Newry to see her casket on its first stop in the province. Two thousand people are estimated to have visited her remains in Armagh Cathedral. Thousands more turned out at St Peter's Church in Lurgan, St Peter's Cathedral in Divis, Clonard Monastery off the Falls Road, Ardoyne in north Belfast and St Eugene's Cathedral in Londonderry. Some were driven by a burning conviction; others came out of mild curiosity; more felt drawn to a unique national event.

During their 75-day tour of Ireland, churches were forced to keep their doors open through the night. Businesses put up their shutters. Houses were festooned with flags and bunting. Traffic ground to a halt. Flower sellers did brisk business. "People are buying mostly red roses, because in St. Thérèse's picture there are red roses all around her," one vendor explained. There were blue roses too, with the seller proclaiming: "Buy a blue one for Our Lady."

Miracles were reported in the national press. One Co Louth woman described how her chronic arthritis was cured following a visit to Thérèse's relics. Another woman, from Co Mayo, explained that, for the first seven years of their marriage, she and her husband had been childless. Having prayed to the Little Flower, they conceived their first child. They called her Teresa.

The relics finally left the country as the mini-heatwave of the previous weeks was coming to a close. The bright sunshine seemed to be something of a metaphor for the visit, which had seen outpourings of religious fervour not witnessed since the arrival of Pope John Paul II in 1979. "It has been a very long few months," Fr Linus Ryan, the visit coordinator, reflected. "It is not every day you have the privilege of carrying the remains of a saint around your country. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity."

The Little Flower, St. Thérèse of Lisieux: The Irish Connection, by Colm Keane & Una O'Hagan, is published by Capel Island Press, price £15

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