Monastic tranquillity gave way to controlled tumult yesterday as the friars prepared for their guest.

Brother Michael rushed to set up extra folding chairs and a speaker system. Steven Payne answered the constantly ringing telephone. Brother Antonine, the cook, swabbed the sink and contemplated the "great honor." And Francis Miller admitted he'd not slept the night before out of excitement.

"We're not used to crowds," said the Rev. Kieran Cavannaugh, prior of the Discalced Carmelite Monastery on Lincoln Road in Northeast Washington.

At 3:15 p.m., the dozen resident friars and about 200 others stood at the chapel door and welcomed the remains of Saint Therese of Lisieux, a celebrated Carmelite figure and one of the most popular Roman Catholic saints canonized in the 20th century.

"Saint Therese, we welcome you to Washington," the congregation, led by Cavannaugh, intoned as it faced the wood and gold reliquary containing some of her bones. "You have traveled all over the world. . . . And you have come to see us!"

With that simple ceremony, the relics of Saint Therese, who died 102 years ago of tuberculosis at age 24, began a three-day visit to Washington. Her remains are expected to draw thousands of area Catholics. About 600 showed up to view the reliquary Tuesday night as it sat in the chapel of the Carmel of Port Tobacco, a convent in La Plata.

Church officials expect millions of Catholics will flock to see the five-foot-long, intricately carved reliquary, which resembles a tiny chapel and is encased in an arc of clear plastic, during its 117-day tour through 25 states.

For some, her travel here is a kind of "reverse pilgrimage" made possible by modern transportation and technology. Instead of pilgrims going to see their saint, Therese is coming to see her people.

"I don't think there's another saint in the Catholic Church that would evoke this kind of response right now," said the Rev. Patrick McMahon, 50, one of 33 Carmelite friars at Whitefriars Hall in Northeast Washington, the community that will host Therese tonight.

"If someone said, 'Would you go and see the bones of Saint Francis Xavier?' I'm not interested," said McMahon, who has a doctorate in history. "But this is different, and I can't explain it. All I can tell you is that there is a sense of this woman . . . these remains tie her presence in."

It is the first time the saint's remains have been to the United States, one of several stops on a world tour that began in 1995 and already has taken her to Russia, Brazil and Argentina. Her devotees see an irony in her travels. Since childhood, she wanted to be a missionary in foreign lands--at 12, she drew a map of North America. Instead, she entered the convent at 15 and died without leaving it nine years later.

Relics have been central to Catholicism since its earliest days, when they provided the only physical link to a holy person after death. To non-Catholics and even some Catholics, such reverence for bones and dust often appears superstitious, even macabre.

But the church teaches that relics are to be venerated--not worshiped--as reminders of exemplary lives and the Catholic belief that even in death, the saints in Heaven remain united to the living on Earth because of the Resurrection.

"There are undoubtedly people, Catholics and non-Catholics, who regard these relics as a magical talisman," said the Rev. David Blanchard, 48, an anthropologist and another monk at Whitefriars. But the church stresses "the faith content" of the relics, which are meant to remind people of "Therese's message . . . which is to do a great thing, to love."

Therese probably would be unknown today except that, on the advice of her superiors, the French nun wrote her autobiography. "Story of a Soul" became a spiritual classic of the 20th century and was translated into 60 languages.

In 1925, she was canonized. In 1997, she was declared a doctor of the church, a recognition that her writings, which also include letters and poems, have spiritual authority. She is the subject of about 900 biographies.

Therese's spiritual outlook, a source of inspiration for such prominent Catholics as Dorothy Day and Mother Teresa, is called "the Little Way." It emphasizes God's presence in the banal, mundane events of everyday life, and its message is that whatever you do matters if you do it with love.

"In this culture, with its emphasis on celebrity and status, she speaks to . . . the little folks, people who aren't going to have their 15 minutes of fame," Blanchard said.

She tells them, he added, that "God has entrusted them with a mission, the mission to love. . . . And you don't have to have great results if you love. . . . The important thing is to love."

Today, the reliquary will be transferred for public viewing to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Northeast Washington, where the Rev. William E. Lori, auxiliary bishop of Washington, will celebrate Mass at noon.

Then, after a 5:30 p.m. prayer at the basilica, Brother Eric Bell will arrive in an unadorned navy blue Ford van, which some have dubbed the "Therese-mobile," and the nearly 300-pound reliquary will be edged into the back of the vehicle and driven to Whitefriars Hall.

There, the monks will greet their overnight guest at the door. They plan to be singing, "Salve, Regina."

CAPTION: Friars at the Discalced Carmelite Monastery carry the reliquary of Saint Therese of Lisieux, who died 102 years ago of tuberculosis at age 24, into the chapel in Washington.

CAPTION: A visitor touches the Plexiglas arc that contains the reliquary of Saint Therese of Lisieux, one of the most popular Catholic saints, at the Discalced Carmelite Monastery.

CAPTION: Church officials expect millions of Catholics will view the intricately carved reliquary during its 117-day tour through 25 states.