150 years ago with Sts. Louis and Zelie Martin; their second son, Marie-Joseph-Jean-Baptiste, died on Monday, August 24, 1867 in Alencon

The second baby son of Louis and Zelie was born December 19, 1867.  He was truly a son of prayer, and his life was rooted in the life of his brother, Marie-Joseph-Louis, who died before he was born.   


AN UNRETOUCHED PHOTO OF ZELIE MARTIN IN 1868. a photo of marie-joseph-louis, who had died the previous year, was glued onto this photo. PHOTO CREDIT: ARCHIVES OF LISIEUX CARMEL.

AN UNRETOUCHED PHOTO OF ZELIE MARTIN IN 1868. a photo of marie-joseph-louis, who had died the previous year, was glued onto this photo. PHOTO CREDIT: ARCHIVES OF LISIEUX CARMEL.

On Valentine’s Day, February 14,  1867, Marie-Joseph-Louis had died aged five months.  He was the first of four Martin children to die very young.  Perhaps Zelie was too stunned with grief to write, for no letters written by her during the next few months survive.  The day after the death of the first little Joseph. Zelie’s sister, Sister Marie-Dosithee of the Visitation of Le Mans, wrote Zelie a letter of sympathy (ACL) which must have consoled many families who have lost a very young child.


To "Our Lady of the Sacred Heart"

About three weeks later, on March 9, 1867 Sr Marie Dosithee wrote to Zelie (ACL) promising to pray throughout the year for a second son for her younger sister.  In this letter Sr. Marie Dosithee  copied out the prayer to “Our Lady of the Sacred Heart” (not, I believe, well known today).  She planned to pray the prayer every day.  In it she inserted in her own words the intention: 

grant my sister an apostle of the Heart of Jesus, who will devote himself entirely to thy service and to the service of thy Divine Son, may he forever preserve his baptismal innocence and not die before having worked hard for Our Lord and the salvation of souls. I promise thee, O Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, that he will bear the name Mary.

To Saint Joseph

Did Zelie join her sister in offering this prayer every day?  We know that within a day of this letter Zelie began a novena to St. Joseph, asking him for a second son.  Later, during the baby’s lifetime, Zelie wrote about this novena, saying how her faith was strengthened by the fact that the novena ended on March 19, and her second son was  born exactly nine months later, on December 19, 1867. 


When Joseph was born, Louis was 44.  Zelie celebrated her 36th birthday when he was four days old.  Four big  sisters awaited him: Marie was almost eight; Pauline was six; Leonie was four; and little Helene, who would die in 1870, was three.  This was Zelie’s sixth pregnancy and her hardest labor.  The birth was very difficult, and the child nearly suffocated, so that the doctor baptized him before he was born.  In a letter written two days after she delivered him, Zelie recounts her difficult labor and little Joseph’s first painful hours (ACL). 

Photo gallery of  the baptism of
Marie-Joseph-Jean-Baptiste Martin at St. Pierre de Montsort Church in Alencon
Hover over the photos for deetails.


Althugh Joseph had been baptized at birth, he received the "complementary rites of baptism: at the church of St. Pierre de Montsort, his family's parish church.  This ceremony (which Louis had received as an infant), common in that time, complemented the emergency baptism of a baby who, because of medical necessity, had been baptized privately at birth.  The family brought the infant to church in a white robe for a ceremony in which, though the pouring of water was not repeated, the priest anointed the child, welcomed him into the  family of Christ, and gave him his name, The godparents assumed their official positions, and the baptism was recorded in the parish register, which was signed by the witnesses.  It was frequently said that a child who had received the complementary rites of baptism in a church had "been baptized" in that church.  Pauline, then aged six, was the godmother of Marie-Joseph-Jean-Baptiste.

Since Zelie wrote on Saturday evening, December 21, that Joseph had left with the wet-nurse that afternoon, he probably received the complementary rites of baptism at St. Pierre de Montsort on Friday, December 20 or Saturday December 21.  Zelie, who writes of how he cried for 36 hours, does not mention this ceremony in her letter.  She was not recovered enough to be present. 


After her third daughter, Leonie, Zelie could not breastfeed her children.  She entrusted her second little Joseph to Rosalie Taille, a countrywoman who lived on a farm at Semalle, some way outside Alencon.  Madame Taille, known as "little Rose," was a good countrywoman who nursed at least three of the Martin children, including Therese.  She enjoyed the affection and confidence of Louis and Zelie. 

Photo gallery of the Taille cottage at Semall*In

(Pilgrimage note:  In May 2018 I had the joy of visiting Semalle and securing photos of the cottage.  I felt very close to Zelie visiting the house where  three of her children spent many months and where she visited them so often.  The cottage is open to pilgrims on certain Sundays in the summer.  Groups may arrange with the Shrine at Alencon to visit it.  I recommend it highly).

It was hard for the family to send the  baby away, but there was no other means of saving his life.  Zelie writes on January 2 (ACL) of how much she is longing to see him.  She had received word that he was "very cute" and "they have to wake him up to make him drink; he is always sleeping."  She is already haunted by the fear that, like his brother, he will die, but refers it to God.  In a later letter she says he is "growing like a mushroom."  On Valentine's Day, which fell on Thursday (market day, when Rose Taille usually came into Alencon to sell her butter and eggs at the weekly market), Zelie writes to her brother (ACL):

Today I saw little Joseph. He was sick for almost two weeks. He’s doing much better, but he’s lost a lot of weight and so is not very strong. He’s as pretty as a little bouquet, and he laughs heartily and joyfully until he chokes! I’d like very much for God to leave him with me. I pray and beg Him for this every day

Toward the end of March little Joseph was again very ill (ACL):

. The wet nurse arrived, sobbing, to tell me that there was no hope, that he was sick exactly like his little brother. The fear of seeing him die in her home frightened her so much that she wanted to return him to me. The doctor went there right away and saw he had bronchitis. We took care of him as best we could, and now he’s completely cured. (ACL)

We went to see him today. He smiled at his father and me as if he knew us. I feel so deprived not having him with us, and I’m longing for the moment when he returns . . .

In May Joseph relapsed.  Zelie wrote (ACL) of how much the poor baby suffered from a blistering treatment (later applied to Therese when she had tuberculosis).  The cares of Zelie's home, her other children, and her business did not keep her from Joseph:  "I went to see him twice a day. In the morning I left at five o’clock and in the evening at eight o’clock, and I always returned with a heart filled with anguish."  She wrote that "there's nothing left of him" and "he has no strength."


About July 11 Joseph returned to his family because Rose Taille had to care for her mother.  On August 11 Zelie wrote (ACL):

Little Joseph has been home for a month. With the wet nurse caring for her mother who’s in poor health, I saw that she had too much to do, and I preferred to bring him home.

Marie and Pauline were still living at home and going to school in Alencon; they had not started their boarding-school years yet.  Little Joseph lived with his family in Alencon no more than about five weeks at the end of his short life.  Pauline's story of how she loved to play with Joseph probably dates from this month: 

When he was laid in our parents’ big bed in the mornings, I would climb on the end of the bed, and there I would dance, making the little boy roar with laughter. I can still hear his delightful little tinkling laugh. Oh, how I loved him!

From "Souvenirs Autobiographiques de Mere Agnes."  ACL.

Zelie wrote on August 11 (ACL) that he was always sick now with an intestinal illness and that "his limbs are no bigger than those of a three-month-old." Overwhelmed with anxiety and also nursing her father, who was to die two weeks after Joseph, she recognized God's goodness in the slowing down of her lace b usiness.  "God, who is a good Father and who never gives His children more than they can bear, has lightened the burden; the Alencon lace business is slowing down." 

The baby grew worse, and on August 23 Zelie wrote of his acute suffering (ACL), adding "Louis assured me this morning that it would take a miracle to save him."  The next morning the heartbroken mother sent her brother a few lines to tell him that her baby had died (ACL).  Many years later, in 1932, Pauline, at age 70, recalled the heartbreak his death brought to the family on rue Pont-Neuf. She remembered especially her mother's courage and resignation:

How devastated I was when, opening my bedroom door on the morning of 24th August 1868, Mamma said to me, “Your little brother is dead!” And so it was, he had flown to heaven in the night, having spent his last hours on Mamma’s lap in great suffering. I can still see him in his little coffin. He looked like an angel, and Mamma said, “Must this really be placed in the earth?” but she was very resigned! She received the lace-makers’ visits all the same, with the little coffin standing in front of her office window. This scene is engraved in my memory. It must have been the day prior to the burial.

As with her first son, Zelie dressed the child's body for burial himself and placed a wreath of roses on his head.  Marie-Joseph-Jean-Baptiste had died on Monday, August 24.  If Zelie received her lacemakers as usual on Thursday, then, if Pauline's recollection is accurate, his funeral took place on Friday, August 28, 1868, nine years to the day before Zelie's death.

I find it hard to write about the tragedies of the Martin family, especially the deaths of their children.  I forced myself to write the story of little Joseph because the 150th anniversary of his death is here.  This heart-rending episode reminds us that God does not abandon us in tragedy and  that having many genuine sorrows does not mean that we are not especially loved by God.  Rather, "the Lord is close to the broken-hearted.  Those who are crushed in spirit He will save."   

Note:  The parenthetical ("ACL" after a link indicates that the link points to a passage from the Web site of the Archives of the Carmel of Lisieux).0