Yesterday (October 18) on World Mission Sunday, in St Peter’s Square, during the Synod of Bishops on the family, Pope Francis canonised Louis (1823-1894) and Marie Zélie Guerin Martin (1831-1877), the parents of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux. The following article was written by Louise Kirk for The Wanderer:
On 28 August in the colourful Normandy town of Alençon a special feast was celebrated. Those of us blessed to be there had the extraordinary experience of praying the Mass while looking into the bedroom where the Blessed had died. We were in the house of the Martin family, on the 138th anniversary of Zélie’s death. She and her husband Louis are to be canonised in Rome during the Family Synod on 18 October.
Blessed Zélie and Louis’s journey towards canonisation has been unusual in many ways. St Thérèse declared that her own potential for holiness had been received because of theirs, but it was she, their daughter, who revealed their holiness to the world. So close were their lives as a couple that, although their causes were introduced separately in different dioceses, Pope Paul VI took the historic step of uniting two causes for beatification into one, the first time this had happened. Cardinal Lorenzo Baldiserri comments that, in living out His will for them, Zélie and Louis knew that they did not stand before God side by side, but that each reached Him in and through the other.
One miracle opened the way to their joint beatification, and another to their canonisation, and both miracles concerned a sick child. It is fitting that this pair of loving parents, who gave so much to their own nine children, should intercede for the lives of modern day little ones when four of their own had died. Losing a child is always a heartache, and walking through the house where the Martin dramas took place, it is not hard to imagine Louis crying out in a strangled voice on one of these occasions: “Ma petite Hélène, ma petite Hélène!” (“My little Helene, my little Helene!”) But then, as Zélie describes in a letter, they offered their five-year-old daughter trustingly “au Bon Dieu” (“to the Good Lord”).
This complete trust in Divine Providence is what makes Zélie and Louis stand out as appealing advocates, since they show us how to live each day, with its ups and downs, joys and sorrows, knowing that whatever happens God is in charge and loves us, and that He wants us to live confident in that love. If you take away their supernatural achievements, notably in raising five religious sisters, their lives were quite ordinary. Their neat little house stands across the road from a grand chateau, and I could not help wondering if its former occupant, now forgotten, would even have noticed the clockmaker and his wife opposite.
Zélie thought of her vocation as wife and mother, but she was also a good business woman. At the age of 22 she had already set herself up as a lacemaker with her own boutique. Alençon is famous for lacemaking, but whereas such an enterprise commonly employed up to fifteen women working from their own homes, she had twenty, with orders coming from as far afield as Paris. In due course, Louis gave up his business to help her administer hers, an interesting comment on how they managed their work-life balance. The Martins also had three domestic staff who were treated as an extension of the family. For all that, Zélie found combining work and family roles a strain and she writes of her eye ache, and of the distraction of working with half a mind on her children. Outside her and Louis’s work room are the stairs where little Thérèse would go up and down, one at a time, refusing to budge until she heard her mother’s voice.
Zélie and Louis were exemplary employers. They paid on time, and looked after their staff’s health and well-being. More than that, they would never work on a Sunday. This was something that Zélie particularly admired in Louis, saying that she thought that they were blessed by the Lord with prosperity as a reward for his being so faithful to the Sabbath rest. This was quite some sacrifice given that other clockmakers remained open on a day when people had the leisure to shop.
Their ambition was never to be rich, but to have enough to raise and educate their family well. They were renowned for their charity, taking St Elizabeth of Hungary for their model. There was always food in the house and Zélie would regularly press the poor to come in and eat. Louis helped to found a Catholic workers’ society along the lines of St Vincent de Paul, helping out among the poor and unemployed of whom there were many during the Franco-Prussian war. Alençon fell to the enemy in 1870 and all its citizens, including the Martins, struggled to survive and find enough to eat.
Louis and Zélie both hoped to find their vocations in religious life but once it was made clear to them that this was not God’s will they gave their all to their marriage. Zélie wrote of how she wanted lots of children to raise them for heaven. Her prayer was that they should each be saints, with herself following behind, only that they might be better than her. She and Louis prayed that their children might have religious vocations, and in particular that they might be given sons who would become missionary priests. It was therefore an extra blow when their two sons died. St Thérèse later commented that her parents’ missionary hopes were to be realised in her own work from within her convent walls. It is a nice touch that Pope Pius XI would name St Thérèse Patron of Missions.
Zélie’s health was never robust and bearing children took its toll on her. Despite this, and early symptoms of the illness which would take her life, she insisted to Louis that she wished for a ninth baby. Even he was apprehensive. They had already lost four children, and were running against medical advice, but together they trusted in Divine Providence and gave the world St Thérèse.
The Little Princess was only three when her mother’s breast cancer was diagnosed. It is another irony that Zélie, who had longed to feed her own children but lacked the milk, should have suffered from an illness which is exacerbated today by modern lifestyles. Zélie prayed hard for a cure and went with three of her daughters to Lourdes. There was no cure and her disappointment is palpable for she was acutely aware of the impact her likely death would have on her family. It was not Thérèse that she was particularly concerned for but their third daughter, Léonie.
Léonie was one of Zélie’s crosses. She was a difficult child, frequently ill, and of much slower intelligence than her sisters. Zélie offered her Lourdes pilgrimage for Léonie asking that, if she was not to receive a cure herself, the Holy Virgin would instead cure her daughter, open her intelligence and make a saint of her. Léonie went on to join the Visitation Order where she lived a holy life for 42 years. Her cause for beatification opened in January this year.
Louis and Zélie’s life of trust in Divine Providence was built on active prayer and mortification. They used to rise each morning for the “workers’” Mass at 5:30 am, which was in itself a big sacrifice, especially in inclement weather. The attention to their children’s education in the faith, their offering of acts of love to Jesus, all helped to prepare their daughters for The Little Way which St Thérèse was to make famous. This path to holiness enabled Zélie to make a sublime act of faith shortly before her death. She declared that, while she longed for the Good God to cure her, for it cost her so much to leave her husband and children, if He did not do so it could only be because it was better for them that she go.
Zélie died in 1877 aged 46, leaving Louis heartbroken. The family moved to Lisieux to be near her brother and his wife, who helped Louis bring up the children. It was Louis who saw their prayers fulfilled as each of their five daughters found their religious vocations. He loved them to detachment, rejoicing that the Good God should have taken each of them for Himself, including his Little Princess when she was only 15. He outlived Zélie by nineteen years and, when an old man, he who had suffered so much considered his lot to be such a joyous one that he asked God for some sacrifice to offer Him in return. It came in the form of dementia, a painful illness for one of such clear intelligence. He spent three years in a dementia home and in moments of clarity he was aware of the humiliation of his circumstances. As a role model, he offers great hope to the dependent elderly today.
The canonisation of Blessed Zélie and Louis Martin during the Family Synod is a treasure for the Church. Pope Francis has asked repeatedly that this Synod be founded upon the prayers of all the faithful. There is much serious matter for the Bishops to discuss at it, and much that has already given cause for alarm. Perhaps with our prayers for it, and our work on its behalf, we can also ask the Martin family for the peaceful trust that all will be well. Blessed Zélie and Louis teach us that we cannot trust God too much, and the more we trust Him the freer our Good God is to act.