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St. Therese’s Parish was established in Fresno in 1919 as Our Lady of Victory Parish. The first pastor, Father Martin Cody Keating, took over in June 1919, shortly after the completion of his duties as a Chaplain during World War I. It is said that Father Keating chose the name “Our Lady of Victory” in thanksgiving for our victory in that war.
Planning for the new parish had begun years before, when Msgr. John M. McCarthy, then pastor of St. John’s Parish, realized that the city of Fresno would need several more parishes to serve the future population. The first Mass in the parish was celebrated on June 29, 1919 in the Dan C. Desmond home at 845 Echo Avenue. Records list 30 parishioners in attendance. Four lots were purchased at North Fulton (now Wishon) and Floradora Streets on November 12, between 1919 and March 16, 1920. By September 1921 a two-story building was built and opened for classes and services.
On May 2, 1926, formal dedication services for the completed church, The Shrine of St. Therese Church, located at Floradora near Wishon were held. A marble statue of St. Therese was unveiled and blessed. The statue was sculptured by the artisans of Lisieux, France, from a six-foot block of marble from the famous quarries near Olympia, Greece. It was shipped to Fresno via the Panama Canal.
During the Depression years, although financially stagnate, the parish grew in church members and students. The church, which had been built “out in the suburbs,” now served a full-fledged urban area.
Msgr. James G. Dowling took charge as administrator of the parish whose facilities were strained to the bursting point. In accepting this challenge, Msgr. Dowling adopted a “five-year plan” of expansion and debt reduction. The parish had now grown to over 1,000 families. The first rooms of the new grammar school opened in September 1942. The long-standing parish debt was slowly reduced until in 1944, it was completely paid off.
Monsignor’s five -year plan was completed in 1945 with the addition of the Anderson home at 727 Pine Avenue as a permanent convent for the Sisters of St. Joseph. The Sisters of St. Joseph left in 1975 but the school remained open staffed by dedicated individuals committed to the parish and students of St. Therese. The school remained open until 1985. The school buildings are now used for CCD and church organizations and events. The Msger Peterson Hall located on grounds of the east side of the church was once the location of the kindergarten classroom and a small church hall. Inside the hall, the wood wall paneling and beautiful stained glass compliments the inside beauty of its church.
The current church was built in 1956 by the Long and Needham Construction Company. Architect Vincent Buckley of San Francisco designed a Romanesque-Mission structure of reinforced steel concrete with a tile roof. Richard W. Jung, an interior designer from Los Angeles, employed Mr. Tedesci, an artist from New York, to plan the inside of the church. Fifty thousand pounds of marble were used in St. Therese’s Church. The marble was processed in Italy and shipped in huge blocks to the United States by water freight.
The church’s interior includes 50,000 pounds of marble of different types and colors shipped from Italy. The altar area alone has five different types of marble. It houses a relic of St. Therese donated by Mother Agnes of Jesus (Pauline Martin), a sister of the saint. The Vatican can only give such pieces to the parishes. (In 2012, thieves broke in through rare French stained glass windows to steal the relic, and thousands of dollars in precious metals including some brass clips from robes. The items were eventually found with the help of the Tower community.) There are also many beautiful statues, paintings and other images on the altar and side chapels. Church materials describe it as the first church in the world dedicated to the Little Flower.
The glass mosaic windows were made by the family of Gabriel Loire in Chartres, France. Only eight of the windows were delivered and installed at the time of the building’s first Mass; the other windows were aboard ships delayed in 1956 through the Suez Canal. Unlike ordinary stained glass, the windows are made of pieces of glass 1 1/2 inches thick, cut like gems to give depth and a variety of shades to the colors as sunlight moves through the panes. Bariel Loire designed the windows himself, and the largest of them is the beautiful rose window over the main entrance of the church.
Today the Shrine of St. Therese continues to serve the community. Although the school no longer exists on the property, masses and other events serve the parishioners in the surrounding neighborhood as well as those who have moved away but continue to think of the church as their own.
Adapted from the Shrine of St. Therese website, Fresno Bee.