The Rose-Round Pilgrimage 1999


A few years ago, a Catholic girls' group called the Rose-Round came into being in Oxford. My husband and I had been working in the area of 'Faith and Culture' for a while, and we felt it was important to take an initiative in this area which coincided with the needs of our own family. Being the parents of three girls, it was the development and vocation of young women that concerned us most closely. We were also concerned about the gap between First Holy Communion and Confirmation, and realised that it was important for our daughters and their friends to have a continued formation in the faith, as well as fellowship with other Catholic girls. I was also keen to develop a kind of 'living catechesis', which would be delivered not in a class-room context, but more subtly, through activities and shared experiences. This to us was an essential part of building a culture of life.

Our first event took place on the Feast of Our Lady's Presentation, 21st November 1995. We had tea together, talked about Our Lady and St. Anne, and discussed the sort of things the girls might like to do. Then we went down to the Oratory for Mass, ending with prayers in the Lady Chapel. The girls were keen to do some cooking, and to sing carols at Christmas. So during Advent we made cookies (suitably decorated with lashings of icing sugar!), which were then stored in air-tight containers. A few days before Christmas we visited a sheltered accommodation unit and sang carols for the people living there, after which we all, young and old, shared tea and – yes! – the cookies.

Over the next four years we did a whole host of things. We raised money for charity, we learned how to make bread and flower arrangements, we had talks on various aspects of the faith, participated in processions (carrying lilies or scattering petals all the way), had penance and pancakes on or near Shrove Tuesday. Before raising money for the Third World group, we learned both about the projects we were supporting, and about St. Therese, patroness of the missions. Increasingly, she became a patroness of our group, alongside Our Lady. We had named the group the Rose-Round, after a delightful novel by Meriol Trevor which many of the girls had read when it was reissued by Bethlehem Books. The connection with Therese made the name seem all the more apt.

One particularly enjoyable event was a sponsored obstacle race one Palm Sunday, in the university parks. The idea was that the girls, running in pairs (often with an older child accompanying a younger one – and on this occasion we invited boys to join us too!), had to complete a series of obstacles in order to gain their palms and reach Jerusalem. First there was a three-legged hobble. Two girls, appropriately named Martha and Maria, found it impossible to coordinate their feet, and fell about giggling on the grass. After this there was Daniel and the Lion's Den, for which two chaps hid in a thicket of trees and pretended to be lions, whilst Brother Daniel urged the children to keep running and not take any notice, as the lions couldn't touch you unless you stopped... (unfortunately the lions got a little overenthusiastic and one small child had to be delivered prematurely to Jerusalem for her consolation prize). After this there was 'one step enough for me', during which you had to move forward together on two doormats, putting the one behind you in front each time you wanted to progress (Cardinal Newman would have appreciated the joke). After that you skipped down a hill to play the game of 'Simon Peter says'. A simple Catholic concept, this: if Simon Peter says do it, you do it... Then you crawled through a play-tunnel ('the dark night of the soul') and up onto the Rainbow Bridge for your last palm, avoiding the final temptation of the 'serpents' at the foot of the bridge, reminding you of how tired and hungry and thirsty you were, and why didn't you just stop now and have some sweets... All the families ended up at Jerusalem the Picnic, our last respite before Holy Week.

The really great challenge, for the grown-ups at least, was yet to come. In the spring of 1997, Strat and I and the girls visited Lisieux and Alencon in honour of Therese's centenary. As I was praying in the little chapel in Alencon next to the room where Therese was born and her mother, Zelie Martin, died, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the conviction that I had to bring the Rose-Round here. I think Zelie must have had something to do with it, as it was the image of the Alencon lace which she and her co-workers used to make, that extraordinarily delicate pattern, created by many people and then assembled as if it were the work of a single hand, a painstaking and arduous process which resulted in a thing of great beauty, which suddenly struck me as an apt symbol for the development of souls. It seemed to me as though the profound mystery of what it is to be a woman, to be a mother, whether physically or spiritually, was embodied in this lace-making. And so the idea of the pilgrimage was born.

It took us two years to plan it, during which time I was often tempted to give up, and would have done so if the other members of our 'team', and in particular my daughters, hadn't urged me to keep going. Many people thought I was mad. I was treated to perorations on the unsuitability of Therese as a role model for contemporary girls, and negotiated various other impediments. I found that commercial travel agents, even pilgrimage specialists, were not able to grasp what I had in mind. I wanted everything, from locations to leisure time, to mesh together in a significant way, so that the whole experience would hang together and no opportunity, either spiritual or educational, be lost. In the end, I organised all the details myself, running up a hefty telephone bill as I negotiated, discussed and informed myself about our options. Never have I been so grateful for my father's decision to have me educated in a French school! We also had to raise quite a bit of money, as not all the children who wanted to come could afford to pay the whole fare (in fact everyone's fare was subsidised to some extent by the time the final accounting was done). On Therese's birthday, January 2nd, we put on a show in her honour. We held sales, baked some more, and wrote letters to charitable foundations. Miraculously the money began to come in. A display about our work at the back of church brought contributions from total strangers. We placed a box at the shrine of St. Therese for benefactors and others to put their prayer intentions into, and we took these to every single Mass on the pilgrimage.

We set out just after Easter 1999, the Year of the Father, with nineteen girls (two joined us in France) and eight adults. We visited Notre Dame de la Delivrande in Douvres, the Bayeux Tapestry, the tomb of Sainte Therese and three of her sisters in Carmel, the Basilica where the Martin parents are now buried and the family home, Les Buissonets. We also visited the Cathedral of St. Pierre, where Therese received the sacraments (including the confessional in which she was told to stand up by the priest because she was too small to be heard properly). Each time we visited a church or a cathedral, the girls would fan out and pray by themselves in various corners. After three nights in Lisieux, we moved on to Alencon, passing through Sees where we said the Stations of the Cross in the lovely medieval cathedral which once served as a pilgrimage site for the Martin family. In Alencon we stayed in a small school and visited the Maison Natale and the church of Notre Dame where Therese was baptised, as well as watching a special demonstration of lace-making, and visiting a street market to buy food and souvenirs.

The pivotal point of each day was, naturally enough, the Mass. The girls themselves took it in turns to give the readings, say the bidding prayers, and carry up the offertory (with all those intentions from home). We were fortunate to have two sisters of the Work from Littlemore with us, who wrote the bidding prayers, helped the children make 'intentions-roses' out of three-ply napkins, and organised the music. This was a gloriously eclectic mixture of English and Latin, traditional hymns and the children's favourites. I think we shook a number of preconceptions among the French who witnessed our Masses. On the one hand we would be singing a plainchant Kyrie, then we would break into a modern setting of Therese's poem, Vivre d'Amour (in french too!). The girls would for the most part be wearing jeans and fleeces, but they would kneel for communion, even if there was no rail. On one occasion, at the wonderfully atmospheric shrine of Notre Dame de la Delivrande, we used the High Altar. Yet our chaplain stepped down into the choir to give his homily, so as to be close to the children. It was a wonderful occasion to speak very simply to the children in terms they could understand, and to use the beautiful Easter week readings to help them in their progress. Father Dominic did this to perfection.

Apart from visiting all the places associated with Therese, in Lisieux and Alencon, we also visited as many Marian shrines as we could, including Notre Dame de Grace, a delightful chapel perched on the cliffs above Honfleur, where the women who founded the Lisieux Carmel went to pray for their project, and where Therese went with her family to pray for her early entry into that same Carmel. Here there is an eloquent statue of Our Lady, in which the Christ-Child's foot is firmly balanced on His mother, whilst He reaches His arms out to the world. On the penultimate day we visited the great Cathedral of Chartres, and had an explanation of the stained glass windows from the resident English guide, Malcom Miller. You could not get a more tangible catechesis than Chartres; the whole history of salvation is there, in glass and in stone.

We also had varied types of recreation. After Notre Dame de Grace we ended up on the beach at Trouville, where Therese used to go on holiday with her family. Everyone pitched in to make an enormous sand-castle. En route to Sees, we took a look at le Haras du Pin, the 'Versailles of horse-breeding' (most of the girls were equine enthusiasts). Whilst in Alencon, we headed out for the beautiful village of St. Ceneri le Gerei, and in the midst of a visit to the local church (sadly closed for worship and only open to tourists, in stark contrast to the other churches we frequented), walking by the river, taking turns on a huge slide and visiting an organically run dairy-farm (a small coup for the rural entente-cordiale), we also had time to sample some delicious pancakes in the local creperie. We had Easter-egg hunts and charades. The girls (who were divided into five teams with the names of each of the Martin sisters) mimed scenes from Therese's life. The Celine team enacted the time when the two-and-a-half year old Therese was brought home after running away down the street to the church of Notre Dame, the Leonie team recreated the visit to the Bishop of Bayeux (his mitre confected from a bath towel) and the Paulines did a hilarious rendition of Therese being splashed by another sister during the Carmelite laundry. Each evening, the girls wrote in the special pilgrimage diary compiled for them by Brother Daniel, replete with notes on the places we visited, illustrations and quotes from Story of a Soul.

Overall, the pilgrimage was a huge success, thanks to the intercession of Our Lady and of her right-hand girl Therese, not to mention the other members of that extraordinary Martin family. In Caen, after Mass at the Visitation, every single child wanted to queue to write her intentions down in the book which is kept near the tomb of Leonie Martin, the last of the sisters to find her vocation and the only non-Carmelite. The sister in charge of showing us around pointed out a large tooth in the display cabinet, and told us the story which went with it. At the time they exhumed Therese's coffin to take her body back to the Carmel, Leonie (now Sister Francoise-Therese) was not able to be present. Celine (Sister Genevieve) knew how much her older sister minded missing out on this moment, and prayed to Therese to give her some memento for the absent Visitandine, whose success as a religious the little saint had obtained after many trials and tribulations. Celine, like all the sisters, was forbidden, under obedience, to touch the coffin, but as she was praying, a large molar fell out of it and rolled right to her feet. She picked it up, and sent it, full of delight, to Sister Francoise-Therese.

Even a rough sea on the way home didn't dent the spirits of the girls, who cracked jokes about how sick they felt and sang cheerful songs in the rolling gangways, whilst virtually every adult collapsed in a sea-sick heap. Appropriately, the ship's cinema just happened to be showing Prince of Egypt. It would certainly have been easier on our stomachs if the channel had parted to let us through dry shod, but we survived the lurching ark. Look, look, said one of my daughters: there's a double rainbow over the sea!

Léonie Caldecott