A Saint Hits The Road

It's not how most people spend their free time, but then, Victoria Torres isn't most people. Torres is a saint buff. And Saint Therese of Lisieux is her favorite subject. Last week Torres paid a visit to the French saint--to her bones, actually--at three separate New York churches. "I have a lot of things to ask her for," says Torres.

New York is the latest stop on a tour that has taken the saint known as the "Little Flower of Jesus" across 14 countries on three continents. Roman Catholics can't remember anything quite like it. In Parana, Argentina, this year, 30,000 people showed up to venerate Saint Therese's relics. In 1997, 40,000 packed a soccer stadium in Brazil. On Oct. 17, nearly 15,000 people paid their respects at St. Patrick's Cathedral in Manhattan. Father Donald Kinney, chairman of the Saint Therese Relics Committee, estimates that more than 100,000 Americans have seen Saint Therese's reliquary--an ornate box containing the bones--since the U.S. leg of the tour began in early October.

It's an extraordinary event for a woman who was, by all accounts, rather ordinary. Unknown during her short life as a Carmelite nun, Therese gained fame with the publication in 1898 of her autobiography, "The Story of a Soul." Kinney says the book describes how "we can all do the little things with much love." As part of the beatification process, her remains were exhumed in 1923. (She became a saint two years later.) The relics first toured France in 1945 in an attempt to comfort the country's war-ravaged citizens. They didn't leave her tomb in Lisieux again until 1995, when they did a second French tour. After that tour, the Carmelite monastery in Lisieux decided to hit the world circuit.

The man responsible for the East Coast leg of the U.S. tour is Brother Eric Bell. After the New York stops, he'll drive a Ford van known as the Theresemobile to Boston, Buffalo, St. Louis and Milwaukee, among other stops. The 89-city U.S. tour ends on Jan. 28 in Honolulu. From there, the worldwide tour will continue indefinitely.

Bell says Saint Therese works in subtle ways. "It's not like people are throwing away their crutches," he says. But he sometimes hears of worshipers "getting their rose"-- picking up the scent of the flower, an occurrence associated with this saint, who once said that on her death, she would "let fall a shower of roses." And he has a sense of humor about it. "Sometimes I spray rose potpourri," he says. "People say, 'Am I having a vision?' and I say, 'No, it's just potpourri'." Roses or not, the outpouring of visitors to each Saint Therese site suggests satisfaction of some deep-felt need. You've heard of adventure travel; it's travel for the body. This is travel for the soul.