On 18 October 2015, Pope Francis canonised a married couple together for the first time in the Church’s history. Louis and Zélie Martin (neé Guerin) were married for 19 years before Zélie died of breast cancer at the age of 46. She bore 9 children, 4 of whom sadly died in infancy. The remaining 5, all girls, became nuns. Their youngest daughter, Thérèse, was described by Pope St Pius X as “The greatest saint of modern times” even before her canonisation. Thérèse wrote of her parents: “The good God gave me a father and a mother more worthy of heaven than of earth.”
Both Louis and Zélie experienced an attraction to religious life before they married but their attempts to pursue it were unsuccessful. In April 1858, the two met as they crossed the Saint-Léonard Bridge in Alençon. Zélie heard an inner voice saying, “This is he whom I have prepared for you.” Three months later they were married.
Initially they decided to live as brother and sister, maintaining absolute chastity. Some months later, a wise priest counselled them that this was not an authentic marriage. Louis and Zélie then decided to raise many children in order to offer them to God.
Zélie was a gifted lacemaker, excelling in the famous local lace-making style known as Point d’ Alençon. Louis was a watchmaker but eventually he gave this up to help with the business affairs of Zélie’s thriving enterprise.
They brought up their children in an atmosphere of prayer, love and trust. St Thérèse’s boundless confidence in God as a loving Father teaches us something about the qualities of her parents, in whom she saw God’s love reflected.
Zélie suffered much in her last illness. She and her three eldest daughters Marie, Pauline and Léonie made a pilgrimage to Lourdes to beg for a cure. Their prayers seemed not to be answered but Zélie refused to be discouraged and told her husband and family “I want you to not torment yourself too much [over my death]; I want you to resign yourself to the will of God.”
After Zélie’s death, Louis moved with his daughters to Lisieux, in order to be closer to Zélie’s brother and sister-in-law, Isidore and Céline Guerin, who helped him to care for his large family. The Martin sisters and their Guerin cousins were very close, and grew up together as if they were all sisters. It was to her Aunt Céline that St Thérèse sent the quotation: “The loveliest masterpiece of the heart of God is the heart of a mother.” On the other hand, Thérèse admits to being somewhat afraid of her uncle, which perhaps says as much about the gentleness of Louis as it does about the gruff manner of Isidore.
One by one the Martin daughters discerned a vocation to religious life. First Pauline, then Marie, entered the Lisieux Carmel, followed by Thérèse. Léonie tried her vocation with both the Poor Clares and the Visitandines but left both orders. This was providential, as she was then able to help Céline care for Louis during his last illness, although she entered the Visitation Convent a second time before her father died. The family suffered terribly when Louis was admitted to the Bon Sauveur Asylum in Caen suffering from dementia. At that time, there was a tremendous stigma attached to mental illness. People whispered that Thérèse’s entry into Carmel had driven Louis insane. Even in Carmel, Thérèse was not insulated from these rumours. She never refers to her father’s illness but only to his ‘passion’ and ‘martyrdom’. Eventually the family brought him to be cared for at the Guerin’s country home of Chateau La Musse, near Évreux. After Louis died, Céline joined her sisters in Carmel and Léonie once again left the Visitation Convent in Caen to return to her aunt and uncle. She finally went back to the Visitandines and stayed, after the death of Thérèse.
The Martin family left us a great deal of correspondence, through which we can see their holiness and love for one another.
All the letters can be read in full on the Lisieux Carmel Archives website.