On Tuesday, February 12, 1889, St. Louis Martin was suddenly taken to Caen to be confined in the Bon Sauveur mental hospital. On the anniversary of this day, which his daughter Therese called "our great treasure," let's revisit the occasion.
Context of Louis Martin's illness
Since 1887 Louis Martin had given some signs of illness that worried his family. In November 1887, during the pilgrimage to Rome, Celine and Therese had noticed that he tired more easily than usual. After Therese entered Carmel in April 1888, his sickness presented more frequently. In May and June 1888, he tried to put his affairs in order. He wanted to secure the future of his daughters and to purchase Les Buisonnets, their family home in Lisieux, which he held on a lease. Preoccupied with the desire to become a hermit, he suddenly disappeared from home in June 1888 and was found four days later at Le Havre. (Read my article about this episode).
The gift of an altar
In December, when Canon Rohee, arch-priest of St. Pierre's Cathedral, announced that he was launching a drive to raise 10,000 francs for a new main altar, Louis, asking that his gift be kept private, pledged the whole sum at once. But his brother-in-law, Isidore Guerin, as deputy guardian of the Martin daughters, had to be informed. He considered the gift reckless and began to be afraid that Louis would impoverish himself and his daughters. (Sainte Therese de Lisieux (1873-1897), by Guy Gaucher. Paris: Editions du Cerf, 2010, p. 300), but Therese approved it. She wrote: "Papa had just made a donation to God of an altar, and it was he who was chosen as a victim to be offered with the Lamb without spot." (Story of a Soul). Read a few paragraphs written by Therese in 1895 to describe the context of Louis's illness. (These lines are from Story of a Soul and are online thanks to the Washington Province of Discalced Carmelites and the Web site of the Archives of the Carmel of Lisieux).
February 12, 1889 - "Our great treasure"
For Therese's reception of the Habit on January 10, 1889, Louis was perfectly lucid; he could enjoy what Therese called his "last feast on earth." But scarcely a month later, a crisis suddenly erupted. Louis was living at Les Buissonnets with his daughters Leonie and Celine and with the family's maid, Maria Cosseron. He began to suffer from hallucinations, imagining that he was seeing slaughter and military battles, and hearing the sounds of drums and cannons. (He had spent his early childhood in Army camps). An attempted robbery at Lisieux made things worse, and he began to carry a revolver to defend the three women.
The Bon Sauveur Mental Hospital at Caen
Seeing the gun, Isidore Guerin, feared for the lives of his nieces, and, having disarmed Louis, thought it safest to have him admitted that same day to the Bon Sauveur, a large mental hospital or "asylum" at Caen. The very name of this institution ("the Good Savior") evoked mixed feelings of irony and fear throughout the whole region. (Louis et Zelie Martin, by Thierry Henault-Morel (Paris: Editions du Cerf, 2015, p. 245). [See an exhaustive photo album of the Bon Sauveur posted by "Herbaltablet" on FlickR].
Little is known of the painful scene that took place at Les Buissonnets that day: we have only a fragment of a letter of that day from Celine to her sisters. The precise details of Louis's departure for Caen are not fully documented. To read most of the information that has survived, see The Letters of Saint Therese of Lisieux, Volume I, tr. John Clarke, O.C.D. (Washington, D.C.: ICS Publications, 1988), pp. 532-535. [Because many of the details are contained only in the footnotes, which do not appear online, it is necessary to consult the book in hard copy to get the most complete picture we have in English].
M. Guerin asked their mutual friend, M. Auguste Benoit, to take Louis to Caen immediately by train. En route to the train, Auguste and Louis, with Therese's spaniel, Tom, visited the Carmel briefly. Pauline's account of this heartbreaking visit appears in the footnotes to the Letters at page 535. Louis believed that he was going to Caen on an outing. Dr. Notta, who had treated Therese when she fell sick in 1883 at age ten, signed the certificate, noting that Louis had been placed in the hospital at the request of his family, who could arrange his release whenever they liked. The institution had 1,700 patients. Louis became inmate no. 14,449. His illness was called "cerebral arteriosclerosis," possibly a form of Alzheimer's. Louis was placed in the section called "Saint Joseph," among five hundred men, the "tranquil and semi-tranquil." (Henault-Morel, cited above, at page 244). He would remain there for more than three years.
The reaction of the Martin daughters to their father's illness
To understand the feelings of Louis's daughters at this time, see Celine's account in a letter she wrote to Pauline's godmother, Mlle. Pauline Romet, on February 18, 1889, six days after Louis’s transfer. Information about Louis's condition and about how it affected his family is contained in the letters of the Martin family in early 1889. In particular, don't miss the first surviving letter Therese wrote to Celine afterward, on February 28, 1889. In this moving letter, Therese writes prophetically "What a joy to be humbled; it is the only thing that makes saints!" and adds "The Martyrdom is beginning. Let us go into the arena together."