May 1, 2017: Celebrating the feast of St. Joseph the Worker with Sts. Louis and Zelie Martin

An icon of St. Joseph the Worker with the Christ Child by Lewis Williams, OFS.  Available from Trinity Stores.  For ordering information, please click on the image.  Your purchase supports this Web site.

An icon of St. Joseph the Worker with the Christ Child by Lewis Williams, OFS.  Available from Trinity Stores.  For ordering information, please click on the image.  Your purchase supports this Web site.

     Although the feast of St. Joseph the Worker was established by Pope Pius XII in 1955, long  after Louis and Zelie Martin died, it has significance for these married saints.  Both of them were hard workers, who had gotten trained in skilled crafts (for Louis, making watches and clocks; for Zelie, manufacturing point d' Alencon lace).  They earned a place for themselves in the new class of artisans, and they employed workers in their businesses and domestic servants in their homes.  Although in their lifetimes, and solely by the work of their hands, they earned a great deal of money (enough to buy three castles in France, as their vice-postulator, Father Sangalli, told me)[i], they identified closely with those who worked for them.  A careful analysis of their lifestyle shows that they lived far below their means.  As their income increased, instead of yielding to lavish spending, they saved and invested their money, lent money to those in trouble, and gave generously to the poor, to charities, and to the Church.

     In Alencon Louis and Zelie got up early every morning to attend the 5:30 a.m. Mass, first at St. Pierre de Monsort, the parish church of the working-class neighborhood where they lived from their marriage in 1858 until they moved in 1871, and later at Notre Dame.  The neighbors, hearing their door close, would say "Oh, it's only that holy Martin couple going to Mass. We can turn over and sleep some more."[ii]  Later, when Louis was a widower, his daughters sometimes persuaded him, out of concern for his health, to wait for the seven o'clock Mass. But, when alone, he always chose the first Mass at 6:00 a.m.  When they asked why, he answered "Because it is the Mass of the poor and the working people."  (Workers had to be on duty so early that they could attend only the Mass at dawn).  For the same reason, Louis always traveled third class.[iii]  Although he had no choice but to recognize the rigid class distinctions then operating in French society, Louis did what he could to cross the barriers.

     Louis Martin was a careful and exact businessman, and he was known for paying his workers and all his debts promptly.  His motto was “always cash: no credit.”  “He considered it a crime against society to delay in paying, to the detriment of the workers and tradespeople, whose credit is limited, and that such practices led to ruin.”[iv]  He used to recount the story of a dressmaker, a poor widow with four children, the youngest only two, whose whole family depended on her daily wages.  The wealthy women who employed her refused to pay their bills promptly.  When she knocked at their doors and begged for the money they owed, they refused to pay.  Because of their refusal,she eventually died of tuberculosis.  Louis’s voice used to tremble with anger when he told this story.[v]

     Zelie was known as a very good employer.  At least one lacemaker worked for Zelie for 15 years, and she employed the same dressmaker for 18 years.  These women made lace for Zelie in their homes, bringing it to her every Thursday to receive payment and to pick up the lace designs for the next week.  She visited them after Vespers on Sunday and, when they were sick, made sure they lacked nothing. 

     Zelie was also known as a good mistress to her domestic servants.  On March 2, 1868 Zelie wrote to her sister-in-law, Celine Guerin:

 It’s not always high wages that assure the loyalty of household help; they need to feel that we love them. We must be friendly towards them and not too formal. When people are good-hearted, one is sure they’ll serve with affection and devotion. You know that I can be very sharp; however, all the household help I’ve ever had loved me, and I’ve kept them as long as I wanted.
The one I have at the moment would be sick if she had to go away. I’m sure if she were offered 200 francs more she still wouldn’t want to leave. It’s true that I don’t treat my servants any differently than my children.[vi]

When Zelie went out socially, she was uncomfortable at being waited on and unhappy about the distinctions made between different classes of people, looking forward to heaven where “the last will be first.”  Commenting on an entertainment where the wealthy were invited by letter to the best seats and the poor received only cards for back seats (separated by a barrier from the seats of the wealthy!), Zelie wrote “It’s no use; only in heaven will the poor be able to have the best of everything.”[vii] 

            Zelie and Louis were both very devoted to St. Joseph.  One of Louis’s baptismal names was Joseph, and they named both of the two baby sons they lost “Joseph.”  Zelie had a statue of St. Joseph before which she loved to pray.  As Joseph is the patron of a happy death, she often prayed to him for those she knew who were dying, especially asking him to allow those who had not practiced the faith to return to the Church before they died. 

            On this feast of St. Joseph the Worker, let the Martins inspire us to imitate their diligence at work; their concern for workers and for the unemployed; and their simple living.  .  St. Joseph the Worker, pray for us!  Sts. Louis and Zelie Martin, pray for us!

Notes and further reading: 

[i] Personal interview in Lisieux, October 20, 2008.

[ii] The Father of the Little Flower, by Celine Martin (Sister Genevieve of the Holy Face).  Rockford, Illinois: Tan Books and Publishers, 2005, pp. 4-5.

[iii] Ibid. p. 19,

[iv] Story of a Family, by Stephane-Joseph Piat.  New York; P. J. Kenedy & Sons, 1947, p. 69. 

[v] Ibid., p. 69-70.

[vi] A Call to a Deeper Love: The Family Correspondence of the Parents of Saint Therese of Lisieux, 1863-1885..  Staten Island, New York: Alba House/Society of St. Paul, 2011, pp. 33-34. 

[vii] Ibid., p. 305.

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