The Missionary Oblates and St. Therese
A small Oblate mission played a large role in shaping devotion to one of the Church’s most prominent saints.
The link between St. Therese of Lisieux and the Oblates began with a connection several thousands of miles away from her native France.
In 1912 two Oblate priests, Frs. Arsene Turquetil and Armand Le Blanc, arrived in the Hudson Bay region of Canada to establish a ministry among the Inuit people. The priests didn’t know the local language or customs when they arrived. It took them nearly three years to learn the native language well enough to preach their first sermon.
The Oblates tried for four years to convert the Inuits, but without success. They were about to give up, especially after two other Oblates were murdered by the Inuits in a similar ministry. Bishop Ovide Charlebois, O.M.I. of Keewatin gave the Oblates one year to make the mission a success, or they would have to leave.
In the autumn of 1916 an Inuit brought Fr. Turquetil two envelopes addressed to him. There was no return address. The first contained a booklet: La Petite Fleur de Lisieux (The Little Flower of Lisieux). Father Turquetil had never heard of the Carmelite nun who, ironically, happened to be from his native diocese in France. The second envelope contained a bit of soil, along with the note: “Soil taken from under the first coffin of the Little Flower of Lisieux.”
That night Fr. Turquetil and his new confrere, Bro. Prime Girard, O.M.I. prayed fervently to St. Therese. The following Sunday an Inuit asked Fr. Turquetil, “We knew that you were speaking the truth, but we didn’t want to listen. Right now our sins frighten us. Could you remove them?”
Three Inuit men asked Fr. Turquetil if they, along with their wives and children, could be baptized. After eight months of instruction they were baptized on July 2, 1917. Father Turquetil credited St. Therese for saving the mission.
Father Turquetil’s mission quickly grew after the first converts. Bishop Charlebois was so impressed that he sent a request to the Vatican, signed by 226 missionary bishops from all over the world, asking that St. Therese be named the patroness of all the missions. Pope Pius XI approved the request in 1927.
Today millions of the faithful pray to St. Therese to intercede on behalf of missionaries and poor people around the world. They are carrying on a tradition begun nearly 100 years ago by two Missionary Oblates in northern Canada.