He aspired to be a priest but was told to study Latin first. He tried to learn the language but one day, he just sold his French-Latin Dictionary and dismissed the idea. Instead, he decided to become a watchmaker and devoted five years of study to perfect the craft. After two years of study and three more years of specialization in Strasbourg and Paris, respectively, he came back to Alencon, bought a house and started his watch-making and watch-repairing store.
She was brilliant and got first place in French composition ten out of eleven times. She too had dreamed of entering the religious life but God has other plans. The detailed and demanding work of lacemaking had been her career. Becoming an expert to such craft, she was able to build a group of women to work on the designs she made. This she did until her business grew.
The story goes that as the two of them were crossing the bridge of St. Leonard in Alencon, she heard a voice saying, “This is he whom I have prepared for you.”
On July 13, 1858 in the Church of Our Lady of Grace, Zelie Guerin and Louis Martin tied the knot. And there began one of the best marriages that the Catholic Church has ever formed.
However, there’s just one catch, Zelie had only discovered some ‘facts of life’ on the day of her wedding. She then came running to her sister to pour her heart and tears out. Louis on the other hand, being the romantic that he is, convinced her that they would just live together as brother and sister.
Ten months have passed and they both realized that is not the set up that God wanted. Zelie also expressed her desire to have children and so on the following year, Marie was born (February 22, 1860) then Pauline (September 7, 1861) and then Leonie (June 3, 1863).
Meanwhile, Zelie’s business grew so much that Louis sold his watch-making business to his nephew to help his wife manage. Louis would also make lace designs and travel much for business. Imagine, he gave up his passion, those five years of intricate study for the love of his life.
Distance was never a limitation to them. Zelie wrote more than a hundred letters to Louis, to her sister and brother. Louis would also write her letters, one of which went like, “I embrace you with my whole heart while awaiting the joy of being with you again. I hope Marie and Pauline are being very good.”
The couple was not spared from hardships too. They both endured the passing of their fathers and four children (Helene, Joseph-Louis, Joseph-Jean-Baptiste, Melanie-Therese). The children died of intestinal infection during that time. Zelie had two more girls – Celine (born before Melanie) and Therese, our little flower (born last).
Therese became ill right after birth and so she was sent to a wet-nurse, Rose Taille to breastfeed her since Zelie had signs of malignant growth on her breasts. Rose who lives in a farm nine kilometers away from Alencon took care of our little flower until she grew to be a strong child.
Therese was four and a half years old when Zelie felt pain and lumps in her breasts. She realized she has cancer but it was already too late, the doctor said it was already terminal. On August 28, 1877, Zelie passed away at the tender age of 46.
In her autobiography Story of a Soul, Therese wrote of the moment, “The touching ceremony of the last anointing is also deeply impressed on my mind. I can still see the spot where I was by Celine’s side, all five of us were lined up according to age, and Papa was there too, sobbing. The day of Mama’s departure or the day after, Papa took me in his arms and said, ‘Come, kiss your poor little mother for the last time.’ Without a word I placed my lips on her forehead and I looked and listened in silence.”
Now, Louis asked himself, ‘how can I raise five young girls without their mother?’ ‘Who would be their woman influence?’ He decided to move to Lisieux where Isidore Guerin lives with his wife Celine and two daughters, Jeanne and Marie. Isidore Guerin, Zellie’s brother leased a house called Les Buissonnets for the Martin family who arrived at Lisieux on November 15, 1877.
For the love of his children, Louis gave up living in Alencon where most of his friends live, where his mother still resides and where Zelie was buried.
Louis’ struggle in bringing up his daughters didn’t stop in Lisieux. He had worries during Pauline and Marie’s entrance to Carmel in 1883 and 1886, respectively and Therese’s serious illness five months after Pauline left. The doctors could not make an explanation for Therese symptoms and so the Martin family turned to Our Lady of Victories for intercession.
Therese also fervently prayed to the heavenly Mother for her healing. She recounted, ‘All of a sudden the Blessed Virgin appeared beautiful to me, so beautiful that never had I seen anything so attractive, her face was suffused with an ineffable benevolence and tenderness, but what penetrated the very depths of my soul was the ravishing smile of the Blessed Virgin.’ At that moment, Therese shed tears and was instantly healed.
Louis suffered from a mild stroke in 1887. Sometime after the stroke while he was recuperating, Therese asked him for permission to enter Carmel too. She was only fourteen, too young to enter Carmel. Louis and Isidore allowed Therese to enter, however, they had a hard and long time convincing the Bishop.
Louis then accompanied Therese in Rome to meet the pope. On November 20, 1887, Therese met with Pope Leo XIII and wrote on her journal, “A moment later I was at the Holy Father’s feet… and lifting tear-filled eyes to his face, I cried out: Most Holy Father, I have a great favor to ask you!’ The Sovereign Pontiff lowered his head towards me… ‘Holy Father, in honor of your Jubilee, permit me to enter Carmel at the age of fifteen!… ‘Most Holy Father,’ answered the Vicar General, ‘this child is who wants to enter Carmel at the age of fifteen, but the Superiors are considering the matter at the moment.’ The Holy Father replied, ‘Do what the Superiors tell you!’ Resting my hands on his knees, I made a final effort… ‘Oh Holy Father, if you say yes, everybody will agree!’ He gazed at me steadily, speaking these words and stressing each syllable: ‘Go, go, you will enter if God wills it!”
Therese finally entered Carmel on April 9, 1888. On the night of her entrance, a friend said to Louis, ‘You are really better than Abraham.’ Louis replied, ‘Yes, if I were in Abraham’s place I would have made the same offering, but at the same time I’d have been praying and praying and praying. I’d have been lifting the knife terribly, terribly slow and asking God to send me the angel and the ram.’
The next day, he wrote a friend a message, ‘Therese, my little queen, entered Carmel yesterday. God alone can exact such a sacrifice, but he helps me mightily so that in the midst of my tears my heart overflows with joy.’
Louis suffered from more strokes after Therese’s entrance to Carmel. He was so patient with his sufferings saying that God is purifying him. On July 29, 1984, Louis Martin had a heart attack and peacefully passed away.
I can only admire these two individuals who gave their all five children to God. Zellie, innocent that she is, became the most loving mother while Louis as the family’s protector had given up a lot of things for his love for his family. Reading their story and writing my own version about it made me feel the pinch in their hearts that they must have felt when they were separated from each other and when each of their children enter the religious life one by one. They have touched me deeply. And as they are proclaimed saints joining their little queen Therese, I can only pray to have the same zeal in serving the Lord.
My sources were:
Fr. James Geoghegan, OCD’s article, The Parents of St. Therese
An Introduction to the Life and Message of St. Therese of Lisieux
Sister Mary Cecile Pabilona, OCD (Jaro Carmel, Philippines)