Our province of Discalced Carmelite friars began as a delegation from the Province of Valencia, Spain. Three friars from that Spanish province were thrown out of Mexico in 1914 by Pancho Villa, the revolutionary. They entered the U.S. at El Paso, Texas. After they had traveled many miles in the U.S., the Bishop of Oklahoma gave them permission to establish themselves in that diocese if they would undertake the care of the Mexican Catholics.
The three friars were Frs. Luis Benages, Bernard Brotons, and Cyril Corbato. Frs. Luis and Bernard had been classmates. Fr. Cyril, who was four years older than Luis, took charge of the two younger priests for he had more pastoral experience than they. Soon, Fr. Bernard wrote to their Father Provincial in Valencia, asking for Fr. Edward Soler, whom he had known in Mexico, as a superior more versed in the missionary spirit.
Fr. Edward, who was now in Cuba, sailed to New Orleans, where the Discalced Carmelites nuns had a guesthouse. While there he learned English well enough to tackle a train trip to Southeastern Oklahoma, where Frs. Bernard and Luis were ministering to the Mexicans. Fr. Edward decided they might as well lobby for a place in the capitol of Oklahoma City, which they did.
As the 1920s began, Fr. Edward was faced with many other decisions about the direction of a new province of Discalced Carmelite friars in the United States. Fr. Cyril had built a monastery in McGehee, Arkansas, which was 130 miles from Little Rock where Fr. Edward had accepted a teaching assignment. His health was not good and he sent a letter of resignation to the Provincial but it was politely ignored. The last thing Fr. Edward needed was a new idea like the one Fr. Bernard had proposed to start a magazine in English dedicated to St. Thérèse and called the Little Flower Magazine. The friars denied the project but the Carmelite Tertiary sisters (today known as Carmelite Sisters of St. Thérèse) were listed as publishers and 5,000 copies were printed in April 1920.
The growth of our province seemed to coincide with the growth of devotion to the Little Flower in the United States. The success of the friars’ promotion of Thérèse lay in its timing. Pope Benedict XV declared Thérèse “Venerable” in August 1921. In April 1923, she was beatified and then in May 1925, Pope Pius XI canonized her.
The many events leading up to this great honor were all chronicled and anticipated in the friars’ Little Flower Magazine. Photographs were printed of these events including ceremonies surrounding the exhumation of her grave; the procession of her body through the streets of Lisieux to her Carmelite monastery, where a new tomb had been prepared for her (we would later build a replica of that tomb for our national shrine to her in San Antonio, Texas); and the illumination of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome for her canonization.
The choice of St. Thérèse as our provincial patron can be traced back to the events of her beatification in 1923. In February 1923, the final act of the Apostolic Process of St. Thérèse’s cause for beatification and canonization was completed, as the decree approving her miracles was read in the Consistorial Hall of the Vatican. Pope Pius XI then gave a speech in which he gave tribute to the Little Flower. “With all our heart we congratulate the religious family of Carmel on the new flower which the charity of the Divine Heart has caused to spring up in their garden…”
Saint Therese and the First National Shrine
Shortly after the saint’s body had been moved, the beatification ceremony took place in Rome on April 29, 1923 and that same day, a ceremony was held in Oklahoma City. Our Carmelite Fathers had prepared a special devotional altar for their new chapel in that city. They calculated the hour at which our Venerable sister had been beatified in Rome, and as soon as Thérèse had been raised to the altar in Rome, one of our fathers offered a Mass to her on our own altar, thereby consecrating that altar to the newly Beatified. It was the first Mass in the U.S. said in thanksgiving for the beatification of our sister by a Discalced Carmelite priest. The readers of the Little Flower Magazine were urged to send in their requests and light a votive candle in front of this altar.
Seeing the ground swell of devotion from subscribers all over the country, Fr. Edward realized that Fr. Bernard was onto something larger than either priest had imagined.When subscriptions to Little Flower Magazine reached 100,000 a month in 1923, Fr. Edward built the “Little Flower Home” beside his monastery in Oklahoma City to house the printing presses.
More importantly, Fr. Edward realized that our little delegation to the U.S. now had a mission to spread devotion to Thérèse, to prepare for her canonization in 1925, and to build a national shrine to her. The shrine was originally planned for Oklahoma City but the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Little Flower, the first National Shrine in the United States dedicated to St. Thérèse, was erected in San Antonio in 1931 and continues to attract pilgrims dedicated to St. Thérèse from around the country. Valencia’s delegation of Discalced Carmelite friars in the United States continued to grow and achieved the status of a “semi-province” on January 1, 1936. The semi-province became a “province,” placed under the patronage of St. Thérèse, in May 1947, with Fr. Edward Soler as our first Provincial.