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St. Therese of Lisieux

By Father John Welch, O.Carm., is on the Board of Members at Joliet Catholic Academy | July 2020

The Difficult Path to Holiness

Léonie Martin was one of five girls in a French family of exceptional piety. Her parents, Zélie and Louis, were the first saints canonized as a couple. Her youngest sister, Thérèse, was called “the greatest saint of modern times.” Her three other sisters, Marie, Pauline, and Céline, became Carmelite nuns.

Léonie had a troubled childhood and adolescence. She had a difficult personality and was rebellious. She was both physically and intellectually less gifted than her sisters. Zélie, her mother, wrote to Pauline, “I don’t know what to do with her. She does exactly as she pleases.” Léonie’s family referred to her as poor Léonie.

At one point, it was discovered that a maid had been mistreating Léonie. Zélie corrected the maid, and Léonie became more responsive to her mother. Still, Léonie’s path was one of trials and setbacks. Zélie died from cancer at age 46.

The Martin family in Lisieux

The father, Louis, and his five daughters moved to Lisieux from Alençon. As her sisters, one by one, entered the Carmelite monastery in Lisieux, Léonie attempted to enter religious life three times, unsuccessfully.

Thérèse, in her autobiography, Story of a Soul, tells about the first time Léonie attempted religious life.  She abruptly joined the Poor Clares, without notifying the family. Their father had to announce her departure to the family. Thérèse was upset by the sudden departure: “I was saddened by her extraordinary entrance for I love her very much, and I hadn’t even the chance to kiss her before her departure.” Léonie returned to the family after two months.

Léonie’s second attempt to enter religious life was with the Visitation Monastery in Caen. Zélie Martin had a sister who became a Visitation sister in Le Mans, taking the name Sister Marie-Dosithée. Zélie wrote, “Whenever anyone asked Léonie what she wants to be when she grows up, her answer is always the same: ‘I shall be a Visitandine with my aunt.’ ” Her attempt to join the Visitation sisters in Caen was unsuccessful. She left after six months.

Meanwhile, at age 15, Thérèse was entering the Carmelite convent in Lisieux, joining Pauline and Marie. The evening before she entered, the family gathered for a final meal with her. In Story of a Soul, Thérèse wrote, “My dear little Léonie, who had returned from the Visitation a few months previously, kissed and embraced me often.”

Only Léonie and Céline remained at home caring for their father who was becoming mentally disturbed. The father was eventually placed in Bon Sauveur, an institution in Caen. Léonie then entered the Visitation Monastery in Caen for a second time. She left two years later.

When Thérèse died at age 24, Léonie was with the small group of mourners attending the funeral and burial of her sister. After Thérèse’s death, Léonie read about herself in Story of a Soul.

Finally!

On her fourth try to become a religious sister, Léonie stuck! She entered the Visitation Monastery in Caen, for a third time. She still had to wrestle with her inadequacies. But with grace, persistence, and the support of her Carmelite sisters, who wrote letters of encouragement and affection, Léonie stayed. She took the name Sister Françoise-Thérèse, honoring both St. Francis de Sales and her sister, Thérèse.

From her place in the Visitation Monastery, Léonie watched the process for her sister’s canonization with joy. She had kept 14 letters from Thérèse, and made them available when her sister’s cause was being considered. 

Léonie, 10 years older than Thérèse, was a follower of her sister. Leonie wrote, “Our little Thérèse shows me clearly, in the courage that urges me on in everything that I do, that she is always beside me. … At the moment I am so small and so weak! I want to grow, and stay small, at the same time.” Léonie was traveling the little way.

Léonie died in 1941, having been a Visitation sister for 43 years. She was guided by the gentle spirituality of St. Francis de Sales. After her death, many people began to pray to her, identifying with her difficult life. People wrote to the convent asking for her intercession. The number of visitors to her tomb grew.  

In 2015, Bishop Jean-Claude Boulanger, bishop of Bayeux and Lisieux, announced the opening of the diocesan process for Léonie’s sainthood. In February 2020, the diocesan process was completed. The consideration of the beatification of Léonie Martin, the Servant of God, has moved to the Vatican and the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.

Léonie’s tomb has been moved to the monastery chapel. Its inscription reads: 

“Here rests Sister Francois Therese, Leonie Martin, Sister of St. Therese of the Child Jesus, who died June 17, 1941, at the age of 78 years.”