When we encounter a saint, like Therese, who has influenced the faith of so many individuals, there is a hunger to know more about her. What was it that made her who she became? What life events influenced and challenged her? And, when was it that God met her on her path, and called her to join him in her very special vocation?
As we learn more, we quickly discover that holiness was a family affair. Not only Therese, but all four of her sisters entered religious life! This of course draws attention to the familial link between them. These five radiant and holy women who desired sainthood above all else, must have come from a house bursting at the seams with divine affection. In fact, Bl. Louis and Zelie; the beloved parents of the Martin sisters, are referred to time and again by their daughters, as an original source of holy desire.
As a parent to my own children, I look to the extraordinary example of the Martin parents. Perhaps nature and nurture can both be said to have won in the case of the Martin household. Yet, the testimony of five saintly daughters provides a picture of an exemplary holy marriage and a family life established in Christ, that I certainly strive for.
So, how can we give this gift to our own children?
We turn our eyes to the watchmaker and the lace maker. Louis Martin; the quiet man who loved fishing and had at one time pursued monastic life, and Zelie Guerin; who came from a “dismal” youth, and after attempting to enter religious life, began her own successful lace-making business. The first time Zelie saw Louis was in passing on the Saint-Léonard Bridge, when an interior voice said to her, “This is he whom I have prepared for you.” How is that for knowing your vocation!
Louis and Zelie were married in 1858. Originally deciding to live in perfect chastity, they began taking care of a young boy whose mother had died. Priestly encouragement however, led the couple to welcome nine children, whom Zelie said, “We lived only for them, they were all our happiness.”
Holiness was not an easy road for the Martins, for they also knew great suffering. Their happiness turned to an endurance of terrible sorrow, as four of their children died within a three-year time span. Zelie, who said at the time, “I haven’t a penny’s worth of courage,” could not see the magnitude of courage that God had instilled in her. She buried her children with great faith and expectation that she would see them again, despite those who said it would have been better to never had them at all. “ I do not regret the pains and sacrifices I underwent for them.” The Martins knew that there was something more to suffering, something beyond them and this passing world.
Zelie, the endlessly faithful mother, contracted breast cancer in 1876. In her, we can find a modern friend. One who suffered loss, fought the battles of a child who was constantly thrown out of school, and experienced the guilt of learning that her child was being abused by the maid. As Zelie neared death, her main concern was in making sure that her daughter Leonie was truly reformed, and would be able to pursue a holy life. Talk about a mother who truly understood the maternal vocation of getting her children to heaven! Zelie even asked God at Lourdes, while seeking divine healing for herself, that if he did not wish to heal her, he would at least make Leonie a saint. In 1877 Zelie left this earth.
Louis honored his wife’s wishes by moving to Lisieux to be close to her brother and sister-in-law. Therese was only 4 ½ at the time. Dedicated to serving the poor there, Louis and his five daughters took in and cared for the homeless and unfortunate. Through the holy example of their parents, each of the five daughters desired total self-giving to God. Their faithful father gave each precious daughter his happy blessing and support. Louis’s selfless support knew no bounds, going so far as to achieve even the blessing of Pope Leo XIII in getting Therese into Carmel. This was despite his great loss of her, in which he said, “In the midst of my tears my heart overflows with joy.”
Louis then desired his own self-giving. He told his daughters, “I offered myself,” saying, ‘My God, I am too happy. It’s not possible to go to Heaven like that. I want to suffer something for you.” This certainly challenges those of us praying for comfort and a happy death! Louis was in fact given his opportunity to suffer. After a series of strokes, a period of institutionalization, and finally a heart attack, he died peacefully at home in 1894.
Louis and Zelie Martin will be the first parents of a saint to be canonized! Pope Francis is expected to do so during the world Synod of Bishops on the family this October.
So, how did they do it? The united front of the Martin family lived charitable holiness, through daily Mass, confession, frequent Communion, and the constant practice of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. Their quiet sanctity touched all who they knew them. And as with all of us, surrender had to be practiced over and over again.
Louis and Zelie certainly didn’t think they were docile by nature. In fact, daughter Celine, who lived to give testimony to the cause of her parents beatification, said they were each a ‘personality’ with a “unique disposition.” Leaving us with a artisan portrait of her parents, Celine said they were “Different temperaments, but perfectly well-matched, each one completing, in perfect harmony, the deficiencies of the other, always corrected by virtue.” Please let that be said of my husband and I by our children!
And of course, we epilogue with a statement from beloved daughter Therese, who said, “God gave me a mother and father more worthy of heaven than of earth.” Amen.