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."