Like every cheapskate pilot on a layover, I grabbed the free newspaper, which featured an article about Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, the patron saint of pilots.
I was glad to find out who’s on my team. I safely finished my trip and decided to thank the patron saint of my profession by learning more about her.
Thérèse was a French woman from Lisieux who became a Carmelite nun at the age of 15 and died young from tuberculosis. She was known as the “Little Flower” and canonized very soon after her death. She felt she could best serve God with “the little way” — doing what she could for people in the small details of life. Mother Teresa of Calcutta even took her name to honor her. That’s all very interesting, but unsatisfying. I resolved to learn why she was connected to flying.
I got more than I bargained for. It turns out there are actually three patron saints of aviation: St. Thérèse, St. Joseph of Cupertino and Our Lady of Loreto. The latter two were a lot easier to figure out.
St. Joseph was an Italian Franciscan priest who lived in the 17th century. He levitated. Poking him with pins and burning embers wouldn't stop his soaring. “The Flying Friar” would only land when his superiors ordered him down. Like a lot of pilots, he was very dedicated to flight. Okay, St. Joseph, I understand why Pope Clement XIII gave you the nod in 1767.
Our Lady of Loreto also makes a good aviation saint. There is a humble house in the Italian city of Loreto that’s enclosed inside a cathedral. This house is supposed to be where the Annunciation occurred when the angel Gabriel told Mary she would bear the son of God. Angels reputedly carried this house from the Holy Lands through the air to Italy in 1294. All of these events, combined with some good lobbying by the Italian Air Force, made her a shoo-in to be the patron saint of air travelers by order of Pope Benedict XV in 1920.
Photo from The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. This oil on canvas painting by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo depicts “The Miracle of the Holy House of Loreto.” Our Lady of Loreto is just one of three saints looking out for pilots.
Our Lady of Loreto flies the highest of the three saints. Many references claim Charles Lindbergh carried her medallion across the Atlantic. Italian Umberto Nobile carried her medallion over the North Pole in the dirigible “Norge” in 1926. He visited Loreto to thank her and paid her back by helping put out a fire in the basilica while he was there. Astronaut James McDivitt carried her medallion on the Apollo 9 space flight in March 1969.
There is a chapel in Loreto that has a painting depicting American astronauts and an image of the angels bearing the Holy House of Loreto. This building is sometimes called the American chapel or the aviation chapel.
St. Therese even visited the cathedral of Our Lady of Loreto on her way to Rome to seek an audience with the Pope to plead her case to become a nun.
None of this gets me any closer to my answer about Thérèse of Lisieux. She describes herself as a “little bird” in her autobiography and she’s also the patron saint of the missions. In the early 20th century, flying would’ve been one of the ways missionaries traveled to the far-flung outposts of the church. Maybe that’s the reason.
I’d like to follow in the footsteps of previous visitors to Loreto, including Mozart, Descartes and St. Thérèse. Maybe the images of flight in the American chapel there would give me a clue about her link to the sky.
Lately, I fly military airplanes. While I still don’t know why St. Thérèse of Lisieux is a patron saint of aviation, I do know one thing: When it was a dark night over Iraq, I was glad there were three flying saints checking my 6 o’clock instead of just one.
Eric Chandler flies F-16s with the Minnesota Air National Guard in Duluth. He’s made two trips to Iraq with the 148th Fighter Wing Bulldogs. He has been on military leave from United Airlines since Sept. 11.