The National Shrine Museum of St. Therese is situated on a 40 acre Carmelite campus in Darien, Illinois. The Shrine includes both a museum devoted to the saint and a chapel where visitors can reflect and worship.
The museum is a rich treasury of relics and memorabilia of St. Therese. “We have the largest and best collection of Little Flower relics and memorabilia outside of Lisieux,” explains Fr. Bob Colaresi, Director of the Society of the Little Flower. “People are amazed and ‘feel’ her presence. While guiding people on pilgrimage here, I am always moved to see peoples’ smiles and watch their connection with their favorite saint.”
Highlights of the National Shrine museum include: the original statue of St. Therese commissioned in the 1920’s; young Therese’s tambourine, the original map she drew of North America at age 12, the original oil painting of her by Celine (which she declared was the best representation of her saintly little sister), another original charcoal drawing of Therese as a novice; one of the original four copies of the manuscript Therese wrote which became the Story of A Soul, a piece of the bedspread from her room as well as a water jar used in the dining room during her days at the Carmel (recent gifts from the Prioress of the Lisieux Carmel), tea cups she used when she had her evening chats with her Dad, her first communion prayer book, the holy water font from her room – and many more intimate items which connect people with St. Therese.
“People spend time looking, reading and prayerfully reflecting,” explains Fr. Bob. “There never seems to be enough time to absorb it all.”
A recent addition of a statue of Our Lady of the Smile, who healed young Therese, was brought over from Lisieux, as she smiles on all the personal effects of the Little Flower.
Besides many pictures of her and drawings depicting significant events in her life, the Shrine also has a wonderful 27 minute video on her life and spirituality.
Because Therese is a Carmelite and was so dedicated to Our Lady of Mount Carmel, there is on one side a collection of statues of Our Lady of Mount Carmel from all over the world. “Because she is the Carmelite model of contemplative, attentive living, Mary is honored as the Lady who helps us be present where we are with the faith that God is present there with us,” reflects Fr. Bob.
The center of the National Shrine is a chapel, dominated by huge stain-glass windows that depict the journey of the soul to God, modeled on St. John of the Cross’ Ascent of Mount Carmel. “St. Therese is a modern embodiment of the spirituality of St. John of the Cross,” explains Fr. Bob. “She lived through the darkness, knowing there was light. Like many other, I love to go there at times and let the beautiful and powerful windows speak to me and reveal where God is in my life at that time. It has powerful affect on people. They are windows of the soul.”
The front of the chapel is dominated by the awesome wood carving of the life of St. Therese. It tells her whole life story in a visual and beautiful way. On pilgrimages, most Carmelites use this awesome wood carving as the basis of their presentation on the life and spirituality of the Little Flower. It is the largest wood carving of a religious nature in the United States.
Every week day, Monday through Friday, Mass is celebrated at 11:30. There often large crowds, especially in Advent and Lent. The 200 seat Chapel is often relatively filled with friends of St. Therese. The chapel was doubled in size in 2001 after the overflow crowds of the Relic visit in 1999 made the Shrine more known. The crowds have continued to grow.
Many people come for a private tour of the shrine. Often one sees individuals just sitting or kneeling, prayerfully reflecting. Pilgrimage groups of 20+ can arrange a special guided day or overnight of prayer and communion with St. Therese, by calling 630-969-4141.
The Wings of Fire: new Life and Devotion
In 1975, a fire destroyed St. Clara’s Carmelite Church in the south side of Chicago, and effectively destroyed the National Shrine of St. Therese, which it had housed as a side altar since the 1920s. It seemed like an end of an era. Some thought it was the end of the devotion. But like the Phoenix bird, from fire winged forth new opportunities for life.
The shrine items were moved from St. Clara’s to the Aylesford Priory for a period of time. The Carmelites wrestled with what to do: with finances tight, the discussion circled around helping our foreign missions and ministries to the poor, or building a new Shrine. “I believe Therese stepped in, because of our indecision,” explained Br. Eric Bell, Shrine Director. “A very devoted Lay Carmelite woman left us a huge bequest in her will to build a shrine to the Little Flower. If the bequest wasn’t used for a shrine, she had directed that the money went to another religious group. The decision was made on the wings of one person’s devotion!”
The multi-million dollar gift was used to build the new beautiful Shrine to the Little Flower in Darien, Illinois, on the Aylesford Carmelite campus. Fr. Terry Sempowski, then Director of the Little Flower Society, oversaw the design and construction, trying to be faithful to Carmelite spirituality and her “little way.”
The new Shrine building was dedicated on November 1, 1987. “It is not ostentatious or massive,” explains Fr. Bob. “It speaks of her in its simplicity. I know that some people would prefer a massive basilica, but we believe the very architecture speaks of the Little Flower, her simplicity and spirituality.”
“The 1975 fire seemed like a disaster and challenging dilemma for the Carmelites,” reflects Fr. Bob. “but good old St. Therese, who always seems to get her way, help rebuild an ever more beautiful and prayerful place, through the generosity of her friends, for people to come and pray and feel closer to her. It is not simply a side altar to her – it is her place! And many feel the wings of God’s Spirit and her spirit here!”