Agnostic film director Michael Whyte explains why he found himself travelling around England with the relics of the French saint wo years ago, on the evening of September 15, I found myself in the company of strangers who were quietly reciting the Hail Mary while being driven towards Portsmouth for an overnight ferry to France to collect the relics of a saint.
As we passed through the southern hinterland of London, weaving between the evening traffic against a setting sun, I reflected on how this had come about and what might lay ahead with some apprehension. A few days earlier I had met Mgr Keith Barltrop, Maggie Doherty and Alexander DesForges at the headquarters of the Bishops’ Conference in London to discuss making a documentary about the forthcoming tour of England and Wales of the relics of St Thérèse of Lisieux. It had happened rather quickly and I hadn’t had any preparation time or even a chance to get to know any of the participants, and now here I was in the company of strangers about to make a film about a saint I knew little about and with no plan or research to fall back on.
Mgr Barltrop, the national organiser of the tour, had welcomed me to join him after that brief meeting a few days before and now I was sitting next to him ready to record the tour which he had spent most of the last year preparing. My only consolation was that this was not a commission from any agency belonging to the Catholic Church but self-financed in the wake of a film I had made previously, No Greater Love, about a year in the life of the Carmelite Monastery of the Most Holy Trinity in Notting Hill.
In Portsmouth we were joined by David Baldwin, an ex-Royal Marine major responsible for logistics, and Adrian Forsey, an undertaker in charge of transporting the relics to and from each location. David and Adrian were to follow our people-carrier, which became know as the “battle bus”, in a small hearse that belonged to Adrian’s business.
The following morning, as dawn broke, we were on the outskirts of Lisieux driving towards the basilica built in honour of St Thérèse and second only to Lourdes as a place of pilgrimage in France.
The reliquary containing her relics is a box within a box. The remains are in a silver casket dipped in gold with three separate keys each kept in separate locations in France, and this is enclosed in a bigger reliquary made of scented jacaranda hardwood from Brazil and further housed in a Perspex container, all weighing in at 21 stone. This was wheeled from the sacristy to the small English altar where Mgr Keith celebrated Mass before taking charge of the relics for the journey to England. I was taken with the loving attention that the Sisters in the basilica took over their saint and yet had a relaxed view about the handing over of these precious relics. Similarly, on the Eurotunnel, among the tourist and business travellers, lay the remains of this saint, mixing the everyday and secular with the most holy and spiritual.
After staying overnight at Aylesford Priory we made our way to Portsmouth for the first stop on the tour. Here a pattern began which was repeated at almost every venue. We would arrive in good time due to David’s organisation. Adrian and David would then recce the venue to check the width of the doors and aisles to make sure the relics would fit. Mgr Keith would change into his robes, often aided by one of the Sisters from Lisieux, who had joined the team in the battle bus. And then, satisfied all was well, the people-carrier would lead the hearse up to the venue and the visit would begin.
Portsmouth presented a certain anxiety simply because nobody had any idea what to expect. As it turned out, all these worries were in vain. The cathedral was packed, with queues stretching down its length. Bishop Crispian Hollis welcomed the relics and, after a short service, the congregation were allowed to step up and venerate the saint. Members of the press and television were out in force, questioning not just the clergy but also the people who had come to pay their respects. Many had queued for several hours, clutching prayer cards, rosaries and roses for their brief moment with the relics. But it was clear to me that this was all worthwhile and not one had given a second thought to the amount of time they had had to wait. Many could not articulate exactly why they loved this saint other than to say that in her short life she had exemplified a way to love God in doing ordinary things with a love of Jesus behind her.
The visit to Portsmouth set the tone for the rest of the tour. Again and again the relics were met with patience, love, peace and veneration. Many pilgrims who patiently queued for hours to have their moment remained in prayer for some time after, either simply to be in the presence of the remains of St Thérèse or to savour the atmosphere of well-being and peace. Not once did I sense any impatience or encounter any rudeness during the tour. More often than not there was an atmosphere of peace and goodwill that made one reluctant to leave.
The tour lasted four weeks and included visits to 28 venues throughout England and Wales. The pattern was the same: packed churches and cathedrals, queues stretching round the block, patience and goodwill, an atmosphere of peace, prayer and contemplation. I did wonder after several of these visits how I was going to make a film that wasn’t going to be repetitive; after all, short of a different location it seemed to amount to the same thing. But there were differences, and these provided the texture and narrative of the finished film.
In Liverpool, the grandeur of the Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King was put to good use with a procession of the clergy around the congregation, the singing of the choir and the endless stream of people coming to venerate the relics. There was complete silence as the cathedral shut for the night to allow Sisters who belong to an enclosed Carmelite order to spend the night in silent prayer in the company of St Thérèse. I was lucky enough to be allowed to film this act of veneration as they sat unmoving in silence in the presence of the relics.
In Manchester, a 2,000-people strong torchlit procession followed the relics along one of busiest roads was followed by two days in Salford, where a few hours before the relics left there was a youth service with wonderful gospel singing.
These great events were matched by simpler ones in smaller churches, such as St Teresa’s in Filton, Bristol, where throughout the small hours shift workers turned up and quietly joined the congregation to sit with the relics in silence.
One surprise was the visit to York Minster, the second-most important Anglican church in England, which remained full during the 24 hours of the visit. Dean Keith Jones held a service for Christian unity attended by two Catholic bishops and many leaders of the different Protestant denominations.
It remained a constant pleasure to be part of the team and I never lost that sense of privilege afforded me by Mgr Barltrop and his colleagues. In fact, at one venue I was reminded as to how great this privilege was when we were waiting in the courtyard to move off with the relics to our next venue. As we waited people constantly approached the hearse to get a last touch or sight of the relics before they left, despite the fact that they had probably spent the last several hours in the church. People reached out for that last moment – and there we were spending several weeks with this saint.
Not all the venues were places of worship. Wormwood Scrubs prison provided a marked contrast to the other venues, yet here was the sense of peace and hope in this desperate place. Archbishop Vincent Nicols summed up the visit very eloquently when he said: “One of the abiding images for me came as one of the prisoners knelt in front of the reliquary and held out his arm to touch it and for a moment was lost in peaceful abandonment. In the foreground were the silhouettes of the prison officers and a sense of confinement and prison routine, but here in the centre of the picture was a man in prayer drawing strength from a woman who had also spent years in confinement in one building but was using hers as a journey into the mystery of God. Maybe that prisoner could draw some of that strength from her at that moment.” Throughout the tour I was never disappointed by the reception received by the relics and never less than humbled by the sense of love and devotion towards this saint. It is an experience that will remain with me.
At the final venue, Westminster Cathedral, a young couple came to give thanks to St Thérèse for her intervention as they had prayed to her for help in conceiving. One year later they were there with their baby, Hannah, who was born on St Thérèse’s birthday and given the middle name of Thérèse (they also shared St Thérèse’s surname, Martin).
One final image remains with me: that of the rose petals showering down on the reliquary as it left Westminster Cathedral on its journey back to Lisieux.
Michael Whyte’s film, Relics and Roses, will be released on DVD on October 3