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Monday, 21 May, 2001, 16:29 GMT 17:29 UK
Ireland falls for Saint Therese
On tour: St Therese's ornate mahogany casket
On tour: St Therese's ornate mahogany casket
By Louise Williams in Dublin

It's the biggest religious sensation in Ireland since the Pope visited 21 years ago, but this time the visitor has been dead for more than 100 years.

Saint Therese
The future Saint Therese at 15
The relics of the 19th Century French saint, Saint Therese, are on a 75-day tour of the country, and the church claims that three out of five Irish people will have turned out to see them by the end of June.

The tour has been organised with military precision.

The relics arrive at each new destination in a specially built van, the Theresemobile, at 1400, and remain for 22 hours before travelling onwards across Ireland.

Police supervise the crowds and the Irish army is on hand to carry the casket.

"I'm feeling very overcome," says one woman waiting in the crowd at a church in Dublin.

"Every year I have a rose blessed on her feast day, 1 October, and I keep it from year to year."

Photographs

Silence falls when the silver van comes into view and once the casket has been safely transported into the church, a public address system broadcasts a welcoming service to the crowd outside.


There is a mass movement of the Irish population everywhere we go... she has got a supernatural magnetism

Father Linus Ryan
Nearby there is another van selling 75 publications about her life, including her autobiography - Story of a Soul - and St Therese key rings, rulers and pens.

Unusually for a saint, there are over 40 photographs of St Therese.

The photos show Therese at eight years old, taking her vows to enter the Carmelite order at 17, and even four days after she died of tuberculosis at the age of 24 in 1897.

These photos make her more real to her fans and are partly responsible for her popularity.

Roses

St Therese is traditionally associated with roses. When she died, she is believed to have said, "I let fall a shower of roses."

In 1896: Therese had already been sick for several months
In 1896: Therese had already been sick for several months
As a result, roses have come to be associated with the granting of favours, cures, or relief from suffering.

Most of the people queuing up outside the church carry roses which they press against the brass and mahogany sides of the casket as they file past. Some stop to kiss the casket, and repeat prayers to St Therese.

From the front seat of the Theresemobile, the tour's national co-ordinator Father Linus Ryan mans three mobile phones and holds press conferences on the road.

"We're into our second million half way through the tour," he says.

"There is a mass movement of the Irish population everywhere we go, which has to be supernatural in origin. She has got a supernatural magnetism."

Autobiography revised

Although fans of St Therese know her best for her association with roses, some of her followers are anxious to use the tour to show her off in a modern light.


I was brought up with a saccharine image of St Therese but I have re-discovered her recently

Father Eugene
Her autobiography has been revised, to undo some of the changes that had been made to it over the years.

"Things had been taken out that might have been offensive to pious ears," explains Father Eugene who is travelling with the relics.

"The fact that she found it difficult to say the rosary, that she often nodded off in choir. I was brought up with a saccharine image of St Therese but I have re-discovered her recently."

Father Linus admits that before the tour began he was concerned that after years of rapid economic growth Ireland might be losing touch with religion.

Now he is drawing the opposite lesson.

"We have to conclude that material things are not giving people what they hoped for," he says.

"There is a great spiritual hunger out there."

When the relics leave Ireland at the end of the June, they will return to France before going on to Lebanon.

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