Blessed Zélie and Louis Martin: Companions on our Journey

by Maureen O'Riordan

Earlier this year on the 150th anniversary of the marriage of the Venerable Zélie and Louis Martin, the mother and father of St. Thérèse, the Catholic Church announced that the couple will be beatified on Mission Sunday, October 19, 2008.

Louis and Zélie are only the second spouses in history to be declared “blessed” as a couple. Why has God inspired the Church to hold them up as a model for the families of today? What can we learn from them? How can they accompany us on our own pilgrimage?

God has called the Church to declare these courageous spouses “blessed” not for their glory but to motivate us, in our circumstances, to imitate their lives. May we not only admire them but also receive the grace that in us the desire for Jesus Christ becomes greater and more intense than any other desire.

Hard Work On Earth

Both Zélie and Louis worked very hard. She was a maker of point d’Alencon lace, he a watchmaker.

The couple had nine children and raised five of them to adulthood, after four died young. They were fully engaged in business, social, family, and ecclesial life. At the same time they were constantly oriented to eternity. Louis often repeated, referring to heaven, “Oh! The Homeland! The Homeland! It is beautiful, the Homeland!”

Zélie’s daughters remembered how often she said the same thing.

Even in the conflicts of everyday life they turned toward heaven. When a neighbor sued them over a boundary dispute in which the judge found the Martins blameless, Zélie wrote to her daughter Pauline: “We can but accept contradictions patiently, since we must suffer in this world. If only it enables us to avoid a little Purgatory, we shall bless M. M. in the next world for having made us undergo some of it in this life. But I prefer that it should be he who should do us this wrong, rather than that we should have to reproach ourselves with having caused him a quarter of the trouble.”

Family Prayer

Although Zélie and Louis were constantly pressed for time, each was faithful to the contemplative life, the life of family prayer, and the liturgical life of the Church, and they created a family similarly faithful.

Husband and wife maintained a demanding schedule. Yet every morning they attended 5:30 Mass, saying it was the only one the poor and working persons could attend. When the neighbors heard their door shut as they left for church, they would say, “Oh, it’s only that holy Martin couple going to church; we can turn over and sleep a while longer.”

Every morning and evening they prayed as a family; they observed Sundays and the feasts of the Church with care. Louis was a leader in the nocturnal adoration of the Eucharist. Zélie, always the last to go to bed, was often up till nearly midnight. There were many demands on their time, but they gave it generously to serve God and their neighbor.

Loving Each Other and Their Children

Louis and Zélie loved each other very much. In October 1863, away on business, Louis wrote to Zélie: “My dearest, I cannot get back to Alencon before Monday; the time seems long to me, for I want so much to be with you . . . I embrace you all with my whole heart, while awaiting the joy of being with you again . . . . Your husband and true friend who loves you forever.”

In August 1873, when Zélie took the little girls to Lisieux to see their relatives, she wrote to him: “I am with you all day in spirit, and say to myself: ‘Now he is doing such and such a thing.’ I long to be with you, Louis dear. I love you with all my heart, and I feel my affection doubled by being deprived of your company. I could not live apart from you.”

They also loved their children deeply. A few weeks before the birth of Thérèse, Zélie wrote to her sister-in-law: “I love children to the point of folly; I was born to have them. . . . But it will soon be time for all this to end . . . I’m at an age when I should be a grandmother!”

On March 4, 1877, Zélie wrote to her daughter Pauline: “When we had our children, our ideas changed somewhat. From then on we lived only for them. They made all our happiness, and we would not have found it except in them. Nothing any longer cost us anything; the world was no longer a burden to us. As for me, my children were my great compensation, so that I wished to have many in order to bring them up for Heaven.…”

In the midst of this family life, however, the parents formed each daughter carefully from childhood in the spiritual life. They studied each child as an individual, nurtured her confidence, and encouraged her to give God a free hand in her life. About the decision to allow Marie to go on a retreat at the Visitation Convent where she had been educated, Zélie wrote, “I did have a good reason for wanting Marie to make the retreat. It’s true that it is an expense, but money is nothing when it comes to the sanctification of a soul; and, last year, Marie came back completely changed.”

Louis had a profound respect for the spiritual lives of his daughters and reverently supported each in fulfilling her vocation.…

Loving Christ in the Poor

While supporting a large family, Zélie and Louis gave generously of their energy and money to the poor, to the Church, and to causing charity and justice in their society.

Louis was a member of the Conference of St. Vincent de Paul, and he also reached out to the poor persons around them. When he went out, he always carried loose change to give alms to those who begged of him. If he met a drunken man in the street, he helped him get home.…

Zélie took good care of her maids, nursing them herself when they were ill. She did not want to send them to the hospital or to burden their families. For three weeks she nursed her maid, Louise Marais, day and night. She was kind to the fifteen women who worked as her lacemakers, visiting them on Sundays after Vespers and making sure they lacked nothing.…

Thérèse’s sister Céline testified that she often saw poor people coming into her home to receive food and clothes from Zélie, who often cried when she heard their tales of distress. Both had great reverence for the poor, in whom Jesus still suffers poverty today. After Louis had brought one poor man home from church and given him a meal, he asked Céline and Thérèse to kneel to receive the poor man’s blessing.

Complete Surrender to God

After leading heroic lives, Louis and Zélie surrendered themselves to long and painful illnesses and, in Zélie’s case, to a premature death.

She died of breast cancer at age forty-six, when Thérèse was only four years old. After she was diagnosed, she wrote, “So let us leave it in God’s hands. He knows what is for our good much better than we do. It is He who wounds and He who heals. I will go to Lourdes on the first pilgrimage, and I hope that the Blessed Virgin will cure me if that is necessary.”

When she was not cured at Lourdes, she still kept the faith. About her return to Louis, who had been waiting at Lisieux for news of a cure, she wrote: “He was not a little surprised to see me returning cheerfully, as if I had obtained the hoped-for miracle. It gave him renewed courage, and all the house was filled with cheerfulness.”

Not long before her death Zélie asked prayers “if not for a cure, then for perfect resignation to the will of God.” The miracle she had hoped for on the feast of the Assumption did not happen. The next day, twelve days before her death, she ended her last letter, to her brother, with the words: “Obviously, the Blessed Virgin does not want to cure me . . . . What would you have? If the Blessed Virgin has not cured me, it is because my time has come, and God wills me to rest elsewhere than on earth.”

Later Louis became ill with dementia, and he was confined in a mental asylum for three years. He accepted this trial generously and brought many other patients back to God.

On February 27, 1889, Céline wrote: “The Sister said to him that he was rendering them a great service by bringing back the fallen-away patients to God. ‘You are an apostle,’ she told him. ‘That’s true,’ answered dear little Father, ‘but I would prefer to be an apostle elsewhere; however, since it is God’s will! I believe it is to break down my pride.’”

Sister Costard, who looked after Louis, wrote: “He is really admirable; not only does he not complain, but he finds that everything we give him is perfect.” When his family and friends made a novena that he might be well enough to return to Lisieux, he said “No, you must not ask for that, but only that God’s will be done.

In 1892 he was well enough to return to Lisieux, where Céline and the Guérins looked after him devotedly. He said, “In heaven, I’ll repay you for all this!”

On learning of his death, Father Almire Pichon, a Jesuit then working in Canada and a close friend of the Martin family, wrote prophetically to Louis’s daughters: “Jesus is taking him from you only to beatify him.…”

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