Zélie Martin sat upright in the chair of the doctor’s office on that never-to-be-forgotten day in October 1876. She waited patiently for his verdict. Without raising his eyes, the doctor cleared his throat and began writing out a prescription. He said, “Madame, what you have is a tumor.”
“Please be direct with me, doctor. What is the use of the prescription?”
“Really, no use at all,” admitted the doctor.
“Will an operation help me?”
“I’m afraid not, Madame. We have diagnosed you too late.”
Dazed, Zélie stood up, mumbled words of thanks to the doctor and slowly made her way home.
Home was a comfortable house in Alençon, France, where she and her husband, Louis, raised their five daughters, and from which Zélie ran her successful lacemaking business. Zélie tried to focus on finishing an order for lace. She had gone to the doctor by herself, so she alone knew the dreadful truth about her illness.
Exteriorly she remained calm and serene, but anguish tore at her heart. “What will poor Louis do without me?” she thought. “What will happen to Marie, Pauline, my poor Léonie, Céline, and baby Thérèse? How will they manage when I’m not here? I cannot leave them like this. I must remain for a little while longer. I must live!”
Suppertime arrived. Louis led the family in prayer and everyone sat down to the delicious meal. Little Thérèse sat perched on her high chair happily fingering her fork and spoon. Zélie swallowed hard as she looked at her baby.
After supper was over and the dishes were washed, Zélie pulled Louis aside to tell him what the doctor had said. As she choked out the words, Louis dropped his unlit pipe onto his lap. Eyes filling with tears, Louis rose, walked over to her, and embraced her.
“I want to tell the children,” Zélie told him. “I may live for years, but it would be well to prepare them…” Louis held her close until her tears stopped, and she leaned against him. Finally, Zélie looked up at him. Louis nodded, and together they walked to the living room to join their daughters. Marie, 16, was old enough to run the household and already took care of her little sisters. Fifteen-year-old Pauline was away at boarding school, but Zélie knew how much the news would affect the daughter that she was so close to. At thirteen, Léonie had already been expelled from school three times, despite Zélie’s best efforts. Céline was seven and Thérèse was three. They would be too small to understand. Gathering all her courage, Zélie told her daughters the bad news.
The scene was so pitiful, Zélie suffered more for her loved ones than for herself. Poor Louis just looked from Zélie to the circle of children and then back to her. Marie and Léonie sobbed inconsolably. Léonie ran to fling her arms around her mother’s neck. She knew her mother would understand her unspoken words. Little Céline and Thérèse looked puzzled and wondered what this was all about. They had never seen everyone so sad before.
Zélie alone remained dry-eyed, although her heart was breaking. After a few moments, she picked up some needlework and quietly set about it. Her calmness and serenity eventually managed to quiet the other members of the family. Zélie would not pain her devoted husband and children by showing them the depths of her own sorrow and fear.
Their little family was no stranger to sorrow. In the past ten years, both Zélie’s and Louis’s fathers had died. Tragically, Zélie and Louis lost four of their nine children. First, they lost their two little boys within a year of their births. Then their vivacious five-year-old daughter, Marie-Hélène, died suddenly within twenty-four hours of falling ill. Finally, the wet nurse hired to feed their eighth child neglected her, and she died of malnutrition at only eight weeks old in her mother’s arms. Zélie had feared that little Thérèse would follow in her sisters’ footsteps, but she had survived and grown strong. Both Zélie and Louis had been devastated by their children’s deaths, and years later would speak of little Marie-Hélène. They counted on their innocent children being in heaven, and often prayed for their intercession in family needs.
But Zélie knew this news would crush her Louis. They were so close and they shared so much, on such a deep level. He had sold his business to help her run hers, and he never complained. How well they complemented each other—her passion, energy, and intelligence were matched by his strength, patience, affection, and methodic ways. From their earliest days of acquaintance, they had agreed that their marriage was to be a mutual journey to holiness, and they’d prayed together that each of their children would consecrate their lives to God.
Zélie watched anxiously for Louis to collapse under his grief. But after his initial reaction, and a deep seriousness that overcame him, the only changes in Louis were his greater tenderness toward her and that he gave up all his usual activities—even fishing—and refused to leave Zélie alone for any length of time.
At first, the busy round of household tasks and the prosperous lacemaking business continued as usual. Even though Zélie had not felt well for some time, her energetic creativity, combined with her desire to provide for her family, became a helpful outlet. But gradually, her greater preoccupation became providing for her children’s welfare and helping to manage the burden that would fall on her beloved Louis’s shoulders. Together, they decided to sell her lace business, so Louis could devote himself to nursing his wife and taking care of their daughters.
They both prayed for acceptance of God’s will, but still hoped for a cure. Zélie went to Paris to visit her brother Isidore and to seek a second doctor’s opinion. But the doctor only confirmed that it was indeed too late for surgery. After some months, as Zélie’s strength failed and the pain grew greater, she and Louis decided she should visit Lourdes to pray for a miraculous healing. Zélie took her three oldest daughters on this pilgrimage of faith. It was a difficult trip—two of the girls got train-sick; Marie and Pauline lost their favorite rosaries; Zélie fell and injured her neck. Disappointingly, despite the baths and prayers, Zélie was not cured. During the journey home, Zélie tried to comfort her daughters, who were deeply distraught, by reminding them of Our Lady’s promise to Bernadette, “I will not make you happy in this world, but in the next.”
As Zélie stepped down from the train, she could see Louis waiting, holding hands with their two youngest daughters. She saw the hope in his face fade as she walked toward him—she knew the lines on her own face had deepened even in the short time she’d been away. She leaned into his gentle hug, and she resolved to live in the same spirit of faith she’d just witnessed in his eyes. How could she let go of everything—not just her health and abilities, but her children? Louis, swallowing tears, whispered in a shaken voice for her ears alone. “Welcome back, my dear. I won’t leave your side again,” he promised. And he didn’t.
Louis became a rock of strength that Zélie clung to as her sufferings rapidly grew worse. She went to Mass for the last time on the first Friday of August. A few weeks later, she lay dying. Louis left her side only to call for a priest, who anointed Zélie and gave her Viaticum. All five daughters knelt silently by her bed, crying. Zélie could no longer speak, so Louis comforted them.
At one point, Zélie fixed a long look of supplication on her young sister-in-law, Céline, who understood immediately and pressed her hand. “I will be there for your daughters,” she assured Zélie.
Louis, Marie, Pauline, Léonie, and Zélie’s brother Isidore stayed with her through the last agonizing night. Zélie died on August 28, at 12:30 a.m., surrounded by their love. The next morning, Louis performed the heartrending task of bringing his younger daughters to kiss their mother for the last time.
That moment almost broke him. He and Zélie had been married almost twenty years, and, though he had been a determined bachelor when he had met her, Zélie’s beauty—inner and outer—had quickly attracted him. They had truly become as one. What would he do without his partner on life’s adventure? And how could he raise their five daughters on his own?
Louis would have preferred to remain in his beloved Alençon, where he had friends and support. But Zélie had wished him to take the girls to Lisieux, so his daughters could be near their Aunt Céline and Uncle Isidore. They would greatly need a motherly figure in their lives. Louis, now widowed at 54 years old, retired early so he could focus on raising his five daughters, ranging in age from 4 to 17. He had never felt so lost.
He knew that his daughters could see the weight of his grief, but he didn’t allow it to weigh on them. Daily, Louis took sanctuary in a little attic apartment the girls called “The Belvedere,” where he could read and pray. But Louis took tender care of his daughters. He encouraged them to keep their little family customs, such as gathering around the fireplace in the evening to read a carefully chosen spiritual book before going to bed. He still sang to little Thérèse while she sat on his lap. Little Céline chose Marie as her “little mother,” and Thérèse chose Pauline as hers. An affectionate and loving father, Louis’s attentiveness to his daughters’ needs gradually helped heal the family’s grief. He’d always had a special relationship with each of his daughters, giving each a pet name. He was closest to his oldest daughter, Marie, whom he called his “diamond.” Pauline was his “pearl,” Léonie was “Good Léonie,” Céline “his dauntless one,” and Thérèse, “little Queen.” Their home continued to be a tranquil “holy ground” for his daughters to nourish themselves spiritually and prepare for their vocations.
In 1881, Pauline, who had always expressed an interest in becoming a religious, discerned her vocation to Carmel. Four years later, both Léonie and Marie also asked permission of their father to enter religious life. To give permission was a great sacrifice—Céline and Thérèse were still young, even though Céline was ready to run the household. But above all, Louis would miss his daughters. Touchingly, he opened his heart to Marie, the daughter he’d always confided most in. While he encouraged her in her vocation, he also revealed that her going was his greatest sacrifice, because he had thought she would never leave him.
Louis’ health gradually began to deteriorate and he suffered a minor stroke. His youngest daughter, fifteen-year-old Thérèse, asked for permission to enter Carmel. Not so much surprised, but grief-stricken once again at the thought of such an early separation, Louis picked a little white flower growing nearby and handed it to her, explaining how God had showered it with love. From then on, Thérèse thought of herself as that little flower.
Although Céline also secretly desired to enter Carmel, she decided she would be the one to stay with her father through all the trials of his illness. After Thérèse entered Carmel, Louis began to suffer from the effects of cerebral arteriosclerosis. He started wandering off where no one could find him. Realizing that she could no longer take care of him because she couldn’t watch him all the time, Céline sorrowfully brought her father to a psychiatric hospital run by the Sisters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul, who only allowed her to visit him once a week. Louis offered to God the humiliation of being institutionalized. Three years later, when his health had declined further and he could no longer wander off on his own, Céline brought him home to care for him.
He continued to gradually decline, visiting his daughters at Carmel one last time. He died a peaceful death on Sunday, July 29, 1894, at age 70, rejoining his beloved wife Zélie and their four children already in heaven.
Zélie and Louis Martin’s deepest desires were granted. All five of their surviving daughters dedicated their lives to God in religious life. The youngest would one day be known as Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus, more popularly called the Little Flower, and declared a doctor of the Church. Saint Thérèse would refer to her parents as “holy ground” in which she and her sisters grew up.
Blessed Louis and Zélie,
hear our prayers for our family.
You tenderly nurtured your littlest ones
into health and holiness,
and you also knew how to encourage the best in your loved ones.
You generously entrusted your family into the loving hands of God,
not allowing the stresses
of busy commitments to business and loved ones
to fracture your love for each other
nor the peace of your home.
In the difficulties we face as a family,
help us to grow together in love,
so that our family may truly become
the place where we become saints.
About Blessed Zélie and Blessed Louis Martin:
Zélie Martin (born Zélie Guerin)
Born: December 23, 1831, in Gandelain, France
Died: August 28, 1877, of breast cancer
Born: August 22, 1823, in Bordeaux, France
Died: July 29, 1894
Beatified: October 19, 2008
Patrons: married couples, widowers, parents, those facing illness and death
Feast day: July 12
Louis and Zélie Martin are the first parents of a saint to be beatified, and the first spouses in the history of the Church to be proposed for sainthood as a couple (and the second to be beatified together.)
Notes on Their Lives:
- Zélie describes her own childhood “as sad as a winding-sheet”; her mother was very strict and wouldn’t even allow her two daughters to have dolls.
- Zélie’s father provided a very good education for Zélie and her sister and brother.
- Both Louis and Zélie wanted to become religious before they met each other. They didn’t because….
- Louis was told he couldn’t enter the Carthusians because he didn’t know Latin; after some months of studying he gave up.
- Zélie was probably refused because of ill health; her only sister became a Visitation sister and later provided guidance for Léonie.
- Despite her longing for religious life, Zélie would later say that she was born to be a mother, she loved her children so much.
- Both parents paid close attention to their children’s individual qualities, seeking to help them develop. Zélie’s observations can be found in her letters (more than 200 of them remain); Louis nurtured a unique rapport with each of his daughters that grew as they matured.
- Before Zélie had met Louis, she passed him on a bridge and heard a voice telling her that Louis was the one prepared for her.
- Despite his mother’s concern, Louis was a confirmed bachelor, but within three months of meeting Zélie, he married her. Louis was 35, Zélie 27.
- Louis and Zélie had nine children, but only five girls survived (They lost two boys and two girls under the age of five.)
- Zélie Martin was a working mother who oversaw the work of a number of young women weekly. Louis also ran his own successful watchmaking/jewelry business, but eventually sold it to support Zélie’s lacemaking—as accountant, manager, and salesman.
- Motto for their marriage, inspired by Saint Joan of Arc:
- “God is served first.”
From Saints Alive: The Faith Proclaimed by Marie Paul Curley, FSP.