We publish this reflection about Sts. Zélie and Louis Martin — the parents of St. Thérèse of Lisieux — today, the day after their daughter’s feast day. The Martin’s feast day is July 12.
The parallels are both surprising and deeply meaningful.
Both Sts. Zélie and Louis Martin, and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton and her husband William, were devoted spouses until death ended their marriages but transformed their families, producing popular saints.
The similarities of their stories show what God intends with the sacrament of marriage.
The Martins wanted the consecrated life, but found Holy Matrimony.
Louis Martin and Azélie-Marie (Zélie) Guerin were devoted to their faith, and they each pursued what for centuries was assumed to be the path for those intent on a life of holiness. He tried to be a monk, but was turned away because he couldn’t learn Latin. She attempted to enter a convent but poor health stopped her.
When they met in April, 1858, he was a 34-year-old watchmaker. She was 26 and a lacemaker. They were married three months later, exchanging vows at midnight, July 12-13, 1858. Their entire courtship and marriage happened within the time Our Lady of Lourdes was appearing to St. Bernadette — a graced time in France.
They began their marriage unconventionally, with 10 months of celibacy because the two had decided to have a virginal marriage. That changed when a confessor intervened—as the Church nearly always does in such cases—by telling the couple to consummate their marriage physically, and live a life of normal marital relations. Thus, the Church’s teaching that sexual relations in marriage are planned and blessed by God was spotlighted in their first year of marriage.
Their plan hadn’t come from a lack of passion. Zélie once wrote to her husband that as “Your wife who loves you more than her life, I kiss you like I love you.” She also said, “I love children madly. I was born to have them.”
In both the case of St. Zélie and St. Elizabeth Ann, we know about the marriage almost entirely from the wife’s point of view, since both women were prodigious letter-writers.
Elizabeth Ann Seton wrote in a love letter early in her marriage, “Ah my dearest husband, how useless was your charge that I should ‘think of you.’ I never cease to do for one moment and my watery eyes bear witness of the effect those thoughts have every time you are mentioned.”
Cleary both couples intensely experienced the sweetness of marriage. Then came its sorrow.
In the first 15 years of their marriage, the Martins had seven girls and two boy. But between 1867 and 1870, Zélie lost four children: a 5-year-old girl, two infant boys and an infant girl.
“We lived only for them. They were all our happiness and we never found any except in them,” Zélie wrote. Losing them was a hard blow — especially given the circumstances. One report says the couple lost four children “due to childhood illnesses and the negligence of wet-nurses, since Zélie was not able to breastfeed her children.”
“When I closed the eyes of my dear little children and buried them, I felt sorrow through and through,” Zélie remembered.
When another baby, their last, came, Zélie expected the worst. “I have no hope of saving her. The poor little thing suffers horribly,” she wrote. “It breaks your heart to see her.”
Of course, baby Thérèse did survive, and soon became the darling of the family, a child “full of life,” and “sheer joy to everyone.”
St. Elizabeth Seton also experienced the sorrow with the sweetness. Once when her oldest, Annina, was sick, and her husband’s struggle with illness was beginning, she wrote to a friend: “The longer I live and more I reflect and know how to value the realities of friendship, the more precious that distinction becomes, and I look forward to the dear hope that my sweet child will also enjoy it.”
But sadness was already changing her. “[My] heart grows every day more tender and softened, which in great measure I attribute to the state of my William’s health, that health on which my every hope of happiness depends,” she wrote.
The Martins, and the Setons, never conformed entirely to the husband and wife stereotypes we imagine for their time.
Not only did the five Martin girls have a working mother, but when Louis Martin realized his income paled in comparison to his wife’s, he sold his shop and became her business partner. Thus, in the first spouses canonized as a married couple, the woman was the primary breadwinner.
In the same way, as the Setons suffered financial blows during William’s illness, Elizabeth took over bookkeeping duties in his importing business.
Through it all, both families’ lives were affectionate, fun and positive as well as pious. The Martins went to Mass daily, and the whole family was devoted to the Holy Family. Even in her youngest years, Thérèse kept the family delighted by her offbeat take on holiness.
“The baby is an absolute imp,” wrote Zélie. “She comes to caress me while wishing me dead, ‘Oh! How I wish you would die, my poor little Mother!’ We scold her and she says, ‘But it’s so you’ll go to heaven, since you say that we have to die to go there.’ She wishes for the death of her father, as well, when she’s in the middle of her outpourings for love for him.”
Both families also learned the hard way that real holiness comes at a high cost.
The Martins had financial, emotional, and disciplinary crosses to carry. Their “problem child” was their third-born, Leonie. She was so disruptive at school, she was asked to leave. At home, she would not pray with the family unless she had no way out of it.
Then, the tragedy that would transform the family came: Zélie had breast cancer.
“I could not help from telling my family everything,” Zélie wrote of her dire diagnosis. “I regret it now because there was a grief-filled scene … everyone was crying. Poor Léonie was sobbing. But I named so many people who’d lived 10 or 15 years like this, and I didn’t seem very upset, doing my work cheerfully as always, perhaps more so. That calmed everyone down.”
Louis took the news especially hard. “My husband is inconsolable,” she wrote. “He’s given up the pleasure of fishing and put his lines up in the attic.”
The marriage came full circle as Louis took his ill wife to Lourdes, where the apparitions were now very well known, but despite several dips in the baths she saw no improvement.
“If all it takes is the sacrifice of my life for Léonie to become a saint, I’d do it gladly,” wrote Zélie. After Zélie’s death at age 45, Leonie entered the convent and her cause was introduced shortly before the Martins were canonized.
Of course, Elizabeth Ann Seton’s path to holiness was transformed in the same way: As her husband suffered the illness that would end his life, she took him to Italy searching for healing. He died there, but she found the Catholic faith.
One phrase from Zélie sums up the married vocation.
“It is necessary that the heroic becomes daily and that the daily becomes heroic,” Zélie said. That’s what her illness taught her.
Couples are drawn to marriage for the sweetness it promises. But they are drawn to rely on God because of the sorrow it delivers. In canonizing the Martins, the Church is telling us that both are the point of marriage: The sweetness of the cross and the sorrow of love.
St. Elizabeth Ann described how that worked in her life as a widow: “My poor high heart was in the clouds roving after my William’s soul and repeating, ‘My God, you are my God, and so I am now alone in the world with You and my little ones, but You are my Father, and doubly theirs.’”
TOM HOOPES, author most recently of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas, where he teaches. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, he served as press secretary for the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in the Register, Aleteia, and Catholic Digest. He lives in Atchison, Kansas, with his wife, April, and has nine children.
Image: Public Domain
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