Joseph Pronechen is staff writer with the National Catholic Register since 2005 and before that a regular correspondent for the paper. His articles have appeared in a number of national publications including Columbia magazine, Soul, Faith and Family, Catholic Digest, and Marian Helper. His religion features have also appeared in Fairfield County Catholic and in major newspapers. He is the author of Fruits of Fatima — Century of Signs and Wonders. He holds a graduate degree and formerly taught English and courses in film study that he developed at a Catholic high school in Connecticut. Joseph and his wife Mary reside on the East Coast.
Oct. 1 is the feast of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. Oct. 7 is the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary, orignally named Our Lady of Victory. Together, they remind us of the time Our Blessed Mother cured 10-year old Thérèse Martin of a life-threatening sickness and how Our Lady also got the title of Our Lady of the Smile.
An event on another day that month — Oct. 2, 1882 — that hastened the incurable physical and mental torments young Thérèse began to suffer. The problem began shortly she saw her sister Pauline enter the Carmelite monastery on that day. Pauline had been her second mother, raising her after their mother (now St.) Marie-Azelie died when Thérèse was only 4 years old.
Constant headaches plagued Thérèse. These became more acute by winter. Worse followed. Shivering, convulsions, hallucinations, pains, lack of appetite. They subsided for one day, the day her sister Pauline received her habit at Carmel. As Thérèse explains in Story of a Soul:
“On reaching home I was made to lie down, though I did not feel at all tired; but next day I had a serious relapse, and became so ill that, humanly speaking, there was no hope of any recovery.
I do not know how to describe this extraordinary illness. I said things which I had never thought of; I acted as though I were forced to act in spite of myself; I seemed nearly always to be delirious; and yet I feel certain that I was never, for a minute, deprived of my reason.
Sometimes I remained in a state of extreme exhaustion for hours together, unable to make the least movement, and yet, in spite of this extraordinary torpor, hearing the least whisper. I remember it still. And what fears the devil inspired! I was afraid of everything; my bed seemed to be surrounded by frightful precipices; nails in the wall took the terrifying appearance of long fingers, shriveled and blackened with fire, making me cry out in terror. One day, while Papa stood looking at me in silence, the hat in his hand was suddenly transformed into some horrible shape, and I was so frightened that he went away sobbing.
But if God allowed the devil to approach me in this open way, Angels too were sent to console and strengthen me. Marie never left me, and never showed the least trace of weariness in spite of all the trouble I gave her.”
Her sister Marie was ever-present, helping in every way. Later, as Sister Marie of the Sacred Heart giving testimony for her younger sister’s beautification, she said that although Thérèse never lost her ability to reason, she “had terrifying visions that gave chills to all those who heard her cries of distress.” During some incidents, “Her eyes, which were usually so calm and gentle, had an expression of terror in them that is impossible to describe.” The incident with her father’s hat was one such occasion.
Sister Marie recalled that during one of these strange fits, the doctor at the house said there was nothing science could do for the child. No treatment helped.
Father Louis was grief-stricken. Thérèse recalled he thought I was going to die, but Our Lord might have said to him: “This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God.”
This suffering so affected me that I soon became seriously ill. The illness was undoubtedly the work of the devil, who, in his fury at this first entry into the Carmel, tried to avenge himself on me for the great harm my family was to do him in the future.
Giving testimony later as Sister Geneviève of Saint Teresa, Céline Martin who witnessed her sister’s sufferings noted, “However, unlike with illnesses caused by the devil, pious objects never frightened her.”
Thérèse realized that “he little knew that the Queen of Heaven was watching faithfully over her Little Flower, that she was smiling upon it from on high, ready to still the tempest just when the delicate and fragile stalk was in danger of being broken once and for all.
Our Lady Smiles
In May 1883, Thérèse’s Papa, as she called her father (now St.) Louis, came to her room to give daughter Marie money to send for a novena for a cure for her at the shrine of Our Lady of Victories in Paris. A miracle was necessary to restore her health.The Martins brought a statue of the Blessed Mother into the room.
Yes, a great miracle, and this was wrought by Our Lady of Victories herself, Thérèse would later write.
This particular statue venerated in the Martin’s home was a copy of those made in 1832 based on the well-known one of Our Lady done in 1735 but lost during the French Revolution. Some consider the copy closely resembling Mary on the Miraculous Medal but without the stars, globe and Mary's foot crushing the serpent’s head.
During Thérèse’s strange inexplicable illness, she had a few moments of brief respite. She recalled:
When my sufferings grew less, my great delight was to weave garlands of daisies and forget-me-nots for Our Lady’s statue. We were in the beautiful month of May, when all nature is clothed with the flowers of spring; the Little Flower alone drooped, and seemed as though it had withered forever. Yet she too had a shining sun, the miraculous statue of the Queen of Heaven. How often did not the Little Flower turn towards this glorious Sun!
Then came May 13, 1883 — Pentecost Sunday. (And a May date on which Our Lady would appear 34 years later.) The novena was nearly completed. Marie was in the garden while Léonie remained with her sick sister. Thérèse later described what happened:
I began to call: “Marie! Marie!” very softly…so I called louder, until Marie came back to me. I saw her come into the room quite well, but, for the first time, I failed to recognize her. I looked all round and glanced anxiously into the garden, still calling: “Marie! Marie!”
Thérèse did not recognize her after several efforts. Marie then
knelt in tears at the foot of my bed; turning towards the statue of Our Lady, she entreated her with the fervor of a mother who begs the life of her child and will not be refused.
As Sister Françoise-Thérèse Martin, Léonie testified how the three sisters fell to their knees that day filled with hope as they implored our Lady to heal their little sister.
When Sister Marie of the Sacred Heart, Marie testified that she thought this time Thérèse wasn’t going to survive. She and her sisters threw themselves “at the foot of the statue of the Blessed Virgin,” Marie said.
that cry of faith forced the gates of Heaven. I too, finding no help on earth and nearly dead with pain, turned to my Heavenly Mother, begging her from the bottom of my heart to have pity on me.
Suddenly the statue seemed to come to life and grow beautiful, with a divine beauty that I shall never find words to describe. The expression of Our Lady’s face was ineffably sweet, tender, and compassionate; but what touched me to the very depths of my soul was her gracious smile. Then, all my pain vanished, two big tears started to my eyes and fell silently...
They were indeed tears of unmixed heavenly joy. “Our Blessed Lady has come to me, she has smiled at me. How happy I am, but I shall tell no one, or my happiness will leave me!” Such were my thoughts.
After this miraculous event the statue has been named Our Lady of the Smile.
There’s more. Thérèse described how:
…her prayers had gained me this unspeakable favor — a smile from the Blessed Virgin! When she saw me with my eyes fixed on the statue, she said to herself: “Thérèse is cured!” And it was true. The Little Flower had come to life again — a bright ray from its glorious Sun had warmed and set it free for ever from its cruel enemy…Our Lady’s Little Flower gathered such strength that five years later it opened wide its petals on the fertile mountain of Carmel.
Céline later revealed that there was divine intervention early in Thérèse’s life, too, when she was dying of a fatal intestinal disorder which already took two Martin children but she was healed after prayers to St. Joseph.
Two More Connected Events
After this miraculous cure, Marie asked Thérèse to reveal what had happened since she fully believed the Blessed Mother appeared to her. Thérèse waited until they were alone, when, she said she was astonished Marie knew about this secret. But after she told Marie the details, including the vision lasted 40 minutes, the Little Flower would eventually tell:
Alas! as I had foreseen, my joy was turned into bitterness. For four years the remembrance of this grace was a cause of real pain to me…
That was compounded when she visited her sister Pauline, now Sister Agnes, in Carmel. Thérèse explained:
When Marie had heard the childish, but perfectly sincere, account of the grace I had received, she begged my leave to tell them at the Carmel, and I did not like to refuse her.
All the sisters questioned her about Our Lady and her appearance. Thérèse lamented:
All these questions distressed and grieved me, and I could only make one answer: “Our Lady looked very beautiful; I saw her come towards me and smile.” But noticing that the nuns thought something quite different had happened from what I had told them, I began to persuade myself that I had been guilty of an untruth.
If only I had kept my secret I should have kept my happiness also. But Our Lady allowed this trouble to befall me for the good of my soul; perhaps without it vanity would have crept into my heart, whereas now I was humbled, and I looked on myself with feelings of contempt. My God, Thou alone knowest all that I suffered!
That continued four years, until 1887. That year on Nov. 4, her father left with her on a pilgrimage. Before reaching Rome, they would stop in Paris to see all the sights. Thérèse described the place standing miles above the others:
For me there was but one — Our Lady of Victories. I can never tell you what I felt at her shrine; the graces Our Lady granted me were like those of my First Communion Day. I was filled with peace and happiness. In this holy spot the Blessed Virgin, my Mother, told me plainly that it was really she who had smiled on me and cured me.
With intense fervor I entreated her to keep me always, and to realize my heart’s desire by hiding me under her spotless mantle, and I also asked her to remove from me every occasion of sin.
Sister Marie of the Sacred Heart also testified, “It was at the foot of Our Lady of Victories in Paris that her inner struggles ceased…she received confirmation…of the truth of the vision.
Thérèse concluded, “It was there that my Mother, the Blessed Virgin, made me feel that it really was herself who had smiled at me and brought about my healing.”
Indeed, Our Lady’s smile reminds us that one of the salutations in the Litany of the Loreto declares Mary is the cause of our joy. And it was with joy Thérèse wrote in her book:
…it was only in the blessed sanctuary of Our Lady of Victories, at my Mother’s feet, that I once again found peace. There it was restored to me in all its fullness.
Thus the image of Our Lady of Victories came to be known to us today as Our Lady of the Smile. Let’s all pray and hope our Blessed Mother will continually smile upon us too.
Prayer to Our Lady of the Smile
O Mary, Mother of Jesus,
and our gentle Mother too,
with a visible and radiant smile
you consoled and cured
your beloved child, St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus.
We ask you now to smile on us,
amid the troubles of our lives.
May your gentle smile bring light and healing
to the darkness and disease of our body, mind and spirit.
Instill us with hope and deepen our faith
so that we enjoy forever
your maternal and enrapturing smile in heaven.