Background

Beatification of Louis and Zelie Martin, the parents of St Therese of the Child Jesus

Girl lights a candle next to the relics of St Therese of Lisieux

On October 19th, 2008, World Mission Sunday, Louis Martin and Marie Zelie Guerin, the parents of St. Therese of the Child Jesus, were declared blessed in Lisieux, France, by Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins, retired prefect of the Congregation for the Cause of Saints. It was only the second time in history that a married couple had been beatified. (The first couple being Luigi and Maria Quattrocchi of Italy, in 2001).

Louis Martin was born in Bordeaux on August 22nd, 1823. At the end of his studies in Alençon, he did not turn toward a military career like his father, but chose the profession of watchmaker. Being a man of faith and prayer Louis wanted to enter the priesthood and in 1845 he went to the Swiss Alps to enter a Carthusian monastery. He was told that he had to learn Latin before being accepted and though he tried to learn the language he gave up realizing that God had other plans for his life. Having finished his watch-making studies in Rennes and Strasbourg, he returned to Alençon where he dedicated himself to his work as a watchmaker-jeweller with diligence and honesty.

Zelie Guerin was born at Gandelain, near Saint-Denis-sur-Sarthon, on December 23rd, 1831. When her father retired in 1844, the family moved to Alençon where Zelie studied under the Sisters of Perpetual Adoration. She received training that made her a very skilful lace-maker. She made the famous Point d’Alençon, and began her own lace making business. Like her sister, Marie-Louise, who was a religious at the Visitation convent in Le Mans, Zelie wanted to consecrate herself to the Lord. After a discussion with the Superior of the Daughters of Charity at the Alençon hospital, she understood that it was not the will of God for her.

A providential meeting united these two young people thirsty for the Absolute. One day, as Zelie crossed the Saint-Leonard Bridge in Alencon she passed a young man with a noble face, a reserved air, and a demeanor filled with an impressive dignity. At that very moment, an interior voice whispered, "This is he whom I have prepared for you." The identity of the passer-by was soon revealed. She came to know Louis Martin.

The two young people quickly came to appreciate and love each other. Their spiritual harmony established itself so quickly that a religious engagement sealed their mutual commitment without delay. They did not see their marriage as a normal arrangement between two middle-class families of Alençon, but as a total opening to the will of God.

From the beginning, the betrothed couple placed their love under the protection of God, who, in their union, would always be "the first served." Their marriage was celebrated at midnight on July 13th, 1858 in the church of Notre-Dame d’Alençon.

Louis and his spouse decided, at the beginning of their marriage, to maintain perfect chastity. Shortly after they were married, they welcomed into their home a five-year-old boy whose widowed father was crushed by the burden of raising eleven children. However, Divine Wisdom, which leads all with "strength and gentleness," had other plans for this couple. After ten months, on the advice of a priest friend, they changed their minds. They now desired to have many children in order to raise them and offer them to the Lord.

The union of Louis and Zelie was blessed by the birth of nine children. The work of both spouses brought them financial security, but their family life was not without trials. In that time of high infant mortality, they lost four children at an early age and at a time when they wanted to have a son who they hoped and prayed would become a priest. But neither the bereavements nor the trials weakened their confidence in the goodness of God’s plans and they abandoned themselves with love to His Holy Will. The surviving children, five girls, all became nuns, four of them in the Carmelite monastery in Lisieux.

The education of their children was joyful, tender and demanding. Very early on, Zelie taught them the morning offering of their hearts to the good God and the simple practise of accepting daily difficulties "to please Jesus." This teaching and practise left an indelible mark on the young Therese that became the basis of her “little way” which has helped so many to holiness of life. One cannot conceive of the growth in holiness of Therese and the religious vocations of her sisters independently of the spiritual life of their parents at the heart of their vocation to family life.

Towards the end of 1876, an old growth in Zelie’s breast returned but it was discovered too late and was inoperable. At half-past midnight on August 28th, 1877, she died in Alençon. Louis was left utterly bereft with five children - Marie, Pauline, Leonie, Celine, and Therese, who was then four and a half years old.

Louis consulted with his elder daughters, and decided to move to Lisieux to live close to the family of his brother-in-law, Isidore Guerin and to ensure a better future for his children. The most admirable work of this father, an exemplary educator, was the offering of all of his daughters and then of himself to God. In his unshakable submission to the will of God, like Abraham, he placed no obstacle to the religious vocations of his daughters and indeed considered the offering of his children to the Lord as a very special grace granted to his family.

Shortly after the entry of Therese into the Carmel of Lisieux, during a visit to the parlour of the convent, Louis told his daughters that, at the Church of Notre-Dame of Alençon, in May 1888, he had reconsidered his life, and prayed, "My God, I am too happy. It is not possible to go to Heaven like this. I want to suffer something for you. "I offer myself." Louis did not pronounce the word "victim," but his daughters understood well enough what he meant. This made a deep impression on Therese, who, several years later, offered herself as a victim to the Merciful Love of God (June 9th, 1895).

The last years of the life of Louis Martin, "the patriarch", as he was affectionately called by those close to him, were marked by several health problems. He knew the humiliation of illness and was hospitalised with cerebral arteriosclerosis at the Bon Sauveur in Caen in 1889, where he filled those around him with admiration and respect. He returned to Lisieux in May 1892 paralysed and almost unable to speak. He died peacefully on Sunday, July 29th, 1894.

On March 26th, 1994, Pope John Paul II declared the heroic virtues of the Martin couple. In 2008, the Medical Commission of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints declared as inexplicable by science and general knowledge the healing of the young Pietro Schiliro of Monza in Italy. Born on May 25th, 2002, Pietro suffered from a serious condition following the inhalation of meconium, which led to serious pulmonary complications. The unexpected healing came about on June 29th, 2002, after a novena of prayers to the Venerable Servants of God, Louis and Zelie Martin. On July 3rd, Pope Benedict XVI declared that the miracle of Pietro’s healing was accomplished by God through the intercession of Louis and Zelie Martin, the “incomparable" parents of Saint Therese of the Child Jesus. He set October 19th, 2008, as the date for their beatification and July 12th as their feast day in the liturgical calendar.

In his homily, Cardinal Saraiva Martin, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, said that in a time of crisis, the family has, in the Martin couple, a true model. He also offered them as a model for people who face illness and death as Zelie died of cancer leaving Louis to live on through the trial of cerebral arteriosclerosis. He said that they teach us to face death abandoning ourselves to God. Here are excerpts from his homily:

Therese wrote in a letter to Father Belliere, what many people now know by heart: "God gave me a father and a mother who were more worthy of heaven than of earth". This beatification of Louis Martin and Zelie Guerin, whom Therese defined as "parents without equal, worthy of heaven, holy ground permeated with the perfume of purity" is very important in the Church.

My heart is full of gratitude to God for this exemplary witness of conjugal love, which is bound to stimulate Christian couples in practicing virtue just as it stimulated the desire for holiness in Therese. While reading the Apostolic Letter of the Holy Father, I thought of my father and mother, and now I invite you to think of your parents, that together, we may thank God for having created and made us Christians through the conjugal love of our parents. The gift of life is a marvellous thing, but even more wonderful for us is that our parents led us to the Church which alone is capable of making us Christians. For no one becomes a Christian by oneself.

Among the vocations to which individuals are called by Providence, marriage is one of the highest and most noble. Louis and Zelie understood that they could become holy, not in spite of marriage, but through, in, and by marriage, and that their becoming a couple was the beginning of an ascent together. Today the Church celebrates not only the holiness of these children of Normandy, a gift to us all, but admires, as well, in the Blessed couple, that which renders more splendid and beautiful the wedding robe of the Church. The conjugal love of Louis and Zelie is a pure reflection of Christ’s love for his Church, but it is also a pure reflection of the "resplendent love without stain or wrinkle, but holy and immaculate" (Eph. 5:27) as the Church loves its Spouse, Christ.