At some point in the spring of 2016, I found myself looking up Saint Feast Days and putting them in my calendar to ease the boredom of free time, like any good Catholic girl would do. I was preparing to study abroad in Italy that fall so dreams of adventures abroad were circling my head. I had tried to stay pretty level in preparations however, since every single person told me not to expect anything, let the adventure happen to me, and trust the Lord would bring the experiences I needed to have.
Then I noticed St. Therese of Lisieux’s Feast Day would fall on a Saturday, that October, while I was in manageable travel distance to France.
Excitedly, I texted my best friend who I was studying abroad with and who also has a huge devotion to the Little Flower, to tell her we HAD to go to Paris that weekend and we HAD to go to Lisieux on her Feast Day. It was settled. We were doing it, and that was the only plan we made–for both that particular weekend, and for the rest of the semester in general.
Being a very type-A personality, I still cannot believe that I flew to Rome in late August with no plans, no expectations, and no burning desires…except to go to Lisieux on October 1st.
As the semester went on, we stuck to our plans to be in Lisieux on that day. We figured out how to get there, booked our flights to Paris, found another friend to go with us, and excitedly prepared to share in the celebration with the people of Lisieux. As soon as we landed in Paris I could not believe that our plans had gone through. We spent a day exploring the city, rested up in Versailles over the night, and then headed out on the morning of October 1st for our “magical” day in Lisieux.
Getting on the train we ended up sitting next to some young French girls. We told them where we were headed and they were astonished. Why would anyone go to Lisieux? One girl even told us that there isn’t much to do there and we will probably end up with too much time on our hands. I nervously remembered that I had found barely anything online about what you can actually see in Lisieux, I just figured something would be happening because it was her Feast Day!
We heard the announcement that Lisieux was the next stop, then looked out the window to see the most beautiful, grand basilica popping out in the hillside. It was overwhelming. In a tiny French village, basically in the middle of nowhere was this massive basilica. It looked so out of place, but also was such a testament to the life of the Saint it honored.
Soooo…..I guess we should work our way there…maybe?
We followed the 20 people who had gotten off of the train, one of whom was nun, and we figured if we followed her, we would probably end up somewhere holy. Sure enough she noticed us, and was Irish! So she spoke our language!! But she was also lost and asking directions when all of a sudden an older man came up to us, telling us to follow him to Mount Carmel (well that’s what the sister told us, since the man only spoke French).
What exactly happened next I don’t quite remember, but the man brought us to the chapel where St. Therese is buried and all three of us girls wept. Mass was going on in the next room, there were roses all over the place, and we knew we were in for an incredible day. We just sat there, praying and crying.
In those moments of prayer, I believe something moved the man deep inside. My best guess is that he’d rarely seen young people so affected by something religious since unfortunately, we had heard a lot of reports about the lack of youth in the French Church. We have no idea what exactly happened within him, but when we left the chapel, he asked the nun to tell us in English that he wanted to be our “guardian angel” for the day so that he could show us all the beautiful sights of Lisieux. I still question whether or not he was a human or actually an angel sent to give us an unforgettable experience.
To keep the story short, Jean Marie spent the entire day with us. We would often laugh that it seemed he had an itinerary pre-set for our visit. After Mount Carmel, he set up lunch for us in the pilgrimage center, we went to the Basilica and the crypt where Sts. Louis and Zelie Martin (St. Therese’s parents) lay, we went to mass with the Carmelite sisters, then had lunch. After lunch we went to the Cathedral Therese went to daily mass in as a child, then Jean Marie set up an English tour of her childhood home for us. Walking back to Mount Carmel, Jean Marie bought us all bouquets of roses to leave at Therese’s tomb, and we arrived just in time for the procession of her relics through the streets. We went to evening prayer with the Carmelites to finish off our day, then hopped on the train to Paris to find out that not only was Jean Marie on the same train as us, but he worked for the railroad company and got us first-class seats for the two hour drive back to Paris. And to finish it all off, he took a couple metro rides with us to make sure we safely got on our train back to Versailles.
Reliquary of St. Therese with roses left by pilgrims.Some people have laughed at our story saying the guy was probably a creep, but as someone who always has their guard up, not once did we not see the goodness inside of him. Every single place we went he would walk out and repeat, “Merci Therese, merci Therese.” He was just a simple man with so much devotion to beauty and to Christ. We could barely have a complete conversation with him, but he took any means possible to tell us what he wanted to tell us, including asking the English speaking tour guide at Therese’s house to tell us that he had a wonderful day with us and that while he always prays for the sick when he visits Lisieux, now he will also pray for us every single time he returns.
In the end, we believe Therese wanted us to have a special day in her little town. All we had to do was show up, trust, and she did the rest of the work. Our angelic tour guide was a true gift that taught us the beauty of trusting God with even the smallest moments in our lives. And that’s what Therese was all about. She spoke so much about the little way of trusting God as a child would trust their father. After that trip I don’t think I could ever lose trust in the Lord’s plan.
So if he was real, I sure hope Jean Marie is in Lisieux today on her feast day and I trust he always remembers his promise to pray for us there.
Merci, Therese. Merci.