Pioneer magazine

Louis and Zélie Martin: Saints of a Saint

october2015On 27 June, during a consistory of bishops Pope Francis formally approved the canonisation of Louis and Zélie Martin the parents of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. He announced that the ceremony would take place on Mission Sunday, 18 October 2015 during the Synod on the Family, writes SR THÉRÈSE MARIE OCD

On July 26, 1897 St. Thérèse wrote in a letter to Abbé Maurice Bellière, ‘God gave me a father and a mother more worthy of heaven than of earth’. Later her sister Pauline testified at the process for Thérèse’s Beatification, ‘My parents always seemed to me to be saints. We were filled with respect and admiration for them. Sometimes I asked myself if there could be others like them on earth. I never saw any such round me.’

Although there are other married saints, Louis and Zélie are the first husband and wife to be pronounced saints together at the same ceremony; not because they are Thérèse’s parents or because their own children believed that they were saints, but because a long study of their lives shows that they practised the Christian virtues with heroic courage and faithfulness and this has been confirmed by miracles through their intercession. Recent popes have favoured their canonisation as an example of faithful marriage and parenthood.

 Hans von Balthasar, a well-respected twentieth century theologian, wrote that, ‘Nothing moved Thérèse more, perhaps, than the experience of being loved by her father and mother ; consequently, her image of God is coloured by a child’s love. And it is to Louis and Zélie Martin that we owe the doctrine of the  little way and of spiritual childhood, for they brought to life in Thérèse of the Child Jesus that God who is more than father and mother’.

Louis was born in 1823 and died in 1894; Zélie was born in 1831 and died in 1877. They enjoyed nineteen years of marriage and had nine children. Their five daughters who survived infancy all outlived them and all became religious, four of them were Carmelites at Lisieux and the fifth a Visitation nun at Caen.

Louis and Zélie had both wanted to enter religious life themselves, but clearly God had other plans for them. Louis had tried to enter the Monastery of the Great Saint Bernard on the Swiss Alps but was refused because he did not know Latin. He went home to Alençon and took some lessons, but after several months he went to Paris to finish his apprenticeship in watch and clock making. In 1850 he became a Master Watchmaker and returned to  Alençon to set up his business. He worked hard and was soon able to add a jewellers shop. His business thrived, even though, unlike others in the town, he refused to open his shop on Sundays.

Zélie had tried to enter the Sisters of Charity in Alençon but was refused by the superior of the house, probably because she had poor health in childhood. She prayed about what she should do and after some time heard an interior voice directing her to make Alençon Point Lace. Most of the workers specialised in a particular stitch and the work was made in separate sections and then joined together by a skilful assembler who knew all the stitches.  Zélie became expert at this work and was able to set up a business, employing women to work the pieces which she would assemble and sell herself.

Louis and Zelie MartinBoth watch making and lacework require intense concentration and meticulous accuracy and both Louis and Zélie aimed for perfection in their work just as they did in their Christian lives. They used the ordinary circumstances of their lives to lead them closer to God and their holiness was expressed in their attitudes to the tasks that came their way. They were always ready to make sacrifices and they saw the hand of God in everything because He was the centre of their lives. They created an atmosphere in their home which nurtured and formed their family in deep faith. The children grew in holiness because of the love and encouragement given to them by their parents. Louis and Zélie were deeply compassionate in their care for their family and for any others they saw in need. Their good example was an inspiration to their children. They were generous in giving alms to the poor and often helped them in practical ways too. They went daily to the 5.30 a.m. Mass and both received Holy Communion several times each week, which was unusually frequent in those days.

Louis and Zélie had a lot in common but in temperament they were very different. Louis was a quiet, gentle and contemplative, while Zélie was vivacious, determined, and perceptive, as well as being a woman of deep prayer.

Zélie first noticed Louis one April day in 1858 when she was crossing the Bridge of St. Leonard, as he passed by she heard an interior voice saying, ‘This is the man I have prepared for you’. They were married three months later on 13 July in the Church of Our Lady. They lived behind Louis’ shop and the house was large enough for Louis’ parents to have a separate apartment upstairs. As Louis and Zélie had both desired to enter religious life they chose to express their dedication to God through chastity after their marriage but during this time they cared for a little boy whose mother had died. It was ten months later, when a confessor suggested they should consider parenthood and they were both delighted when their first daughter, Marie Louise was born in 1860.

Eight more children followed in the next thirteen years. Louis and Zélie rejoiced at each birth and grieved when their only two boys and a girl died as small babies, but perhaps the greatest sorrow, was the death of Hélène at the age of five in 1870. That year Louis sold his business so that he could help Zélie with hers. He had already taken over the book-keeping and was now free to travel to obtain orders.

Zélie often worked late into the night as she always gave time to her children when they needed it and she wrote many letters. In 1871 the family moved into Zélie’s old home and their last child, Thérèse, was born there on 2 January 1873.

Sadly, Zélie, who had been suffering from breast cancer for several years, died in the early hours of 28 August 1877. A few months later Louis moved to Lisieux with his five daughters ranging in age from four to seventeen, this enabled them to have the company and support of Zélie’s brother, Isidore Guérin, and his family. Louis saw his daughters entering religious life one by one, and rejoiced that God had called them, their mother had prayed that all her daughters would be nuns and her prayer was answered, though Céline cared for her father in his old age and only entered Carmel after his death.  By February 1889 Louis’ memory was failing and several times he wandered away from home, so for three years he was cared for in the Bon Sauveur hospital in Caen. When he was no longer mobile he was able to return to Lisieux and in the summer of 1893 he went with Céline to join  the Guérin family at La Musse, a large property near Evreux. They returned to Lisieux in August and throughout the winter Louis’ health remained stable, but in May 1894 he suffered a serious stroke which paralysed his left arm. In June he had a heart attack but by July he was well enough to make the journey to La Musse. He suffered another serious heart attack on 28 July and received the last sacraments. At a quarter past eight the next morning, 29 July 1894, he died with Céline at his bedside. She wrote to her sisters in Carmel ‘Papa is in heaven’.

Most people can identify with some aspects of Louis and Zélie’s lives. In many ways they were an ordinary married couple, involved in business affairs, concerned about the upbringing of their children and coping with the death of four of them. Zélie was a working mother and Louis a widowed, single father. They had much happiness but they also had many trials, especially that of Zélie’s cancer and early death. Yet throughout everything they remained open to the grace of God who was always the centre of their lives.