"Louis and Zélie Martin: Patrons of the Synod on the Family?" - August 27, 2014

"Louis and Zélie Martin,
Patrons of the Synod on the Family?

[translated from "Louis and Zélie Martin, patrons du synode sur la famille?" in Famille Chretienne, No. 1906 – July 26-August 1, 2014.  www.famillechretienne.fr  We thank the editors for their kind permission to translate and publish this article].

During his visit to Alençon and Lisieux (on July 12-13, 2014) for the feast of Louis and Zélie Martin, the secretary general of the Synod of Bishops received a relic of the blessed parents of St. Thérèse.

Cardinal Baldisseri, secretary-general of the Synod of Bishops, receives relics of Blessed Louis and Zelie Martin from Mgr Jacques Habert, bishop of Seez.  Basilica of Notre Dame d'Alencon, July 12, 2014

The moment was solemn.  On the evening of July 12th, the basilica of Notre Dame d'Alençon was full.  At the invitation of the diocese of Séez, several dozen married couples were present to celebrate their wedding anniversaries in the very church where Louis and Zélie Martin, the blessed parents of St. Thérèse, were married in 1858.

A Relic to be honored in October
     With the assembly present, all were attentive witnesses to an unexpected event: the surrender of a relic of Louis and Zélie Martin by Mgr Jacques Habert, bishop of Seez, to Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, secretary general of the Synod of Bishops.  This gesture took on a very special significance less than three months before the opening, in Rome, of a synod dedicated to "the challenges facing the family, seen in the context of evangelization.”  It was as though a torch had been passed and an appeal made to the Martins to aid the Church in her delicate mission toward the family.

     It was the cardinal himself who "insisted very much on receiving the relic officially,” said Laurence de Valbray, the person in charge of the day and of the pilgrimage office for the Martin family at Alençon.  The event reminds us that October 19th, the day the synod in Rome closes, will be the anniversary of the beatification of Louis and Zélie in 2008.

Celebrating the feast of Louis and Zelie Martin in the basilica at Lisieux, July 13, 2014 in the presence of their reliquary.

Celebrating the feast of Louis and Zelie Martin in the basilica at Lisieux, July 13, 2014 in the presence of their reliquary.

"Married and saints, why not us?"

     In all probability, the relic that was received by the cardinal will be held in special honor at the synod, and it is possible that the extraordinary meeting of the synod, to be held from October 5th to 19th, 2014, will be placed under the patronage of Louis and Zélie.  It would be a way to infuse a strongly spiritual atmosphere into the work of the synod, a need that is underlined by the Pope's prayer for the synod on the family. On July 13, at the foot of a big portrait of Blessed Louis and Zélie Martin in the well-filled basilica at Lisieux, Cardinal Baldisseri had this prayer read out: "Holy Family of Nazareth, may the coming synod of bishops awaken in everyone the consciousness of the sacred and inviolable character of the family, its beauty in the plan of God.”

Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, secretary-general of the  Synod of Bishops on the Family, speaking about Blessed Louis and Zelie Martin in the Basilica of Notre Dame d'Alencon on their feast, July 12, 2014

About the work of the synod, Cardinal Baldisseri slipped a few hints into his conference, "Married and saints, why not us?” delivered in good French by this prelate who spent several years in the nunciature in Paris.  He began by reminding us that this synod on the family will unfold in two stages.  The first (in October 2014) will “examine the many challenges that have put the family in danger.”  The second (in 2015), “gathering the fruits of the first,” will “enlarge the scope of the debate” in order to “propose ways of thinking, and even solutions” to the Pope.

Broad discussions, in perspective

    Of these challenges and dangers the cardinal then gave an impressive list, giving us an idea of the great range of the discussions that will take place at the Vatican among some 190 participants (presidents of episcopal conferences, members of religious orders, experts, etc.): the spread of couples living together outside marriage; unions between persons of the same sex, many of whom have been permitted to adopt children; marriages between persons of different faiths; single-parent families; polygamy; arranged marriages; caste systems; the culture of non-engagement; forms of feminism hostile to the Church; the phenomenon of migration; the reformulation of the very idea of marriage; relativistic pluralism in the concept of marriage; the influence of the media on popular culture in the concept of marriage and of family life; the currents of thought that inspire legislation that devalues the permanence and fidelity of the marriage bond; the phenomenon of surrogate mothers (“renting” wombs); new interpretations of human rights, or, still more, the weakening or the abandonment of faith in the sacramentality of marriage and in the therapeutic power of sacramental penance.  

     Absent from this list is the topic of divorced persons, notably those who have contracted a second, civil marriage. This topic, frequently portrayed in the media as being of prime importance to the synod, was deliberately "forgotten" by Cardinal Baldisseri. He explains this in the following way: "People talk a lot about this subject. Every time I give an interview, the first question concerns it, but, of the 195 points set forth in the Instrumentum Laboris (the preparatory document of the synod), only five or six relate to it. What about all the others?" 

This is why the cardinal concludes by expressing the hope that everyone, notably the bishops, can help him to make a presentation of the synod on the family that is all-encompassing” and that reflects the diversity of challenges with which the family is confronted today. It is a demanding approach, for it entails “working on the whole of the issues,” some highly complex, and not merely presenting some simplistic ideas on the subjects sold by the media.

[Sidebar 1]:

  "On the bridge of Alençon"

July 12 at Alencon: several dozen couples walked in the steps of the parents of Saint Therese

     On Saturday, July 12th, there were moments of emotion on the Bridge of Sarthe, in Alençon.  Several dozen women of every age and every kind came from one side of the bridge, several dozen men from the other, and each found her or his mate . . .  It was the last stage of a walk of several kilometers by husbands and wives, launched that same morning, at nine o’clock, near the house of the parents of Louis Martin, by Bishop Jacques Habert.  The pilgrimage has taken place every year since 2008 on the feast of Blessed Louis and Zélie Martin.

     It was on this bridge that they met 156 years ago, on a beautiful spring day. Upon passing this thirty-four-year-old man, the young Zélie, 26, heard an inner voice: “This is the one I have prepared for you." Less than three months later, they were married in the basilica of Notre Dame d' Alençon.  Today, the diocese of Séez and the Church of Alençon make the anniversary of the blessed couple's beatification in 2008 a privileged day for married couples, especially those who are celebrating their wedding anniversaries. It is an initiative that has enjoyed growing success, explains Laurence de Valbray, director of the pilgrimage office for the Martin family.

Sidebar 2:

  "The long roster of married saints"- an extract from Cardinal Baldisseri's conference at Alençon, July 12, 2014

     "[There is] an impressive list of exemplary couples who were sanctified in marriage. They did not found religious orders; they did not depart as missionaries to distant lands; they did not withdraw from the world into the silence of some hermitage.  They simply lived their married life as a path toward God, and, in so doing, became saints.  The first couple of modern times to open this way of married sanctity was Maria and Luigi Beltrame Quattrochi [members of the comfortable middle-class who lived in Rome in the first half of the twentieth century].  Their beatification [in 2000 marked] a turning point, “historic,” so to speak, in our way of imagining sanctity.  It is a path open to and achievable by all Christian couples.  There are also other couples, whose causes are now open or in process, who will follow them.  Men and women of prayer, they lived their Christian faith consistently.  They gave themselves to the service of their neighbors, whoever they were . . . These servants of God are: Aristide Calvani and Adela Fontana; Eduardo Ortiz de Heredia and Laura Otaegui; Eugenio Balmori and Marina Francisca Cinta, to cite only a few. One holy couple, it is true, is a little more well-known, but more for their charitable works than for the saintliness of their lives, which was the lifeblood of their work: Raoul Follereau and Madeleine Boudou."

Translated by Gordon Henry of Vancouver and Maureen O’Riordan of Philadelphia.  The English-language links we have added did not appear in the original article in Famille Chretienne.

Blessed Louis Martin and the Panama Canal - 100 years since it opened on August 15, 1914

Panama Canal under construction, 1907

Excavation and removal of dirt at the famous Culebra Cut, Panama Canal, 1907 By H.C. White Co. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Did you know that in 1888 Blessed Louis Martin, the father of St. Therese of Lisieux, invested and lost a great deal of money on the Panama Canal?

August 15, 2014 was the 100th anniversary of the opening of the Panama Canal.  Its successful construction by the United States was preceded by many earlier attempts:

In 1881, France proposed a sea-level Panama canal, without locks to raise and lower ships to accommodate changes in elevation, along the same basic route as the Panama Railroad. But owing to engineering problems and high worker mortality, the project went bankrupt and was abandoned in 1889 when it was about 50 percent complete. France had spent $287 million and an estimated 22,000 workers had died.
("Panama Canal Anniversary 2014: 100 Years Ago Today, Navigation Project Launched 'American Century,'" by Alan Huffman.  International Business Times, August 15, 2014).

Louis Martin invested the fortune he and his wife had  earned as artisans in various enterprises, including real estate.  In May and June 1888, very soon after Therese's entrance, he was preoccupied with putting his affairs in order; he wanted to provide for his daughters and to purchase Les Buissonnets, their home, which he held by lease.  During those two months, while Therese was a postulant, Louis made several trips to Paris on business in connection with investing in the loan to finance the Panama Canal. 

On July 1, 1888, his daughter Pauline, Sister Agnes of Jesus, who had been in Carmel for almost six years, wrote to him:

Men of genius may very well occupy themselves with cutting through Panama.  We, too, shall cut through whatever could hold us to this earth, and it is then that the ocean of love will surround us on every side." 

When "the scandal of Panama" swept over France, many investors lost vast sums of money.   His daughter Celine, Sister Genevieve, later wrote that the Martin family "lost fifty thousand francs on the Panama enterprise and different sales of property" at the time of her father's illness.  (Letters of Saint Therese of Lisieux, Volume I, 1877-1890.  Washington, D.C.: Washington Province of Discalced Carmelites, 1982.  LC 94, footnote 5, pp. 485-486).  This did not prevent Louis, when his pastor announced that he was launching a drive to raise 10,000 francs for a new main altar for St. Pierre's Cathedral, from donating the whole sum immediately.  (Sainte Therese de Lisieux (1873-1897), by Guy Gaucher.  Paris: Editions du Cerf, 2010, p. 300, footnotes 2 and 3). 

The extent to which the Panama Canal was in the news in France is also reflected in two letters to Therese, who was preparing to receive the Habit, from her prioress, Mother Marie de Gonzague. 

December 10, 1888 (?):

Yes, child of Jesus, the Cross is our lot!  Let us rejoice in this blessing1  It is from heaven and not from earth.  What a joy, a humiliation! This is worth all the treasures of Panama.

December 13, 1888 (?):

My darling grain of sand [nickname for Therese] laughed at my Panama jackpot as compared to her little humiliation . . .
(Letters, op. cit.,pp. 485-486).

Part of the fortune Louis and Zelie earned through their hard work was invested and lost in the New World, in the Panama Canal Zone, which, from 1903 through 1979, was controlled by the United States.  During that same century, both American continents might well say that it was thanks to St. Therese that "the ocean of love surrounds us on every side." 

July 29, 2014 - 120 years since Blessed Louis Martin entered into life. A celebration at Alencon.

Celebrate at Alençon the 100 years since Blessed Louis Martin entered into life.

The programme:

- 12 noon:  Mass at the Basilica of Notre-Dame, followed by a picnic lunch at the Providence Center

- 3:30 p.m.: A presentation on the great “Trial of Louis Martin” by Father Thierry Hénault-Morel, on the occasion of the 120th anniversary of Louis Martin’s death.

- Pilgrimage to the Butte Chaumont, where Louis loved to go on foot.  (By car from Alençon to the foot of the Butte Chaumont, then on foot.

- 5:00 – Solemn Vespers in the church of Roche-Mabile

[The above article is translated with thanks to the Web site of the Shrine at AlenconRead it here in French.]

Interestingly, Father Thierry Hénault-Morel is a lateral descendant of Louis Martin.  He is the great-grandson of Adolphe Leriche, Louis's nephew.  Adolphe's mother, Louis's sister Fannie, died when the child was very young, and Adolphe lived with Louis and Louis's parents in the house on the Rue Pont-Neuf.  In 1870 he purchased the watch-shop from Louis and was in business there until his death in 1894.  His daughter, Berthe Leriche, married Victor Hénault-Morel; she was the grandmother of Father Thierry Hénault-Morel , who, until recently, was the rector of the Basilica of Notre Dame in Alençon.  Could Louis ever have imagined that his parish church would be raised to the rank of a basilica after he and Zélie were declared blessed, or that a descendant of his family would one day be rector there?  Or that, 120 years after his death, a member of his family would speak about his great trial?

A mother and daughter testify to healing after invoking Blessed Louis and Zelie Martin. July 12, 2014

Yvonne Barra with her husband and the certificate declaring her cancer-free

Today is a joyful day for the friends of Blessed Louis and Zelie Martin.  In 2013 Andrea Barra, who teaches in a Catholic school in Leawood, Kansas, wrote to me to share the story of her family's encounter with Blessed Louis and Zelie and their intercession for her mother, Ivonne.  Ivonne.  Andrea and Ivonne tell their story below.

Testimony of Andrea Barra
of Kansas City, Kansas.  June 17, 2014

My family has a tradition.  As each of the children reached the age of 12, my parents began to pray with our family for that child’s future spouse.  As a little girl, I often prayed to my favorite saints that they would serve as an extra protection shield for my future spouse, protect his purity, and lead him closer to Christ.  I had always considered St. Therese of Lisieux a childhood friend, and I had prayed to her often.  I had often read that her parents were very holy people who inspired religious vocations in their daughters.  But that was the extent of my knowledge of her parents.   I had “liked” the Facebook page of the Web site “Saint Therese of Lisieux: A Gateway” when it was sharing the novena for the parents of St.Therese of Lisieux in honor of their 150th wedding anniversary.  Unknown to me, they had already been beatified!

I shared the novena with my family, and we prayed that through their intercession, God would lead to us to God-loving husbands who were noble of character.  I also had this persistent need to pray for the protection of our family in our intentions, and that remained with me the entire summer. As my prayer life intensified, I wanted to find out more about this couple, so I Googled Zelie and Louis Martin.  Blessed Zelie and Louis Martin, the Parents of St. Therese of Lisieux,” Maureen O’Riordan’s Web site about Bl. Zelie and Louis Martin, came up, and I just fell in love with them.  Right away I started making heart connections with them. 

I loved how Louis Martin gives Zelie a medallion with Sarah and Tobit and what it represented to their marriage.  I had recently encountered the book of Tobit through daily Mass and lectio divina. When my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer, I remembered that Zelie had succumbed to breast cancer and was around my mom’s age.  So we began to research as a family about them.  Maureen’s Web site was a godsend; it had books that one could read, information about them in English and Spanish.  It had pictures and videos, and information on the Carmelite monastery in Philadelphia that has custody of the reliquary of the Martin family. 

So we began our Calvary, and the more we would read about the lives of Zelie and Louis Martin, the less we felt alone, the closer we felt they were accompanying us on our journey. It was hard to see my mom in pain, constantly sick, and, as the treatments intensified, so did the side effects. My mom’s nausea got worse: the headaches, the dizziness, and then the recovery from the surgery was painful, as she worked at regaining the full mobility of her arm. Then radiation began, and it’s so hard to see the third degree burns in her chest. Yet throughout it all she remained joyful and filled with complete trust in God. We were consistent in our prayers day and night, with spending hours at Eucharistic Adoration, mortifications, fasting, and with a constant knocking on heaven’s door, looking for Zelie and Louis Martin’s intercession.  God granted us the miracle when, against all odds, the oncologist declared my mom cancer-free.

Testimony of Ivonne Barra
of Kansas City, Kansas: June 17, 2014


On the date of September 18, 2013, I was diagnosed with stage II aggressive breast cancer.  The ailment that I feared the most because of my mother’s death was the challenge I was facing.  My oncologist explained to me that, to treat my cancer, I would have to endure chemotherapy, surgery, and seven weeks of radiation.  Furthermore, I had two tumors.  One tumor was spreading into the surrounding lymph nodes.  Those were the main reasons for radiation after chemo and surgery.  My chemotherapy consisted of two drugs.  The chemo side effects were the worse because they were notorious for severe nausea, vomiting, and dizziness. 


 As the days progressed, my treatment was difficult, not only physically but emotionally and spiritually.  It was during this trying time that I began my devotion to the Martin Spouses because my daughter Andrea did a novena to them, and she introduced me to these new friends.  Both, along with St. Therese, became my companions in a time when Faith, hope and love were my only fuel to keep fighting.   My family and I prayed so intensely as the weeks progressed. As the treatments continued, I constantly had to battle the side effects (constant nausea, pain, headaches).  I would hold on to my Catholic faith and my saint friends, who would intercede for me.

At the end of my chemotherapy treatment one of my tumors disappeared, one significantly shrank, and I started the treatment with three to seven cancerous lymph nodes that were decreased to only one, which was later removed in surgery. Then around the middle of May, 2014, when I felt that the obstacles were insurmountable, I had a dream.  In this dream, I opened my eyes, and I saw St. Therese of Lisieux with a lady who was dressed in an old-fashioned white dress with white shoes. Behind my visitors was a bright blinding light that prevented me from seeing this lady’s face.  I knew that this visit came at the right time, which gave me a push to keep hope alive.  My friends came when I needed their encouragement the most.  The Martin family was a family that I would read about and pray with. Through their example, I prayed to Mary and Jesus.  My Martin friends always pointed to Our Lady and Jesus.   I would pray that the Martin Spouses would adopt me as their spiritual daughter.  I prayed for their intercession so that I could be healthy again. Once I read that Louis had wanted to name a daughter Yvonne after the region where he had come from. They felt so close to me as we had so many things in common.  They raised all daughters like I have done, and even their fishing pastime was like our family.  


On June 5th, 2014 I met with my oncologist after going through chemotherapy, a double mastectomy, and radiation.  She told me I was cancer-free.  My heart was overjoyed at the mercy and love Jesus bestowed upon my family and me.  I have been blessed to continue to be a witness to my husband and my children’s lives.  My saint friends never left me and I am grateful to them for their prayers and love.

A note from Maureen O'Riordan:

The novena through which Andrea Barra discovered Louis and Zelie appeared originally in French on the Web site of Sainte-Therese parish in Metz, France.  The first visit of the relics of Louis and Zelie to that parish accomplished a profound spiritual renewal there, the story of which is told on the parish Web site.  The pastor, Father Jean-Claude Lange, generously allowed me to reproduce that story in English, including the novena.  Mary Davidson of North Carolina (who, with her husband, Jim, sponsors this Web site) translated the novena.  Gordon Henry of Vancouver worked with Mary and me to translate the Metz site. I thank Father Lange, Mary and Gordon for creating the space which led to Andrea's encounter with Louis and Zelie.  Please join us in thanking God for Ivonne's healing and for the depth of her family's encounter in faith with the Martin family and with the God they served first.

At Lisieux, celebrating the feast of Blessed Louis and Zelie Martin

Celebrating the feast of Blessed Louis and Zelie Martin at Lisieux with Cardinal Baldasseri, secretary-general of the synod on the family

At 10:30 a.m. Cardinal Baldasseri will preside at a solemn Mass for the feast of the Martin spouses in the presence of Mgr Jean-Claude Boulanger, bishop of Bayeux and Lisieux, and Mgr Jacques Habert, bishop of Seez (the diocese in which Alencon, where Louis and Zelie spent their married lives, is located).  This Mass will be celebrated in the crypt of the Basilica, where the reliquary of Louis and Zelie is venerated.

At 3:00 p.m. the "petits chanteurs de Saint Vincent" of Taiwan, a children's choir, will present a concert in the crypt of the Basilica.

At 3:45 Valter and Adele Schiliro, the parents of Pietro Schiliro, the Italian child whose healing was accepted as the miracle for the beatification of Louis and Zelie, will present their testimony.

At 4:30 p.m. Vespers will be celebrated.

See the source  (in French) at the Web site of the Shrine at Lisieux.