On Friday July 12th, we celebrate Saints Louis and Zélie Martin.
Everybody in the Catholic Church knows of St Thérèse of the Child Jesus, the youngest Doctor of the Church who died at age 24 in a Carmel in Lisieux, France. But very few know about her parents, Louis and Zélie.
Louis and Zélie were canonized on October 18th, 2015, by Pope Francis on Mission Sunday, in honor of St Thérèse, their daughter, Patroness of Missionaries.
They are celebrated together on their wedding anniversary: July 12th.
Their canonization is the very first joint canonization of a married couple.
Let’s start at the beginning:
Louis Joseph Martin was born August 22nd, 1823, in Bordeaux, France, into a military and very Catholic family. As a child he was watching for the police while his uncle Priest was celebrating ‘forbidden Masses’, after the French revolution. Louis was an introverted child with a highly protective Mom. He liked being alone, taking long walks, fishing, singing, praying. He suffered from psychasthenia, a weakness of the psyche that prevented him to endure too much stress. Because of this weakness, he couldn’t complete his studies. When Louis felt called to the monastic life, he chose one of the most isolated monasteries in France, the Monastery of the Grand St Bernard in the Alpes. It was the quiet environment he needed but he was rejected for lack of education. He took private lessons in Latin to be able to go back to the Monastery, but it didn’t work and he became a watchmaker.
Azélie-Marie Guérin was born December 23rd, 1831, in Saint-Denis-sur-Sarthon, France, into a military and very Catholic family as well. Always known as Zélie, she was the middle child of the family, with one older sister, who entered religious life, and one younger brother. She was raised up in a very rigid environment, with hardly any love from her mother, who devoted all her attention to the little brother. Once she wrote to her brother “Mom gave you all her affection, my childhood was sad as a shroud”.
Zélie also felt called to the religious life. She was turned away because of her poor health. She then became a talented lace maker, starting her own business at a young age with the famous Point d’Alençon. She was strong willed and had an entrepreneur spirit.
After being rejected from Religious life, Zélie wrote to the Lord: “Since I am not worthy to be your spouse, like my sister, I will enter the married state, so as to fulfill your holy wish, O God. I beg you however to send me many children and grant that they will be consecrated to you.”
One day, as she was walking on the St. Leonard’s bridge in Alençon, she crossed path with Louis and heard in her heart: “This is the husband I have destined for you.”
After a short three months courtship, they were married on July 12th, 1858 at midnight, in the Basilica of Our Lady of the Assumption in Alençon.
Louis was still dreaming of a monastic life and wished to live their married life as ‘brother and sister’, When Louis explained to Zélie how ‘babies happened’ she was appalled and agreed to his desire.
But Zélie had asked the Lord ‘to send me many children and grant that they will be consecrated to you,” and God remembered. After about ten months into marriage, their spiritual director advised them differently.
They had nine children. All had “Marie” in their names. Four of them died in infancy, two girls and two boys when Louis and Zélie were so hoping to give Priests to the Lord.
The five remaining children, all girls, all entered the Religious Life.
Each day started with Mass, at 5:30am, the Mass of the laborers, and ended with family prayer.
They had a great devotion to the Eucharist and Marie, and a great love of the poor.
Zélie was a third order Franciscan, Louis a member of the Society of St Vincent.
Their home was open to the poor where they would be fed, bathed, receive new clothes and shoes.
When the poor didn’t knock at the door, Louis would go out to look for them and bring them home.
Both Louis and Zélie would do everything to receive the Eucharist daily, at a time when daily Eucharist was not at all common.
Louis would also visit the sick in hospitals, especially the dying.
He was so afraid that their souls would be lost.
His main goals were to bring them comfort and that they would receive the last rites.
When the dying person agreed to receive the visit of the Priest, Louis would carry the Eucharist and accompany the Priest there.
If a dying person refused the visit of the Priest, then the whole family would pray and fast for this person.
This is what St Thérèse did when she prayed for the conversion of a murderer who was condemned to the guillotine. The criminal was Henri Pranzini, who had murdered two women and a child. Pranzini didn’t repent and when St Thérèse learned about this, she prayed, fasted and offered Mass for Pranzini’s conversion. Still the murderer didn’t repent. Only when he climbed the stairs of the guillotine, Pranzini seized the Crucifix offered by the Priest and kissed the sacred wounds three times.
She had learned well from her parents.
Louis was also very strict on respecting the Lord’s day and would never work or buy anything on Sundays. He always refused to open his shop on that day, even when his spiritual director advised him to do so at least on Sunday mornings, when farmers were coming to town to do their shopping.
One Sunday St Thérèse, at age 6 or 7, wanted to give her croissant, bought on Saturday, to a poor who refused to take it from a little girl,.She said: “You are right not to take it, I will give you something much better, all the graces I will receive when I make my first communion next year.”
At Louis and Zélie’s beatification, Cardinal Martins said: “Zélie often said “God is Master, He does what He wants” and Louis echoed her in saying “God, first served”.
Zélie died of breast cancer on 28 August 1877 in Alençon, aged 45, leaving her husband and five daughters. Therese was only 4 years old.
I’d like to end this introduction to the life of Sts Louis and Zélie Martin with a letter from Zélie to Louis, written in the Summer of 1869, to give you a glimpse of their ordinary life and the love they shared.
My dear Louis,
This morning I received your letter, which I was waiting for with great eagerness. How surprised I was to see that, against all hope, you were able to do some business (M. Martin was at times in Paris dealing with some orders of Alençon lace). It is Our Lady of Victorieswho protected you.
I saw little Céline on Sunday (born on April 28). She’s very strong and robust – if you saw how she kicks her legs; she’s gained a pound and a half in the last month.
You don’t need to worry about the children.
Sadly, I don’t think I’ll ever have any more. I had always hoped, though, to have a little boy, but if God doesn’t want it, I resign myself to His will.
Everyone probably knows that you’re not here because I don’t see anyone. I haven’t caught sight of any thieves yet. I watch over the shop, and I don’t dare go upstairs. Friday evening, I stayed up until one o’clock in the morning.
When you receive this letter, I’ll be busy organizing your workbench for you. Don’t get upset, I won’t lose a thing, not even an old square, not the end of a spring, in short, nothing. Then it will be tidy from top to bottom! You won’t say, “I only moved the dust” because there won’t be any left.
I told the little girls that you were in Paris and had passed through Lisieux and will return Thursday morning, but that you wouldn’t be able to see them in Le Mans, even though you really wanted to go.
I kiss you with all my heart. I’m so happy today at the thought of seeing you again that I can’t work.
Your wife who loves you more than her life.