"The Parents of St. Thérèse"

by Fr. James Geoghegan, O.C.D.

I thank Father James Geoghegan for his gracious permission to reproduce here his conference from the Proceedings of the Second Regional Congress, Discalced Carmelite Third Order.  San Francisco, 1974, pp. 21-31.

     Because you are members of the secular branch of the Order, I was going to entitle this lecture "The Secular Life of St. Thérèse." This was to bring out some dimensions of Carmelite spirituality in a secular situation. I also thought of entitling the lecture "Thérèse: The Grammar School Drop-out who Became a World-Famous Teacher." Fr. Bonaventure, however, asked me to speak on the parents of Thérèse. This is wise, for here we have two people connected with Carmel who lived full secular lives, just like you.

      Sometimes we are inclined to think of Thérèse's father as a dreamer, an old man who did not have to work, who spent his life reading, fishing, and visiting chapels. We do not think of him as a successful businessman who retired in his late fifties. When Thérèse entered Carmel, he was 65.

     Something similar might have happened to our thoughts about Thérèse's mother. We know her only from Story of a Soul, where we have Thérèse's few childhood memories. What I shall try to do is to show the background of this man and this woman, and find out what we can know of them, seeing them not so much as Thérèse's parents but in their own right.

Military Background

     One of the most important aspects of the backgrounds of Louis and Zelie Martin is that both came from military families. Louis's grandfather, Jean Nicholas Boureau, was in the retreat of the Grand Army of Napoleon from Moscow; a year later he was captured in the Silesian campaign. His twelve-and-a-half-year-old son was a prisoner of war with him. This child, who died in prison, was an uncle of Louis. Both families had taken part in the glories and the defeats of Napoleon. They recalled the days of triumph, and a mystique of the "good old days" was handed down. Later, Louis would refer to his youngest daughter as "the orphan of the Berezina" and "Queen of France and Navarre."

     With this military tradition went a marvelous Norman tradition of loyalty to the faith. One story handed down in the family concerned a grand-uncle of Zélie, a Fr. William Marin-Guérin, a priest at the time of the French Revolution. The family hid him from the Jacobins, who sought to kill him. One day when he was carrying the Blessed Eucharist, some thugs found him. He took the Blessed Sacrament out of his pocket, laid It on a rock, and said "Now, Jesus, You can take care of Yourself; let me take care of myself"--and he proceeded to beat up the thugs and throw them into a pool. This is the heritage of the Martin family: loyalty to country and to the faith: a strong, simple, tested faith.

      In 1823, Louis's father was serving as a captain in the 19th Light Infantry, garrisoned at Bordeaux. Some trouble arose in Spain, and he was sent down there on a campaign, leaving behind his pregnant wife. While he was away, his son Louis was born. Returning from Spain, the family moved to Avignon and then to Strasbourg. The boy lived there until he was about seven years of age. One of the things that fascinated him was the famous clock in the town's Cathedral. This clock is one of the masterpieces of European craftsmanship. From traveling with the army, Louis acquired a flair for exploration and also a breadth of vision. From seeing nature at its most majestic, and growing up during the Romantic period, he also developed a love of nature.


     Eventually Louis's father retired from the army and gravitated back to Normandy, to the market town of Alençon, where he settled down. Louis studied there, and, at the age of twenty, decided to become a watchmaker. He went back to Strasbourg to learn the trade. During his studies, he went on a pilgrimage to the Monastery of the Great Saint Bernard. It is interesting that he brought back with him a little white flower as a souvenir. After his death, this flower was found among his belongings. Louis worked diligently as an apprentice watchmaker. At this time he began to have a sense of a calling to the priesthood. He set out once more to climb the Alps to the monastery of the Great Saint Bernard. He was drawn there because he was a man of great charity, a sensitive lover of nature, and a truly contemplative soul. Charity, nature, and contemplation sum up the meaning of the Hospice of those Augustinian monks. He was 23 when he sought admittance.
It might seem very romantic to us, almost as if he were going to live at Lake Tahoe. But the average winter temperature in that Alpine region, 6000 feet above sea level, is 20 degrees below freezing. After some years in that climate, many of the monks have had to come down to warmer areas because of ill health. Louis, like Dante before him, asked to be admitted. When the abbot learned that Louis did not know Latin, he told him, "I'm sorry, you have to study Latin first."

     Disappointed, Louis came back to Alençon, where he studied Latin. He was a meticulous bookkeeper who kept a record of every penny he spent. In his records we find entries for textbooks and for weekly lessons. Then suddenly we find the entry, "Sold my French-Latin Dictionary . . . ." He just gave up. Whatever the reason, he saw that he did not have a vocation to the priesthood.

Watchmaker in Alençon

     He settled into contented bachelorhood and continued his studies as a watchmaker. He went to Paris, where he perfected his art for two or three more years.

     If we are ever tempted to think of him as a lazy, idle man in later life, we should remember his putting in five years of apprenticeship in a difficult, mentally strenuous work which demanded superb concentration and application. In Paris he became a master watchmaker. He returned to Alençon, bought a house, and set up a watch-making and watch-repairing store. He did so well that he later added a jewelry store. He loved to read, to swim, to pray, to play billiards, to fish and go for long walks in the country. He bought some property with a pavilion where he could work or take it easy. Here, with his own "bachelor's pad," he could lead an ideal, quiet, peaceful life. He had no intention of getting married.

     His mother had other ideas. At a lacemaking class she had met a young woman, Zélie Guérin. Mme. Martin arranged for her son to meet Zélie. They met and soon were married, at midnight on July 13, 1858, in the Church of Our Lady of Grace.



     Zélie's father was a retired soldier who returned to Normandy after serving in several campaigns. He worked as a cabinetmaker, while his wife opened a small café. Unfortunately, the café was a failure, owing to the fact that Mme. Guérin had a tendency to give sermons to the patrons. The family moved into the city of Alençon so that the two daughters could attend the Catholic school run by the Sacred Heart Sisters.

     Zélie was quite brilliant. She got first place in French composition ten out of eleven times. She had a deep faith. She seems to have had an unhappy childhood and did not get on well with her mother. Later in life she writes to her younger brother, Isidore, and speaks of "mother being so severe with me, but you she spoiled." She was forever arguing with her brother, but she loved hiim deeply. Later we find her trying to mother him. When he was studying in Paris, she made him promise her that he would go to Our Lady of Victories every day and say a "Hail Mary." She him, "Our Lady has never let me down. Our trust in her is never lost." When Isidore graduated, she told him how happy she would be to have him back, and even though they would be arguing, she would love to have hiim around.


     Alençon is a center of lacemaking in France. Zélie became an expert in this accurate, detailed, and demanding work. Eventually she organized a group of women around her. She designed the patterns and bought the thread. On Thursdays the ladies came to her home, and she assigned a certain amount of work to each, which they would do in their houses. The following Thursday they would bring the completed pieces to Zélie. She would assemble the pieces, mend broken threads, and assign new work for the coming week. She became very successful in this business venture. She used the ground floor of her family home in the Rue Ste. Blaise as her office and workrooms. Realizing that she was not destined to be a nun, she decided to marry and have a family. It was in this frame of mind that she met the eligible bachelor Louis Martin. When they married she was 27 years of age; he was 35.

     It is interesting that when she got married, Zélie had no idea of what we call "the facts of life." Discovering them on her wedding day, she went to her sister (now Sister Marie-Dosithée, a Visitation Sister in Le Mans) and poured out her heart in a flood of tears. Later on we have a letter where she says, "I never regretted having married." Louis was an idealist, almost a romanticist, and he convinced her that they would live together as brother and sister. After ten months, they realized that was not really what God wanted, especially in view of Zélie's desire to have children. The next year Marie was born, then Pauline, and then Léonie.

     Zélie's lace business was doing so well that Louis sold his watch-making and jewelry business to his nephew and became manager and salesman for Zélie. They moved into the home where Zélie had her offices, on the Rue Ste. Blaise. Louis traveled a lot getting orders for the Point d'Alençon. He also did designs for the lace, being an accomplished artist. He was often away on business. We see references to this in Zélie's correspondence: "Your father is away." And we notice that he was away when Thérèse was born.

     The husband and wife worked very hard and were conscientious employers. They had a developed sense of social responsibility, with a practical concern for the poor. Louis insisted that the lace workers be paid as they finished their work, and he took good care of them, especially when they were sick. During the first year of their marriage, Zelie and Louis took care of a young boy whose mother had died. This child was one of eleven children, and the Martins welcomed him as if he were their own. Anybody in need received help from them. Both were diligent workers, so much so that Louis was concerned for Zélie's health. He wrote to her from Paris: "Look, I've been telling you to take it easy. You're working too hard; you're tiring yourself out. We'll work hard, but God will take care of the rest. We'll build up a small, prosperous business, but don't be killing yourself in the process.

     Again he writes, "My dearest, again I repeat, do not be over-anxious. With God's help we shall build up a good little business."

     "I embrace you with my whole heart while awaiting the joy of being with you again. I hope that Marie and Pauline are being very good."

     "Your husband and true friend who loves you forever," etc.

     In a sense, he was more detached than she. Zélie was a tremendously energetic woman who put everything she had into whatever she was doing. She was running a business, and at the same time raising a large family. Her mother-in-law died, so she brought her father-in-law into her home and took care of him. Though busy, she was faithful to prayer, daily Mass, and prayers with the children. Her letters reveal her concern for the realities of life and of the world in which she lived. At the same time, that world is permeated with a spirit of faith. Her letters, written to her sister at Le Mans, or to Isidore in Paris, or to her two eldest daughters away at boarding school, bring her very close to us. We have more than 200 letters from her.

Happily Married

     They are filled with descriptions of the antics of the children. For example, "Pauline was saying to Marie that 'my godfather is better looking than your godfather because my godfather has hair—yours is bald." Or a letter about Thérèse: "She gurgles and babbles from morning to evening. She sings us little songs, but is necessary to be accustomed to her to understand her." "She says her prayers like an angel." Her letters are full of daily happenings, and you have a sense that she is a happily married mother. Her letters also contain many references to the illnesses of her children, mostly ordinary childhood sicknesses. You can discern her worry for them. She has an extraordinary and objective judgment of the children: "Thérèse was the brightest but the most willful, but I think she will turn out well. She's good-willed, and she doesn't want to hurt anybody. Céline is far more cheerful, far more obedient, far kinder."

     From Zélie's letters we learn of an interesting incident during the Franco-Prussian war. In 1870 the Prussians invaded France. They were billeted in the homes of Alençon. This was a terrible humiliation for the descendants of the soldiers of Napoleon. Zélie says in a letter, "The Prussians destroyed the order of my home in the twinkling of an eye. The town is desolate, and everyone, except ourselves, is in tears." At this time an incident happened which brings out the character of Louis. Nine soldiers were billeted in their home. One of them stole a watch from the house. Louis saw him, caught him by the nape of the neck, and threw him out. The next day he registered a formal complaint. The day after that he heard of an order that all looters were to be shot, and that a German soldier had already been executed for looting. Immediately, Louis went back to the commanding officer, withdrew his complaint, and asked him not to shoot the thief who had stolen his watch. It seems that this event reveals a strong temper that could burst into violent anger; he could make a decision on the spur of the moment and then put it into effect. Later his daughters could not understand how he had learned to control his temper and his impulsiveness. The peaceful character we meet later was won on the battlefield of his own soul.

Family Crosses

     The disaster of the German occupation was not the only sorrow in the life of the family. Within the family, the cross descended with a crash. In 1865 Louis's father died. Zélie wrote: "I would never have believed how his death could have affected me. I'm desolate." Her own father died in 1868. At this time she wrote, "I hope, in fact I am certain that my father has been well received by the good God. I only wish that my death will be like his. I have already had Masses said for him, and we will have many more. His tomb will be near that of my two little Josephs." This last sentence refers to her two boys, Joseph, who died at the age of one year in 1867 and Joseph-Jean-Baptiste, who also died at the age of one in 1868. In 1870 her little girl, Hélène, died at the age of five and a half years. In 1870 Mélanie also died, less than two months old. In five years Zélie went to the graveside six times. In this multiple experience of grief we see how affectionate she was, how sensitive to suffering, and how imbued with a strong spirit of faith.

     She says of the deaths of her children, "When I closed the eyes of my dear children and prepared them for burial, I was indeed grief-stricken, but, thanks to God's grace, I have always been resigned to His will. I do not regret the pains and sacrifices I underwent for them." She then goes on to say that she "doesn't understand people who say 'You'd have been better not to have gone through all of that." She adds, "They're enjoying heaven now. Moreover, I have not lost them always. Life is short, and I shall find my little ones again in heaven."

Birth of Thérèse

     When Thérèse was born in 1873, Zélie knew that this would be the last child she would have. Thérèse became very ill right after her birth. By now acquainted with death, Zélie feared for Thérèse's life. After her first three children, Zélie could not breast-feed her babies and so had them fed by a wet-nurse. She describes Thérèse's illness in this way:

     If it had not been so late, I would have set out that night to find a nurse. How long that night was! Thérèse would not take the least nourishment, and, all that night, all the sad signs that preceded the deaths of my other little angels manifested themselves, and I was sad that this last-born could not receive from me the least help in her weak and feeble condition.

     At first light she set off, and on the way she saw two rough-looking men coming toward her on a deserted road. She said to herself, "If they kill me, it will make no difference. I have the grief of death already in my heart." She finally reached Semallè and asked Rose Taillè to come to Thérèse. Rose had nursed some of the other Martin children. She asked Rose to come and stay in Alençon. But Rose had a baby of her own and refused to go—both mothers drawn to protect the children they had brought into the world. Finally Rose agreed to go and bring Thérèse back to Semallè, where she would care for her. When they got back to Alençon, Rose saw Thérèse and said, "It is too late." Zélie rushed upstairs to the statue of St. Joseph and begged him to help the baby. When she came downstairs, Thérèse was drinking away to her heart's content.

     Out on the farm, Thérèse grew strong. Zélie's mind was at ease, "knowing my little one is safe and in good hands." We have noticed that Zélie could not breast-feed Thérèse. As a young girl, she had fallen against a table and hurt her breast. In 1865 she mentioned to her brother in a letter that she was experiencing pain. She did not do anything about it, probably hoping it would go away. Later she developed lumps in her breast, and, with the pain, was unable to feed the children herself. Finally, because of the pain, she realized that she had cancer—but it was too late; the doctors pronounced it terminal. Zélie took Marie, Pauline, and Léonie on a pilgrimage to Lourdes, a journey that caused much hardship and suffering. The girls were disappointed that Our Lady did not cure their mother, but Zélie said, "Our Lady said to me as she said to Bernadette, 'I will make you happy, not in this world but in the next.'" When we remember that Bernadette was still living, this statement is very touching.

Zélie's Death

     In her autobiography, Thérèse has a beautiful, delicate passage describing her mother on her deathbed: "The ceremonies of Extreme Unction impressed themselves deeply upon my imagination. I can still see the place where I knelt beside Céline. All five of us were there in order of age, and poor, dear father knelt there too, sobbing." In her biography of her father, Céline mentions that she saw her father crying only twice, and this time was one of them. Zélie died on August 28, 1877, aged 46, after 19 years of marriage. Her youngest daughter, Thérèse, was four.

     Louis was deeply concerned for the motherless girls. That they might have the influence of a woman, he moved to Lisieux, where Isidore Guérin lived with his wife, Céline, and two daughters, Jeanne and Marie. While he remained in Alençon to clear up some matters, he wrote to the girls, who had gone on ahead to Lisieux, "Remember, it's costing me a lot to go, but I'm going for your sake . . . . When your aunt and uncle tell you what to do, do it—and learn from them." For the sake of the children he left Alençon, where he had many friends, where his mother still lived, and where his wife was buried. In going, he left many dear friends and associates; he was a friendly man who belonged to Catholic social clubs and folk-singing and folk-dancing clubs. He loved to dress in the native costume of Brittany, to sing her songs and dance her dances. He loved to sing in his fine, deep voice. It must have broken his heart to leave Alençon, but he was willing to do so for the sake of his children. The fifty-four-year-old widower invested his money in property and safe investments and retired to Lisieux.

     In Lisieux he could spend his time leisurely. He read a lot: history, poetry, and spiritual books. He went for long walks in the country and took the girls fishing. Thérèse describes these outings, when she would sit and hear the music of the soldiers, marching in the distance. He did some gardening, continued watchmaking as a hobby, delighted in making gadgets for the children, and took an interest in some small business affairs. Above all, he prayed much and visited the churches and chapels of Lisieux. Sometimes he took his family on vacation to the seaside resorts of Deauville and Trouville, and once he took Thérèse and Céline to the Exhibition at Le Havre.

Pauline and Marie to Carmel

     Pauline and Marie's entrance into Carmel was a big sacrifice. He had the normal worries of a father, bringing up five daughters without the help of a mother. Not the least of his problems was the health of his "little Queen," Thérèse. At the time of her miraculous cure in 1883 he wrote to a friend in Brittany: " Thérèse, my little queen—that is what I call her—is a lovely young girl, I assure you. She's quite all right now. The many prayers carried heaven by storm, and God, who is so good, was willing to give in."

     We have some letters of Louis to the children. Like many men, he was a hopeless letter-writer. His wife had done all the correspondence for him. We have so many letters from her, so few from him. In the letters of Louis we notice a certain formality linked with an underlying tender affection. "Fortunately I have finished all my business and am eager to return to you. Bye-bye for the present. A thousand good wishes to M. and Mme. Guérin and a big kiss for the five of you."

     On one occasion he went with a priest to visit Constantinople, Athens, and Rome, and on that trip he wrote home. He finishes his letters with such expressions as "A thousand kisses to all my own. Your father, who loves you," or "One who loves you all and carries you in his heart." "I embrace you with all my heart." He also took the famous pilgrimage to Rome with Thérèse, and some smaller journeys, but mostly he was home with his family.

     In 1887 Louis had a slight stroke on his way to Mass. Céline believed that the cause of it was a sting he had received behind the ear one day while he was fishing. He neglected the swelling until it grew and became intensely painful. Only then did he go to the doctor. Céline remembers seeing him pacing up and down the garden, his hands to his head, begging the children, "Pray for me, pray for me." Some time after the stroke, he was sitting in the garden, having come back from Pentecost Vespers at the Cathedral. Thérèse came out. When he saw her, he stood up and they walked up and down as he embraced her and held her close to his heart. She said "What's wrong, dear?" for she was crying. She then asked him for permission to enter the Carmelite Monastery in Lisieux. He told her that she was too young, only 14. She convinced him, and he said that she had his permission and blessing, if that was what God wanted. From the wall he plucked a little white flower and gave it to he. It would become the symbol of her life.

. . . . And Thérèse

     Louis became her support and ally in winning permission from her Uncle Isidore, the Bishop, and even the Pope. Having come back from Rome, after receiving a blessing from Pope Leo XIII in a moving ceremony, he began the preparations for Thérèse's departure. She left Les Buissonnets and her father on April 9, 1888. That night a friend said to Louis, "You are really better than Abraham." He answered, "Yes, if I were in Abraham's place I would have made the same offering, but at the same time I'd have been praying and praying and praying. I'd have been lifting the knife terribly, terribly slowly and asking God to send the angel and the ram." The next day he wrote to his Breton friend, "Thérèse, my little queen, entered Carmel yesterday. God alone can exact such a sacrifice, but he helps me mightily so that in the midst of my tears my heart overflows with joy. (Signed) One who loves you, Louis Martin.

Louis's Last Illness

     After Thérèse entered, he began to have more strokes. His mind was beginning to go. He would wander from the house and disappear, to be found three or four days later at Le Havre or some other place. He became unable to visit Marie, Pauline, and Thérèse at the Carmel. Because he could not visit his daughters, Pauline asked a priest, who was in the convent with a contractor for gas lighting, to take a photo of Thérèse in her Carmelite habit. These are the two magnificent photos of Thérèse as a novice at the Cross. In one she wears the white mantle. On the back of these photographs Pauline wrote, "Make sure nobody sees them. People might be scandalized at nuns having their photos taken." As Louis's disappearance and wanderings became more frequent, it became impossible for Léonie and Céline to take care of him. In February 1889 they had to commit him to the mental institution in Caen. This was the same year that Van Gogh entered the asylum at San Remy. Van Gogh's drawings of this time give us some insight into the nature of the mental institution where Louis was. When he arrived, the nurse said to him "You can exercise a wonderful apostolate here." He replied, "I know, but I would prefer to exercise it anywhere else. Well, all my life I've been in command and giving orders, so maybe God is purifying me—to control my pride and officiousness by being subject to orders now." Once a week, for three years, Léonie and Céline took the train to Caen to visit their father. After three years, he had a severe stroke and was paralyzed. As he could not wander, they were able to bring him home to Lisieux. For a while they stayed with the Guérins. Later they rented a house nearby. From time to time they went to stay at the beautiful house in the country, "La Musse," that the Guérins had inherited. During his lucid intervals Louis asked his children to pray for him. In all his sufferings he was patient, putting his trust and confidence in God. On July 29, 1894, after a heart attack, he died peacefully at La Musse. He was buried in Lisieux.

Faith and Trust

     We have seen the life story and situation of Louis and Zélie Martin. We have seen their sufferings and their joys, their faith and their trust in God. Zélie once wrote, "When I think of what this good God, in whom I have put all my trust, and into whose hands I have resigned the care of my affairs, has done for me and for my husband, I cannot doubt that his Divine Providence watches over his children with a special care." Though Louis was more contemplative, more reflective, more poetic and profound than Zélie, this letter of hers seems to sum up the essence of their spirituality. There are a number of reasons why this couple is close to you today. The basis of their spirituality is found in God's will and love, discovered in their daily lives. They found holiness in secular life. Can you be more secular than running a lace and jewelry business? In their love for each other, in raising a large family with all its attendant worries and responsibilities, and in their love of God, shown when they were tried in the furnace of suffering, in their concern for the poor—in all this they stand as models for any married man or woman living today. They also speak, and with great force and tenderness, to some of the saddest but most prominent problems of today: how modern the tragedy of a young mother seems, dying of cancer and leaving a large family; the heartbreak of a dearly loved member of the family being in a mental institution; and the problem of caring for a sick and elderly relative. The story of Louis and Zélie Martin speaks to us today because they teach us how and where to find God's love and how to respond to that love with our own.

     It is appropriate that the bodies of Louis and Zélie were exhumed and buried side by side near the apse of the Basilica of Lisieux, dedicated to their child. Over their graves are written the words of Thérèse, "God gave me a mother and father more worthy of heaven than of earth." It was also appropriate that in 1956, at the Golden Jubilee of Céline's Profession as a Carmelite, the bishop made this announcement: "I have good news for Sister. I can announce the introduction of the cause for the beatification of her parents."