“I ask that a nun devote herself particularly to the salvation of my soul, and obtain for me the grace to be faithful to the vocation God has given me, that of a priest and a missionary.”
Such was the request received at the Carmel in Lisieux on Oct. 15, 1895. The letter — signed by seminarian Maurice Barthélémy Bellière, “aspiring missionary” — was opened by Mother Agnes of Jesus. The Prioress at the time, she was also the sister of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, a religious in the same French convent.
“If I respond to my vocation I shall save other souls,” continued Maurice, “that good nun to whom I entrust my own soul will have saved other souls as well.”
Mother Agnes knew exactly who the “good nun” would be — her beloved sister, who longed to be a missionary but whose poor health prevented such a physical possibility. “I shall always be happy to call myself your unworthy little sister,” Thérèse wrote in her first letter to Maurice. “I am asking Him that you may be not only a good missionary but a saint all on fire with the love of God and souls.”
“Whatever good I shall do I shall owe to her,” Maurice wrote to Mother Agnes, after learning his request had been granted, “in the same way that St. Francis Xavier was sure that most of the souls that he was the instrument of saving by his zeal owed their salvation to the prayers of Carmelites. I shall only be the instrument; it is you, my sister, who will do the converting.”
In a letter on the day after Christmas in 1896, Thérèse affirmed their mission collaboration: “Let us work together for the salvation of souls….Let us stay united in prayer and suffering, close to the crib of Jesus.”
In the two-year period, right up until the time of her death in September 1897, the two would exchange 21 letters in total — 11 from Maurice, 10 from Thérèse. While confirming her true missionary heart, the letters reveal another side of the spirituality of this saint who is today co-patron, with St. Francis Xavier, of the Church’s missionary work. For both Maurice and Thérèse, the communication was truly human — filled with doubts and fears, sorrows and joy. Thérèse wrote: “In your letter of the 14th you made my heart tremble with joy. I understand better than ever how much your soul is the sister of my own, since it is called to lift itself up to God by the ELEVATOR of love and not to climb the hard stairway of fear.”
While Thérèse remained at the Carmel, her final months filled with great suffering, Maurice’s life transitioned — from seminarian to priest to missionary. The exchange ended as he left for Algiers with the Missionaries of Africa on Sept. 29, 1897, the eve of her death. Eventually, Father Maurice was sent as a missionary to Nyasa in Africa (now Malawi).
When he learned of Thérèse’s death, he was already serving as a missionary in Africa. He wrote to the Carmel in October 1897: “I did not realize she had died, but since I have been here I have experienced a certain calm, a joy I did not know before, which has kept me from even a moment’s worry or regret. I was wondering to what I owed this happiness. Now I wonder no longer. The saint was near me with her comforting tenderness and strength.”
Father Maurice would die 10 years later, in July 1907, the end of his missionary life marked by personal and physical suffering. He was, according to the late New York Auxiliary Bishop Patrick Ahern, the “quintessential ‘little soul’ to whom Thérèse was attracted, the prototype of most of us.” In his book about their letter exchange, Maurice & Thérèse: The Story of a Love, Bishop Ahern wrote: “Maurice deserves our attention for that very reason — not because he was great but because he was not. . . .Thérèse makes the quest for holiness easy, in the sense that she makes clear that God asks of us no more than we can give. . . .She draws us, asking only that we trust in the God who is ‘nothing but Mercy and Love.’ This is all she ever desired for Maurice.”
“Adieu, dear little Brother,” Thérèse wrote in her last message to the missionary, “May He give us the grace to love Him and save souls for Him.” TP
Monice Yehle is director of Communications and Outreach for Pontifical Mission Societies in the United States, and the editor of MISSION magazine.