St Therese – background

This is part of a proposal that I sent out to a few people about the project: my thinking about it’s changed since then, so this is mainly for background purposes. For the overall summary of the project, see here.


St Thérèse was a Carmelite nun, who died in 1897 from tuberculosis at the age of 24. She achieved worldwide fame soon after her death thanks to her autobiography, the Story of a Soul, which details her struggles with her faith and illness, and sets out her philosophy of ‘the Little Path’: small good deeds that ‘simple people’ can do to find God.

Tours of her relics in other countries have been extremely popular and she has an interestingly diverse following. Mother Theresa of Calcutta took her name from St Thérèse, and Edith Piaf and Jack Kerouac were said to be devotees. Thanks to her philosophy, her death at a young age, and to how the Catholic church has promoted her story, she is seen by many as a kind of ‘people’s saint’.

She is the patron saint of pilots (a fragment of her bone was taken into space in 2008 by US astronaut Roland Garan) and of people with AIDs and other illnesses. She is also one of the first saints to be photographed – perhaps another reason, along with her relatively recent death, for her huge popularity.

She is the youngest of the 33 ‘doctors of the church’ – the title given to saints whose writings have benefited the Catholic church. Of the 33, only two others are women and only eight others were alive in the last 500 years.

The Basilica of St Thérèse in Lisieux attracts two million visitors a year, making it the second most popular pilgrimage site in France after Lourdes. St Thérèse’s relics have toured more than 40 countries: a 2001 tour to Ireland attracted up to two million visitors, more than turned out to see Pope John Paul II in 1979.

The UK tour is likely to prove hugely popular with the 4.2 million Catholics who live in England and Wales, but it’s also being used by the church in a quite evangelical way, with those of all faiths and none being encouraged to attend.

My interest

Although I’m not a believer, I’m fascinated by faith and its place in contemporary British society. I’ve seen a lot of documentary work about the extreme elements of religion, but little on the kind of moderate beliefs that the majority of people in this country probably hold (at least the 71% who put ‘Christian’ as their religion on the 2001 census form).

There’s a tension between this moderation and the public displays of religious fervour seen in other countries during similar tours. I’m really keen to see what the reaction is like here, and the contrast between how different communities and different kinds of people respond.

I also want to take a critical look at the reasons for organising the tour now. Is it a publicity drive, or even an attempt to shake off moderation by Catholic church in Britian?

For me, there’s also an interesting tension between the ancient traditions of venerating the dead and the modern elements to the tour – which include the ‘Therese-mobile’, a modified people carrier being used to transport the reliquary.

The tour

St Thérèse’s relics (portions of her remains in an ornate casket) will be touring England and Wales for the first time from 16 September to 16 October 2009. As well as visiting Westminster, Liverpool, Birmingham, Cardiff and other cathedrals, the relics will go to the Anglican York Minster, smaller churches, Carmelite retreats, a hospice and Wormwood Scrubs.

I am going to be photographing the tour in some detail, visiting each of the venues (including the private stops at the retreats and Wormwood Scrubs, and her arrival and departure by Eurostar). I’m expecting a wide variety of images – big crowd scenes, quiet moments, the logistics and ‘back stage’ aspects of the tour, portraits of pilgrims and priests – and I will also record audio, including short interviews.

Key dates are:

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