by Fr. Vic Kevin Ferrer
We have heard it said: you will know a tree by its fruit. While I do not want to make a generalization that this applies to all parents, there are incredible examples among the saints who would prove this to be true. Yes, saintly parents produce saintly offspring. Throughout the history of the Church families have always been regarded as the domestic church (let us just say a ‘little church’) where children, being formed and taught by their parents, are drawn to holiness by a life of love, prayer, and charity.
The Holy Couple with the Young Thérèse of Lisieux | Photo from Aleteia
One of the most beloved saints of this century is St. Therese of the Child Jesus. Known as the Little Flower, she became a nun at a young age of 15 and died 9 years later at the age of 24. In reading her biographies one would not fail to notice the big influence her family had on her vocation. In fact, her four other sisters all became nuns. This only reveals to us the kind of parents St. Therese had: Louis and Zelie Martin, man and woman united in marriage totally dedicated to God and now canonized saints in the Catholic Church.
Louis Martin was born in 1823 and from early in his childhood he was already very prayerful. He received his Christian education from the De La Salle Brothers in Alençon. On the other hand Marie Azelie Guerin, or Zelie, was born in 1831. She was second of three siblings and her elder sister would later become a nun.
Here are some more interesting facts about their holy lives:
They were both attracted to the religious life. At one point in his life, Louis Martin had wanted to become a religious brother serving at a local hospice. He was such a man of prayer that only the study of Latin had discouraged him from entering the religious life. Louis became a watchmaker instead. Zelie Guerin also considered joining the religious congregation of the Daughters of Charity. She was rejected, however, because of her poor health. She ended up working as a lace maker.
They met on a bridge and fell in love at first sight. Believe it or not it was love at first sight for Zelie who saw this handsome man as she passed by the St. Leonard Bridge. It was Louis Martin as she later came to know. In one of her letters, Zelie disclosed that at the moment she saw Louis she heard a voice whisper in her ear saying, “This is he whom I have prepared for you.” Zelie describes Louis as a “young man whose noble features, reserved bearing and dignified manner impressed her.” After three months of courtship, they got married.
They spent the first months of marriage in perfect chastity. From the very first time they met, they knew that their love for each other is centered on their shared devotion to serving God. All they wanted was to serve in the Church together. But after ten months of marriage, they changed their mind on the advice of a spiritual director. They welcomed the thought of having children, and eventually Zelie would become a mother of nine.
Four of their children died in infancy. While they lived a comfortable life as a middle class family, they were not exempt from suffering. They had wanted to have a son become a priest but the two sons they had had died before even reaching a year old. Two other daughters also died very young.
Zelie had breast cancer. Zelie Martin died in 1877 due to breast cancer when Therese, her youngest, was only four years old. In her autobiography, St. Therese recounts a very touching extract from one of Zelie’s letters. Zelie recounted:
“She [Therese] has just been hugging me and wishing me dead. ‘Oh, how I wish, darling Mummy, that you would die!’ I scolded her. She said: ‘It’s so that you can go to heaven, for you say that one has to die to go there.’”
After 19 years of marriage Louis became a single father to their five daughters. The death of Zelie caused Louis to move to Lisieux and live close to the Guerins, Zelie’s family. It was a big sacrifice on the part of Louis but he did it all for the good of the girls.
All their surviving children became nuns. It was pure joy for Louis to see his daughters enter the Carmelite monastery one by one. First was Pauline, followed by Marie and then Therese. Celine later followed her sisters in Carmel while Leonie joined the Visitation Order after their father died. Therese was canonized in 1925 and declared a Doctor of the church in 1997. Leonie’s cause for beatification was opened in 2015 and she is now a Servant of God.
The Holy Couple with their daughters |Photo from Roses for Mary blog
Louis embraced suffering near the end of his life. After Therese had entered the cloister, Louis told his daughters that he had decided to offer his life to God. He reportedly prayed: “My God, I am too happy. It's not possible to go to Heaven like that. I want to suffer something for you.” True enough, Louis suffered minor strokes and his health began to deteriorate. Because of several illnesses he spent around three years in a hospital in Caen. After which he returned to Lisieux already paralyzed. Louis died peacefully 2 years later in 1894.
Their cause for sainthood as a couple was the first of its kind. As early as 1946, the Bishop of Lisieux had already expressed his desire to put forward the parents of St. Therese for canonization. However, the formal process of beatification for Louis and Zelie Martin only began in 1957, separately in two different dioceses where they died. In 1971, St. Pope Paul VI decided that the two causes be joined together as one. It was the first time in history that two spouses will advance in their sainthood cause together. St. Pope John Paul II recognized their “heroic virtues” in 1994 and declared them venerable. In 2008, after a miraculous cure of a child from Milan, Pope Benedict XVI proclaimed them Blessed.
They were canonized at the conclusion of the Synod on the Family. On October 18, 2015 Pope Francis canonized the Martin couple in the Vatican. It coincided with the closing of the Synod of Bishops on the Family which produced Pope Francis’ pivotal Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia. In his homily during the canonization, Pope Francis said: “The holy spouses Louis Martin and Marie-Azélie Guérin practiced Christian service in the family, creating day by day an environment of faith and love which nurtured the vocations of their daughters, among whom was Saint Therese of the Child Jesus.”
Let us pray.
Saints Louis and Zelie, you who in your life as a couple and as parents gave witness to an exemplary Christian life, putting God first, by the exercise of your domestic duty and the practice of the Gospel virtues, we turn to you:
Help us to have unshakeable trust in God and to abandon ourselves to His Will, as you did through the joys but also the trials, the mourning and the suffering with which your life has been marked.
Help us to love God with all our heart, to persevere in our daily difficulties and to dwell in the joy and hope that a living faith in Christ gives us.
Intercede for us so that we may obtain the graces we need today and every day of our lives.
Saints Louis and Zélie, pray for us.