Before her death in 1897, in her autobiography, The Story of a Soul, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, wrote, “God gave me a father and mother more worthy of heaven than of earth.” Her prophetic words will be fully realized this week, when her parents, Louis and Zélie Martin, are canonized on Oct. 18.
Another sign of God’s extraordinary grace at work within an ordinary family is that the cause for the canonization of St. Thérèse’s sister, Leonie Martin, has now begun.
For 30 years, Maureen O’Riordan, a resident of Philadelphia, has studied and prayed over their writings, speaking at conferences and retreats, as she follows what she describes as her mission of making the Martin family better known; she has three websites dedicated to the Martin family (LouisandZelieMartin.org; ThereseofLisieux.org; LeonieMartin.org).
“The essence of their spirituality,” she said, “is that they accepted their own powerlessness, that God might be all-powerful in their lives.”
The Martins were married in Alencon, France, in 1858. From the beginning, their daily lives were filled with responsibilities as parents, spouses, caregivers, business owners, landlords and employers. They celebrated the births of their nine children, but suffered as they faced the loss of four of them — three in infancy and 5-year-old Helene during the Franco-Prussian War.
During those terrifying months, the Martins were forced to quarter nine German soldiers in a basement area of their home. One afternoon, while sitting and rocking Helene upstairs, Zélie watched her mildly-ill little one look up, whisper that she would soon be well — and then close her eyes and die. Shocked, Zélie later described the moment in a letter, saying, “I didn’t expect such a sudden end, nor did my husband. When he came home and saw his poor little daughter dead, he began to sob, crying, ‘My little Helene! My little Helene!’ Then, together, we offered her to God.”
Inspired by their faith, Carmelite Father James Geoghegan said that experiencing challenges such as the death of children, breast cancer (Zélie), mental illness (Louis) and elderly care make the Martins “very relatable.”
Zélie worried, he said, and Louis tried to reassure her. Once, while away on business, he wrote, pleading, “Look, I’ve been telling you to take it easy. ... We’ll work hard, but God will take care of the rest.”
“One of the most important things about the Martin family’s story is that you don’t always have to have what you think you need to become a saint,” said O’Riordan, recalling Leonie. Twice, she was expelled from school, suffered both psychological and physical abuse from a maid and often clashed with her mother, who never completely understood her perplexing personality. Later, following her vocation into the religious life, Leonie entered three communities before finally finding her niche among the Visitation nuns.
A witness to Leonie’s intercession, O’Riordan described an unexpected grace received while praying at her crypt: “I suddenly felt myself remembering all the places in my life where I had been deeply hurt, and I felt Leonie assuring me that the wounds these experiences left are not an obstacle to sanctity.”
The Martins have inspired modern families, too.
Sarah Bartel lives in Sumner, Wash., where she and her husband, Nathan, are raising four daughters. While studying at The Catholic University of America, Bartel wrote her doctoral dissertation on the Martin family and shared her insights, saying, “What really struck me is that they had ordinary problems; for instance, in one letter, Zélie is struggling to get her uncooperative toddler into bed; and in another one, she talks about about how they were in a dispute with their neighbors over property boundaries and had to go to a lawsuit.” In her own home, Bartel said that she and her family have read parts of The Story of a Soul aloud together. “And the children laughed during certain episodes,” she said, “because they are just so funny.”
Madeline Luby is a friend of the Bartels. The Puyallup, Wash., mother of eight shared the story of a “miraculous” intervention by the Martin family during the pregnancy of her seventh child, Leonie Celine, named after Leonie and Celine Martin.
Before birth, tests revealed a radical misplacement of Leonie’s heart and the other organs clumped together in her chest.
When doctors brought up an abortion, Luby recalled her shock, and said, “I told them they were supposed to help my baby, not the opposite.”
After Leonie’s birth, she received immediate artificial respiratory support, and two days later was scheduled for emergency surgery, with a mere 40% chance of survival. “Everything was so hard,” Luby said, remembering the trauma. “None of my children had ever been so ill.”
Madeline and husband Brad had Leonie baptized before surgery, then attended Mass in the hospital. “I was praying and asking for the help of the entire Martin family,” recalled Madeline. “Then, afterward, we went back to her room and found that her numbers had improved.”
Confident of the Martins’ heavenly assistance, Madeline said Leonie has some developmental delays but is expected to make a full recovery.
Stories like these add to the joy of Oct. 18, which will be a landmark celebration, as, for the first time, a married couple will be canonized together. Louis and Zélie Martin are models of sanctity, not because of their witness in extraordinary circumstances, but in ordinary ones.
As O’Riordan put it, “Life [challenges] came to them unexpectedly. They couldn’t prevent these things from happening. But the genius of their sanctity lay in accepting everything that happened — before the gaze of God.”
Jennifer Sokol writes from