The idea of building a basilica at Lisieux in honour of the newly canonised saint (1925) met with much opposition from the local clergy. The town already possessed many religious buildings and it was thought that devotion to Thérèse, which enjoyed great popularity among the French soldiers during the First World War, had had its day.
However, Bishop Lemonnier was not persuaded by these objections. In 1925, he commissioned a Parisian architect to draw up a preliminary design. But the proposed design provoked many criticisms. It was felt – most notably abroad – that the proportions were somewhat cramped. For the most loved Saint in the world, nothing but the most beautiful basilica would suffice.
An internationally respected architect from the north of France, Mr. Louis-Marie Cordonnier, was asked to submit a design.
Pope Pius XI had canonised Thérèse on 17th May 1925 and considered her to be the jewel of his Pontificate. He strongly desired the construction of a sanctuary at Lisieux. The Pope’s desire contributed to the reduction in local opposition and on the 21st September 1927, Bishop Lemmonier approved Cordonnier’s design. Bishop Suhard, who succeeded Bishop Lemmonier some months later, did not reverse the decision of his predecessor and the first works began in 1929.
The work advanced to the point that on the 30th September 1929, the foundation stone of the new building was laid. From that moment onwards, the building of the basilica progressed at an accelerated rate. In November 1929, Pius XI made it known to Bishop Suhard that the new basilica would have to be “very big, very beautiful, and as soon as possible !” :
Total surface area 4,500 m² Height of dome 90 m Height below vault 34 m
On the 11th July 1937, during the 11th National Eucharistic Congress, Cardinal Pacelli (the future Pope Pius XII) conducted the solemn blessing of the Basilica.
The Basilica suffered little during the bombings of June 1944 and the completion works (stained glass and mosaics) continued up until 11th July 1954, on which date the sanctuary was consecrated by Most Reverend Martin, Archbishop of Rouen, with the Papal Legate, Cardinal Feltin, presiding.
THE UPPER BASILICA
On days when there are large crowds, 3000 pilgrims can be seated in the Basilica. Participation in the ceremonies of the sanctuary is unhindered and there are no columns to block one’s view.
On other days, pilgrims like to contemplate the mosaics and stained glass which were produced in the studios of Pierre Gaudin (1908 – 1973), an artist who was trained at the sacred art studios of Maurice Denis and Georges Desvallières. It was at their school that Pierre Gaudin discovered the great tradition of the glass artists of the Middle Ages. The colour of the glass is used to encourage contemplation … Only a small amount of sunlight is required in order for Pierre Gaudin’s windows to create a particularly warm atmosphere in the basilica. Nevertheless, under the influence of Fr. Germain, first Rector of the Basilica, the artist gave priority to his love for abstract art. Without making the windows into pictures of glass (as had been done by the glass artists of the 19th century) he conceived of a figurative project, and so gave to all pilgrims the possibility of discovering through his work, the central message of Thérèse.
The Crypt is entirely covered in marble and mosaics.
In 1958 the decoration of the Crypt was completed with the laying of five mosaics representing the important stages in Thérèse’s life : the Baptism of Marie Françoise Thérèse Martin at the Church of Notre-Dame at Alençon on 4th January 1873 ; the First Holy Communion of Thérèse at the Benedictine Abbey of Lisieux on 8th May 1884 ; the miraculous healing of Thérèse at Les Buissonnets on the Feast of Pentecost on 13th May 1883 ; Thérèse’s profession on 8th September 1890 ; Thérèse’s death on 30th September 1897.
The crypt holds the reliquary of Blessed Louis and Zélie Martin, parents of saint Thérèse.
The Adoration Chapel
A Church’s function is to facilitate participation in the liturgy but it must also facilitate contemplation. Accordingly, the Adoration Chapel that we enter by the Crypt, is a place to pray in silence and peace.
- The right-hand wall is that of the Crypt and its marble arches remind us that we are still in the Basilica ;
- The pews are those that were once to be found in the Chapel of the Carmelite Convent ;
- The altar is modelled on that of the Carmelite Convent ;
- Underneath the tabernacle, which is also modelled on that of the Carmelite Convent, one finds an icon of the Trinity.
The Bell Tower
Having remained unfinished for some time, the Bell Tower now houses 51 bells. The bell-tone is sounded by 6 bells, the heaviest of which, the great bell (9,000 kgs) displays its motto in bronze : I ring out the call of the peoples to unity in Love.
The chimes are played on the hour and on the half-hour according to the liturgical season.
With 45 bells, the chimes of the Basilica of Lisieux are completely chromatic and possess a high sound quality. They rank among the most beautiful in Europe.