Leonie Martin, the ‘difficult’ sister of St Thérèse of Lisieux

On a memorable pilgrimage that I made with my mother to Lisieux in 1997 for the centenary of the death of St Thérèse, we also visited Alençon (birthplace of the Martin sisters) and Caen where Thérèse’s elder sister, Léonie, lived for over 40 years as a Vistatiin nun. We heard her hard story for the first time from the dear sisters at the convent there. They were all convinced that this gentle and prayerful member of their community, who had overcome so many difficulties to become a religious – most of all, that of conquering her own recalcitrant nature – was now a Saint in Heaven. Since then the cause for Léonie’s beatification has been opened.

—————

Throughout the book, Léonie Martin: A Difficult Life, author Marie Baudouin-Croix utilises numerous excerpts from letters written by members of the Martin family that provide candid insights into Léonie’s physical and emotional problems. Indeed, her turbulent childhood and adolescence dominated the family dynamic.

Léonie herself wrote that her childhood and youth “were spent in suffering, in the bitterest of trials.” These trials included a maid who threatened and bullied her for years until this was discovered by her elder sister Marie when Léonie was in her early teens, and the maid immediately dismissed.

From birth, she suffered from painful eczema and frequent intestinal ailments. The third child and third daughter of Sts. Louis and Zélie Martin, she was clumsy and a slow learner; she failed in boarding school and was expelled due to her disruptive character.

Most troubling were her outbursts of defiance that multiplied exponentially as she grew older, aimed particularly at her overwrought mother, who was suffering from terminal breast cancer and felt helpless to gain her daughter’s trust.

Her mother, St. Zélie (who along with her father, St. Louis, is celebrated by the Church on 12th July), shared her anguish in a letter to her oldest daughter, Pauline: “The poor child is absolutely full of faults. I don’t even know where to begin! Yesterday, she had a dreadful day. She did everything as badly as she could.”

But after the bullying maid who had been the cause of so much of Léonie’s erratic behaviour had been dismissed Léonie was at last able to bond with her mother shortly before her mother’s death.

Nonetheless, the scars of abuse ran deep. Unable to stabilise, she entered and then left convents three times, plagued by bouts of depression, self-doubt and illness. During the interims, she helped to care for her father during his final illness, performed works of charity among the community, and corresponded in letters with her Carmelite sisters, whom she would always esteem as her closest friends.

Before her sister Celine entered Carmel, while visiting relatives in La Musse, Léonie penned a letter to her, revealing her soul: “More and more, I see the meaninglessness of all that passes, and this does me good, gradually increasing my detachment; but there is always this sadness, deep within me, that I can never completely overcome. Although I feel that I am, for the moment, where God wants me to be, I suffer — I suffer terribly — and my exile seems very long to me. Only Jesus knows what it costs me.”

On 18th January 1877 Léonie had written: “May the Good Lord give me the vocation to become a true religious”. Never without hope, Léonie’s desire to become a bride of Christ was finally realised. At her third try at age 36, on 28th January 1899, two years after Thérèse’s death, Léonie entered the Visitation convent in Caen, fulfilling the Little Flower’s prophetic words during her last days on earth, “After I die, I will make Léonie rejoin the Visitation Order, and this time she will stay.” On 2nd July 1900 she took her final vows thus becoming at last a professed member of the Visitation Sisters .

In her religious order, Léonie chose the name Sister Francoise Thérèse, again a prediction of her saintly sister: “She will take my name and that of St. Francis de Sales.”

Although Léonie experienced peace and joy as a Visitandine, perhaps the greatest miracle of her life was that she never succumbed to harbouring resentment about her past difficulties.

Through persistent prayer, she lived the Gospel according to the inspired teachings and example of her saintly sister and accepted her limitations with good humour. Describing her life in a letter to her Carmelite sisters, she wrote, “I have been appointed assistant to the bursar. It is just the job for me; I put things in order here and there, all through the house. I think of myself as the convent’s little donkey, and I certainly find my lot an enviable one. So many sacrifices, known only to Jesus! How many souls I can save by these little nothings — as little as I am myself — which are my humble harvest!” Attuned to the Heart of Jesus, in 1923, upon hearing of the death of the maid from her childhood, she wrote, “I forgive my tormentor with all my heart.”

Léonie Martin has a story that will inspire all who seek holiness.Her life is a testimony to the power of transformation.  She was transformed by reading Thérèse’s “Story of a Soul” and by the spirituality of her little sister, which she incarnated with struggle and generosity.  She is a source of strength to wounded souls and a witness to the power of forgiveness and healing.

Léonie’s cause for canonisation is now underway since the bishop of her diocese received permission to open her cause. Therefore she now has the title “The Servant of God.”  The next big step in the process is to be declared “venerable.”  A candidate who is called “Venerable” has been found by the Church to have practiced the cardinal virtues (prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude) and the theological virtues (faith, hope, and charity) to an heroic degree.

And so, on 25th March 2012, Mgr Jean-Claude Boulanger, bishop of the diocese of Bayeux and Lisieux, granted the imprimatur for a prayer of intercession so that Léonie might be declared “venerable.”

————

Dear Leonie our Sister,

You have already intervened with God on our behalf,

and we would  like to be able to pray to you officially,

so that many more might know you.

Come to the aid of parents who risk losing a child,

as you nearly died at a very young age.

Continue to uphold the families

where different generations

have problems living together in peace.

Enlighten youth who question their future

and hesitate to commit.

Show to all the way of prayer

which permits you to bear your limitations

and your difficulties with confidence,

and to give yourself to others.

Lord, if such is your will,

deign to accord us the grace that we ask of you

through the intercession of your servant Léonie, and

inscribe her among the number of the venerable of your Church.

Through Jesus Christ, our Lord.  Amen.

Imprimatur: March 25, 2012

+ Jean-Claude Boulanger
Bishop of Bayeux-Lisieux

Persons who receive favours by the intercession of Léonie Martin, in religion Sister Françoise-Thérèse, are asked to make them known  to the Monastery of the Visitation:

Monastery of the Visitation
3 rue de l’Abbatiale
14000 CAEN
FRANCE

[Sources: Sanctuaire de Lisieux, National Catholic Register, leoniemartin.org ]

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