On International Women’s Day, when we celebrate the accomplishments of women and focus our attention on the great inequity that still persists, St. Zelie Martin commands our attention.
First, Zelie Guerin is a study in self-directed mobility. Misunderstood by her mother, she described her childhood and adolescence as “as sad as a winding-sheet.” Having been refused by the religious community she wanted to join, she decided that her path was to be marriage and children. Like many former soldiers of Napoleon, her father, on returning to civilian life, struggled to provide for his family. Concentrating his savings on educating his only son, Isidore, to become a pharmacist, he could not give Zelie the dowry necessary for a young woman of her class to marry. At 19, Zelie entrusted her future to Mary, the mother of Jesus, with whom she had an intimate and powerful relationship all her life. On December 8, 1851, she heard an interior voice urging her “See to the making of point d’Alencon lace.” Her goal was not only to master this meticulous craft but also to become a fabricant, a manufacturer of lace who took orders; created designs; managed a team of women, each of whom made a strip of lace that was part of the design; collected the work, repaired it, and wove the strips together with invisible stitches so that they appeared all to be part of a single work. When one of Zelie’s teachers wanted to marry her, since she did not reciprocate his interest, she left the school early and set up in business in the front room of her family’s house on rue Saint Blaise. More interested in the craft and in managing her team than in traveling for business and taking orders, Zelie decided to distribute her work through the Pigache firm, based in Paris. Her sister negotiated with Pigache for her. She supplied employment for as many as 15 “workers,” all women who worked for her in their homes. Zelie was so successful in business that, when she married, less than five years after she set up shop, she brought 7,000 francs to the establishment of her new family. This was in addition to a dowry of 5,000 francs. During her marriage, Zelie earned a great deal more. She wrote that she was eager to earn enough to give her own children dowries. Her business prospered so well that her husband sold his watchmaker’s and jeweler’s shop to handle the business end of the venture in point d’Alencon lace. After her death, he was able to live off the income from their investments. From a poverty-stricken childhood, Zelie, by her own efforts, established her family firmly in the new class of the rising bourgeoisie.
Second, Zelie was committed to empowering the women around her. By opening her own business, she allowed her 15 workers to participate in the economic life of the town. They worked for her in their own homes. When any of them were ill, she visited them on Sundays, bringing necessities to help the sick woman and her household. Acting through her maid, she also helped many poor families. The maid later said “How often was I in the homes of poor families with a hot stew, a bottle of wine, coins worth forty sous, and no one knew it except us two!” The maid, Louise Marais, was an example of Zelie’s solidarity with other women who had known poverty. She was a country girl of 16 whose family situation made it necessary for her to go out to work when Zelie brought her to Alencon to help in the household and help care for the three daughters, Marie, Pauline, and Leonie. When she became chronically ill, Zelie nursed her, and, when it appeared that Louise might not get well enough to work again, Zelie offered her a home, asking her to stay on as a member of the family. Zelie wrote that, on the rare occasions she went to the homes of affluent families for meals, she was ill at ease in seeing the servants waiting on her; she looked forward to the reign of God, when everyone will be equal.
Third, Zelie took a lively interest in the welfare of the local children. One example which interests us as we struggle to end human trafficking: when Zelie made the mistake of sending Leonie to be tutored by two women who falsely claimed to be former nuns, she discovered that they were abusing and exploiting Armandine, a little country girl whom they had taken as a foster child. Although Zelie hated going to any government offices, she intervened vigorously in the matter, visiting the police station, taking the two women to court, and offering to pay Armandine’s board at the Refuge, a religious community set up to protect girls and women in vulnerable situations and to be a place of rehabilitation for former prostitutes. Zelie’s long campaign to free Armandine, which she describes in detail in her letters, sheds light on her courage.
Fourth, Zelie’s life was shaped significantly by her relationships with other women. Her sister, Marie-Louise,was her best friend. When Marie-Louise left to become a Visitation nun at Le Mans, Zelie conducted an intimate spiritual correspondence with her—one that also described the events of her family’s life and the lives of her children —all their lives. When her brother Isidore married, she received his young wife, Celine, eagerly, sustaining a powerful friendship with her through letters and visits. She entrusted her daughters to the Visitation nuns to be educated. She also joined the Association of Christian Mothers which met at the monastery of the Poor Clares at Alencon and attended meetings of the secular Franciscans there. In the speakroom she confided her family’s intentions to the prayers of the nuns. Zelie was intimate friends with her housemaid, Louise Marais, and with Rose Taille, a countrywoman who nursed several of the Martin children, including Therese.
How can we imitate Zelie in her vigorous commitment to empowering other women economically and spiritually? How can we be a stand for children with her?