St. Zelie Martin - International Women's Day, March 8, 2019

Zelie martin about 1875. photo courtesy of mme. f. besnier

Zelie martin about 1875. photo courtesy of mme. f. besnier

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?

150 years ago with Saints Louis and Zelie Martin: St. Therese's grandfather and St. Zelie's father, Isidore Guerin, died September 3, 1868

Isidore Guerin, the father of St. Zelie Martin and the grandfather of St. Therese of Lisieux.  Photo credit:  Web site of the Archives of the Lisieux Carmel

Isidore Guerin, the father of St. Zelie Martin and the grandfather of St. Therese of Lisieux.  Photo credit: Web site of the Archives of the Lisieux Carmel

On Thursday, September 3, 1868, Isidore Guerin, the father of St. Zelie Martin and the grandfather of the future St. Therese of Lisieux, died at the home of Louis and Zelie Martin on rue Pont-Neuf in Alencon at the age of 79.

Isidore's family and early life

Isidore had been born on July 6, 1789, at the very dawn of the French Revolution, to Pierre Marin-Guerin and Marguerite Elisabeth Dupont, at Saint-Martin-l'Aiguillon, a rural commune in the department of the Orne in France.  At the time of his marriage, Pierre Marin-Guerin was listed as a “cultivator;” by the day of Isidore’s baptism, he had progressed to “proprietor.”[i] (The public associates St. Therese with Lisieux, in the department of Calvados, but the roots of both her parents were in the Orne, and Louis and his five daughters moved to Lisieux only because Zelie had died, and Louis saw that his older daughters preferred to be near Zelie's brother, also named Isidore Guerin, and his wife, Celine).  Isidore’s paternal uncle, Father Guillaume-Marin Guerin, was one of the priests who did not take the civil oath the revolutionary  government demanded of the clergy. He went into hiding and functioned as a clandestine priest for some time before his arrest.  Little Isidore was often asked to accompany his uncle on his pastoral journeys, and the story is often told of how,when furious soldiers came to the home of Isidore’s parents and searched everywhere for Father Guerin, Isidore saved him.  Father Guerin hastily hid in the kneading trough, and Isidore spread his toys out on the lid,at on it, and played peacefully with the toys.  Seeing the child at play, the soldiers passed on.

Isidore's service in the army and as a policeman

At the age of 20, Isidore, then listed as a “day laborer,” was drafted into the army.[ii] He fought in the battle of Wagram and saw action in Spain and in Portugal.  After he left the army, he joined the police force of the Orne as a foot patrolman, first in theVendee.  In 1823, he transferred to the mounted police, and, in 1827,left the Vendee for the Orne.  He served on the police force of St. Denis-sur-Sarthon from then until he retired in 1844.[iii]

Isidore's marriage

Isidore did not marry till late.  He was 39 when, on September 5, 1828, he married Louise-Jeanne Macé, of Pre-en-Pail in the Mayenne.  Louise was 23, 16 years younger than her husband, one of three children of a widowed mother who worked hard to bring them up.  Louise, while still a teenager, went to work to help her family.  No portrait of her survives, but it is clear that she was a severe mother to her two daughters.[iv]

The "gendarmerie," or headquarters of the police force for which Zelie's father worked.

The "gendarmerie," or headquarters of the police force for which Zelie's father worked.

Isidore and Louise lived at Pont, in the commune of Gandelain, where the “gendarmerie” (police headquarters) was located. 


Today a statue of St. Therese marks Pont, Zelie’s birthplace. 

A house near the site of St. Zelie's birth at Pont in Gandelain

A house near the site of St. Zelie's birth at Pont in Gandelain

When I visitted Pont in May 2018, a neighbor pointed out this house as the one in which the Guerin family had lived.  I have not substantiated this belief.  To locate the exact site of Zelie's birth, if that is possible, and to determine whether the Guerins later changed houses,would require further research into the archives of that region. 

Isidore's children

Isidore and Louise had three children: Marie Louise in 1829, Zelie in 1831, and Isidore in .1841.  In 1844 Isidore, retired from the police force, bought a house on rue Saint-Blaise in Alencon.  His daughters were now in their early teens, and he wanted a better education for them than was available out in the country.  In Seotember 1744 Marie-Louise, known as Elise, and Zelie both became day students with the Religious of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, known as the “Picpus nuns,” in Alencon.  Isidore tried to supplement his meager pension by opening a woodworking business, a billiards room, and a café at his new home, but these ventures did not succeed.  Later Zelie and her sister started a business to manufacture the “point d’Alencon lace” for which the town was famous. 

The Guerin daughters settle in life

The year 1858 was a momentous one for Isidore’s family.  Early that year Marie-Louise entered the Visitation monastery in Le Mans.  In April Zelie met her future husband, Louis Martin, and they were married at midnight on July 12, 1858; Isidore was among the witnesses who signed the marriage certificate. 

Isidore's later years

Scarcely a year after Zelie left the Guerin home on rue Saint Blaise, her mother died on September 9, 1859, at the age of 54.  Isidore was then 70.  He and his wife had had almost 31 years of marriage together.  The following year, with the birth of Louis and Zelie’s first child, Marie, Isidore became a grandfather for the first time.  Wheb Marie was baptized at the church of St. Pierre de Montsort, Isidore was her godfather.  Now widowed, Isidore lived sometimes on the rue Saint-Blaise.  Later, he leased that house to a tenant and lived in a house near Louis and Zelie’s.  Then, as his health declined, he moved in with Louis and Zelie and lived there until his death.  He lived to see their first six children: Marie, Pauline, Leonie, Helene, and the two little boys who died.  The youngest boy, Marie-Joseph-Jean-Baptiste, had died just two weeks before the death of Isidore. 

Isidore's death

        When the seriousness of the elder Isidore’s condition became clear, Zelie’s brother, also named Isidore, had rushed from Lisieux to Alencon to be with his father and sister.  The father died in the early morning of September 3, which was a Thursday.  The same day Zelie wrote to Isidore’s wife, Celine, in Lisieux to describe everything that had happened.  Her letter gives a detailed account of her father's death.  (Web site of the Archives of the Carmel of Lisieux). 

On Sunday, September 7, Zelie wrote to Celine again describing how on Saturday she had gone to the cemetery and how she was looking everywhere for her father, unable to believe that she would not see him again. the shock was much greater because her father died only two weeks after her son, Marie-Joseph-Jean-Baptiste.  (Web site of the Archives of the Carmel of Lisieux).  Please read both these letters, which tell the story of Isidore's death and of Zelie's heartbroken but faith-filled reaction to it much better than I can. 

[i] The Story of a Family, by Stephane-Joseph Piat.  New York: P. J. Kenedy & Sons, 1947, p. 16.

[ii] Hénault-Morel. p. 26.

[iii] Piat, p. 17

[iv]  Hénault-Morel, p. 26

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


August 22, 1823: Saint Louis Martin born in Bordeaux. Read the newest details!

"The World of Saint Therese and Her Family," a photo show

In honor of the pilgrimage of the relics of St. Therese and of her parents, Sts. Louis and Zelie Martin, and if the visit of Pope Francis o Ireland in connection with the World Meeting of Families, I have created a photo gallery, "The World of Saint Therese and Her Family," to offer you a visual experience of the concrete reality of their lives on earth, during which they became holy. It contains more than 350 photos, many, from my visit to France in May, never published before.  Arranged in chronological order, these images illustrate the story of their lives from the birth of St. Louis in 1823 until the canonization of the Martin spouses in 2015.  I thank the Shrine at Alencon and the Web site of the Archives of the Carmel of Lisieux.  If you enjoy it, please help me spread the word. Thank you.  The above shows highlights of the first part of the photo gallery.  To see the gallery, click the photo below: