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Ste. Thérèse of Lisieux Part 1- Her Family

Added: Sunday, October 21st 2007 at 12:48pm by canadiancatholicblog
Related Tags: religion

In my most recent post, on the first 17 verses from Luke 7, I focused on at least two major themes: on healing whose fullness comes through Jesus Christ, and on the role of a prophet.

Since then I have started yet another philosophy course, entitled Greek Philosophy in the Christian Tradition, and once again my frequency of blog posts has consequently diminished. Nonetheless, on October 12 I was greatly privileged to have been able to speak to a Catholic university student group, the Newman Club, of which I am the president for a second term this year. I spoke on the life of Ste. Thérèse of Lisieux. She is one of my favourite saints, and has been a major focus of my spiritual reading as I also am discerning religious life and the priesthood and am currently an associate of the Congregation of St. Basil, or Basilian Fathers.

Ste. Thérèse of Lisieux was called “the greatest healer of modern times” by Pope Pius XII, and “the greatest saint of modern times” by St. Pius X. As Pope John Paul II wrote in Divini Amoris Scientia (The Science of Divine Love), the Apostolic Letter in which the late Pope declared Ste. Thérèse a Doctor of the Church, Ste. Thérèse of Lisieux is a model for religious, for contemplatives, for women, and for young people.

To carry the themes over from my last article, Ste. Thérèse, the co-patron of the missions, is an example of a healer and a great prophet. Therefore, here is the first of three parts of the text of my presentation, which extends from the early years of Ste. Thérèse’s parents to the death of her mother.

I have also created a podcast, Theophilus, where audio versions of this and future articles I will post here will be available, in both English and French. The link to the podcast is available from this blog. The podcast’s URL is http://theophilus.mypodcast.com/index.html. I invite those reading this or listening to my podcast episodes to do so prayerfully. May God’s blessings be upon all. Ste. Thérèse of Lisieux, pray for us…


“Love appeared to me to be the hinge for my vocation. Indeed, I knew that the Church had a body composed of various members, but in this body the necessary and more noble member was not lacking; I knew that the Church had a heart and that such a heart appeared to be aflame with love. I knew that one love drove the members of the Church to action, that if this love were extinguished, the apostles would have proclaimed the Gospel no longer, the martyrs would have shed their blood no more…

I saw and realized that love sets off the bounds of all vocations, that love is everything, that this same love embraces every time and every place. In one word, that love is eternal.” (Ms. B, 3v°)

The “story of the little white spring flower” (Ms. A, 2r°) began the night of January 2, 1873, when at 36, rue Saint-Blaise, in the small town of Alençon, France, the ninth child of Marie-Azélie (Zélie) and of Louis Martin was born. She was named Marie Françoise Thérèse. But God, in whose book all our days are written before they come to be (cf. Ps. 139:16), had planted the seed of this beautiful Saint much earlier.

Both of Thérèse’s parents had longed for religious life, but poor health, in the case of Zélie, and Louis’ youth and lack of knowledge of Latin had dictated otherwise. Louis Joseph Aloys Stanislaus Martin was born on August 22, 1823 in a military camp in Bordeaux, France. He was the third of the five children of Marie-Anne-Fanie (née Boureau) and of Captain Pierre-François Martin. The Martin family was continually on the move. As such, Louis’ full ceremonial baptism, at St. Eulalie in Bordeaux, wasn’t completed until October, 1823. The Archbishop of Bordeaux then declared the newly-initiated Louis to be “predestined”.

Just after Louis’ thirtieth birthday, the last of his four siblings passed away. In 1843, 20-year-old Louis traveled to the Augustinian Grand-Saint-Bernard Hospice in the Swiss Alps but was refused admission. He returned home carrying a small white flower as a souvenir of the pilgrimage. Following one year of study in Latin, he decided to become a watchmaker, first studying the trade under his father’s cousin in Rennes. He then settled in Alençon in Normandy, where his watch making business thrived.

The quiet town of Alençon was a perfect fit for Louis Martin, who regularly attended Mass in the early hours of the morning before opening his shop. Although a priest had told him that he could leave a side door to his shop open on Sundays, Louis declined any commercial activity on the Lord’s Day. Mr. Martin enjoyed solitude; his favourite activities included trout fishing and occasional hunting, when he could be alone with God and with His creation. Louis was also known to give generously to the poor, and he often donated his catch of the day to the Poor Clares.

Late in 1857, Louis Martin, who still had no thoughts of marriage, to the dismay of his mother, bought a property named “La Pavilion”. Shortly thereafter, he fell in love with Zélie Guérin, a 26-year-old lace making student. Louis and Zélie were married only three months later, on July 13, 1858.

Zélie, like her husband, had tried to enter into a religious community. Due to respiratory difficulties and recurrent headaches, she was turned away by the Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul. Zélie’s longing to be a religious was not without precedent in her family; her older sister, Marie-Louise, became a Sister of the Visitation as Sr. Marie-Dosithée in Le Mans at 29 years of age in 1858.

Marie-Azélie Guérin had one other sibling, her brother Isidore, born ten years after her. Isidore, who was highly intelligent, became a medical student in Paris before buying the pharmacy in Lisieux that was owned by his eventual father-in-law, Pierre Fournet. Isidore married Pierre Fournet’s daughter, Céline, in 1866, in the same year as the purchase of the pharmacy. Céline and Isidore Guérin had two daughters, Jeanne and Marie, who were five and three years older than Thérèse Martin, respectively. Thérèse was especially close to her cousins, one of whom would also become a Carmelite at Lisieux…

Thérèse’s mother Zélie was born at St. Denis-sur-Sarthon on December 23, 1831. At that time, Zélie’s father, 42-year-old Isidore, was a police officer, while her mother, Louise-Jeanne (née Macé), 27, was a homemaker who later opened a small café. Zélie was brought up strictly. She and her brother and sister were allowed few possessions. Isidore was more affectionate toward his son and daughters than was Louise-Jeanne, though both parents had a strong faith and a great love for their children.

In 1844, the Guérin family moved to Alençon, where 13-year-old Zélie was enrolled in the School of the Perpetual Adoration. She later wrote that her childhood had been a sad experience. Zélie’s poor health worsened matters for this bright girl who was nevertheless constantly at the top of her class in French composition and style.

After the Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul refused her entry, Zélie prayed that God might grant her many “little saints” as children that would be consecrated to Him. The answer to her prayers began on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, December 8, 1851. In a dream, the Blessed Virgin Mary told Zélie to learn to make Point d’Alençon lace. It was a painstaking process to make the high-quality garments for which Alençon was famous, but Zélie was a quick study. She opened her own business, which at its height employed about 15 women. Our Lady visited Zélie once more, when, in April 1858, she passed a man on the Bridge of St. Léonard in Alençon. A voice told Zélie, “(It) is he whom I have prepared for you”.

Zélie married the man she met on the bridge, Louis Martin. For nearly a year, Louis and Zélie lived a celibate married life, following the example of Saints Mary and Joseph. Then their confessor, seeing the devotion with which, in their first year of marriage, Louis and Zélie had cared for a five-year-old boy whose father had died, suggested that they ought to raise their own children. On February 22, 1860, their first of nine children over 13 years, five of whom would reach adulthood, was born. Marie was most cherished by Louis and by Zélie. Thérèse would later refer to her oldest sister and baptismal Godmother as the first of nine lilies (referring to all the Martin children) on which would rest the cloth used by St. Veronica that bears the imprint of the Face of Jesus, as in an image painted for Céline by Pauline at Thérèse’s request. (cf. LT 102)

On the ninth anniversary of her first encounter with the Blessed Virgin Mary, December 8, 1860, Zélie prayed for a second child. Nine months later almost to the day, September 7, 1861, Marie-Pauline was born. She would become the most overtly religious of the Martin girls, save perhaps Thérèse, and the first to enter the Carmelites in Lisieux, on October 2, 1882. A third daughter, Marie-Léonie, followed on June 3, 1863. Unlike her two older sisters, Léonie struggled with poor health from the beginning. Her chances of survival were continually in doubt when, during her first sixteen months, Léonie developed eczema that covered her body and put her at risk for infection. Léonie also suffered a bout of measles such that she went into convulsions.

The fourth daughter, Marie-Hélène, born October 13, 1864, started out healthier than Léonie, but the lacemaking business and four children within four years were beginning to weaken Zélie. Therefore, Zélie found herself unable to nurse Hélène, and she sent her fourth daughter to Rosalie (Rose) Taillé, a wet nurse from a modest farm cottage in Semallé, 9 km from Alençon. The following year, Zélie consulted a doctor about a painful swelling in her breast. The doctor, for reasons unknown, felt that an operation was unnecessary. Besides, the condition seemed to resolve itself, and would pass undetected for the next eleven years…

Meanwhile, Louis and Zélie continued to pray for a son who might grow up to be a priest. This wish seemed to have been granted with the birth of Joseph-Louis on September 20, 1866. The child was the strongest at birth since Marie, but he eventually developed enteritis and suddenly died on February 14, 1867. Though Zélie was convinced that her son had been received into Heaven, his death and that of Louis’ father a year-and-a-half prior had left her “overwhelmed” with grief. Six days before Christmas 1867, a second son, Joseph-Jean-Baptiste, was born. This second son was baptized at birth because his health was so poor. Again, Rose Taillé came to nurse the child, but three months of recurrent bronchitis followed by enteritis claimed Joseph-Jean-Baptiste’s life on August 24, 1868. God took him from Zélie’s arms into His loving embrace in Heaven. The four surviving Martin children were encouraged to pray for the intercession of their departed brothers. Hélène thus was cured of an earinfection just five weeks after the first boy had died.

The Martins continued to experience bereavement when Zélie’s father passed away only two weeks after Joseph-Jean-Baptiste. Sorrow was mitigated by some joy with the birth of Marie-Céline on April 28, 1869. This seventh child was also of delicate health, and the unavailability of Rose Taillé to nurse her added to her parents’ anxiety, but Céline, a precocious yet quiet girl, survived. Instead, Hélène rapidly became ill and died on February 22, 1870. Her death hit her parents even harder than those of their two sons, because Hélène had lived for five years in reasonable health. Also, Léonie, who had a difficult temperament in addition to her own health problems, was abruptly deprived of her natural companion among her siblings.

Another daughter, Marie-Mélanie-Thérèse, born on August 16, 1870, died on October 8, aged two months. Zélie continued to pray for a son, but the ninth child was another daughter, Marie-Françoise-Thérèse. She, too, was ill early on, and Rose Taillé was summoned again to nurse her. Thérèse was baptized when she was two days old, on January 4, 1873. God’s plans certainly differed from those of Zélie and of Louis, but for that there was a reason yet to be revealed…

The youngest Martin girl became a lively and strong-willed child who was at least as intelligent as Céline. In her letters of this time, written to Marie and Pauline while they were boarders at the Visitation Convent in Caen, 70 km away, Zélie contrasted the shy Céline with the rambunctious Thérèse, whom she called “le petit lutin”- “the little imp”. (Ms. A, 4v°) Thérèse had a strong sense of morality and of the value of practical good works from early on. If she feared having done something wrong, such as tearing a small piece of wallpaper or pushing Céline, she would pre-emptively throw herself into Louis’ arms, vowing never to repeat the same mistake. (cf. Ms. A, 5v°) She would test her parents’ patience occasionally, like when she would call out to Zélie from the stairs, “Maman!” Only when her mother responded would Thérèse move up or down one step. The game was renewed at each of the fifteen or so steps in the house until Thérèse would reach either the top or the bottom of thestairway.

Thérèse quickly developed an amazing spiritual maturity, too. At four years old, she was asked by Céline, nearly nine, how such a great God could fit into such a small host to be received by people at Communion. Thérèse responded simply but profoundly, “God does as He wishes.” (Ms. A, 10r°) Once, while accompanying her mother in the garden, Thérèse exclaimed to her, “Dear Mama, how I wish you would die.” Zélie, by then suffering from advanced breast cancer unbeknownst to Thérèse, began to scold her daughter, asking her why she would say such a thing. Thérèse replied with childlike logic, “…Because then you will go to Heaven.” Zélie recounted that Thérèse would repeat the same thing to her father, drawing the same alarmed reaction, “when she was at her most affectionate”. (Ms. A, 4v°)

Four months after the death of her sister Marie-Louise (Thérèse’s aunt), Visitandine Sr. Marie-Dosithée, from tuberculosis, Zélie also entered into eternal life. In the weeks preceding his wife’s death at 46 on August 28, 1877, Louis would not leave her side. The following morning, four-year-old Thérèse, barely tall enough to see into the open coffin, was taken to see her mother for the last time. Among her daughters, Zélie’s death most deeply affected Céline and Thérèse. The lively Thérèse, who at two years old one morning escaped from her home and hurriedly followed her parents to Mass, became reserved and prone to emotional outbursts. She would cry for little reason, and then cry more because she had cried. In contrast, the more introspective Céline became increasingly free-spirited, taking on Thérèse’s former role as “le petit lutin”. (To be continued…)


User Comments

Works I've referred to in this article:

(Ms. A, B, C)- The Autobiographical Manuscripts of Ste. Thérèse of Lisieux.

LT- The Letters of Ste. Thérèse of Lisieux.

Many of the quotations included in my presentaion from the Autobiography or from the Letters were taken from the French-language "Oeuvres complètes" (Complete Works of Ste. Thérèse of Lisieux), published by Editions Cerf and by Desclée de Brouwer in Paris in 1992. Translations from French are mine.

Also I drew much information from an article by Carmelite J. Linus Ryan that is available at http://www.sttherese.com/Parents.html.

I enjoy reading about the lives of the Saints. Imaging what life was like in their day.
Thank you for sharing this with us.
You're very welcome. I also like to read and write about the lives of the saints. They are extraordinary people, but more importantly the saints are human beings like all of us. In their living out of their ordinary humanity, they all teach us something about how to be better people. Christ, too, became human like us to, in a sense, divinize humankind, if that makes sense.

Anyway, I'm off on a bit of a tangent...One of my favourite quotations of Ste. Thérèse of Lisieux (from the Last Conversations I think), is that her autobiography, known as "The Story of a Soul", would touch the hearts of all people, "except those who live by extraordinary ways". Ste. Thérèse lived exemplary humility despite her greatness. God Bless. All holy men and women, pray for us...

Interesting post. Looking forward to the next installments. I recently read an article in Times mag about characteristics of brith order, and Therese fits the stereotype of the younger children, more mischievous, etc. She seems to have become more sober after her mother's death from metastatic breast cancer!
Role Models and Archetypes are very important in any culture. In my personal point of view, I'm fed up with the stuff "fed" to us. about the "stars".
Saints be praised.
Kids that I know feel uncomfortable with being smart/nice/clever. To "fit" in they dumb down & "act" like a teen??? Why??
So keep on sharing about other people lives
It just might catch on, at least it'll offer some balance in today's world and culture.

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