Material History of American Religion Project

Relic of St. Therese

A relic of St. Therese

When they think of material aspects of religion, many people—especially the white mainline Protestants who have dominated the study of American religion—think of Catholicism, especially "ethnic" Catholicism. The Roman Catholic Church, the assumption goes, is rich with devotional objects and sensual experiences, much unlike supposedly word-focused Protestantism. Catholicism is materialistic while Protestantism is spiritual, these scholars argue—leaving little doubt which they think is more authentically religious.

This (admittedly exaggerated) argument is deeply flawed, of course. As other objects on this site show, Protestantism too is a very material faith, with its buildings, communion tokens, and prayer cards. Marie Griffith explores this materiality in her discussion of prayer handkerchiefs among American Pentecostals. We have stressed this material aspect of Protestantism to question the assumption of Catholic materialism and Protestant spirituality.

Nevertheless, we have been lent a wonderful Catholic devotional object which is worth sharing. This locket is a relic of St. Therese of Lisieux, known to her devotees as the Little Flower. St. Therese (1873-1897) was a French Carmelite nun who, despite her death at the early age of twenty-four, has had a significant impact of Catholic spirituality. Because of her writings the Pope recently declared her a teacher of the church—the youngest and only the third woman to be so honored. You can learn more about the saint at her web site.

The locket is made of brass and glass, and measures less than an inch and a half. It dates from approximately 1900, and contains several hairs from the saint's head. It belongs to Mrs. Belle Hecker of Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, whose son-in-law lent it to us.

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