The letter below about Leonie Martin (Sister Francoise-Therese), the sister of St. Therese, is an issue of the spiritual newsletter written by the Benedictine monks of the Abbey of Saint Joseph de Clairval at Flavigny in France; their Web site contains many newsletters about saints and holy persons. I thank them for their gracious permission to reproduce it here.
Month of Mary
Dear Friend of Saint Joseph Abbey,
Ever since the apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary in 1858, Lourdes has become a land of grace. God's power and mercy manifest themselves there before the eyes of all, believers and non-believers alike. Even today, Mary makes her motherly presence felt, as the following story shows.
Delizia Cirolli was born in Sicily on November 17, 1964, the eldest of four children. In spite of her father's financial difficulties, being due to unemployment, she led a happy life with her family. Toward the beginning of March 1976, she began to feel persistent, painful troubles in her right knee. Her parents had her examined by the family doctor who ordered several laboratory analyses and prescribed tranquillizers. Then, on May 6, surgery revealed a malignant tumor in the knee (osteosarcoma). The surgeon proposed to amputate the whole leg, without being able to guarantee a full cure. The poor parents could not accept such a solution. So the doctor prescribed radiation treatment. But the child, highly emotional, was unable to bear with going to the hospital, and so she was taken back home before any treatment was given.
"Let's have faith!"
Faced with the young girl's sufferings, her school teacher had the idea of sending her to Lourdes with her mother. Their stay (August 7-11, 1976) was a painful one. Nevertheless, the two pilgrims assisted at all the ceremonies, went to the grotto, the fountains and pools. Upon their return, Delizia was no better. New X-rays revealed a clear worsening of the illness. However, no treatment had yet been undertaken. The child was visibly going down hill, but her family and friends did not lose courage: "The Blessed Virgin will do something; let's have faith!" They continued praying to Our Lady of Lourdes, while her mother never left her daughter without water from the grotto.
Around the middle of December, the child almost stopped eating. According to Sicilian tradition, her mother started making the mortuary dress in which her daughter would be clothed after her death. Then it was that the unforeseeable took place. Just before Christmas, all of a sudden, Delizia felt better. She asked her mother if she could get out of bed. Imagine Mrs. Cirolli's astonishment when she saw her daughter get up without help and walk! Delizia was cured; the Blessed Virgin had heard their prayers! At the end of Christmas vacation, the young girl was able to go back to school as usual.
This extraordinary cure, duly examined by several international medical courts, has been judged to be a phenomenon contrary to medical observations and previsions, since the advanced state of the illness made its cure impossible. On June 28, 1989, the Archbishop of Catania, Sicily, declared: "I hereby certify that this cure, given the conditions in which it was produced and maintained, is `scientifically inexplicable,' and, as Archbishop of Catania, I declare it to be `miraculous.' "
This recent miracle moves us to praise wholeheartedly the power and goodness of God. But the Lord also accomplishes transformations in the moral and spiritual order which constitute an even greater motive for being thankful to Him. The life story of Léonie Martin, one of the sisters of Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus and of the Holy Face, bears witness to this.
"That terrible little girl"
When Léonie came into the world on June 3, 1863 at Alençon, she found around her crib her parents, Louis and Zélie Martin, and two sisters, Marie (three years old) and Pauline (twenty-one months). Céline (1869) and Thérèse (1873) would come later to enrich the family. Léonie was quite a weak child, suffering from successive illnesses: a kind of whooping cough, measles with strong convulsions. From time to time, purulent eczema covered her whole body. Unstable, clumsy and very slow intellectually, Léonie was the family's desolation. Her lack of psychological equilibrium became more and more manifest as she grew up. One day she would admit: "My infancy and first youth were spent in suffering, in the most burning pains." However, she had a good memory and she knew the catechism perfectly.
Her elders, Marie and Pauline, were students at the boarding school of the Visitation sisters in Le Mans, where their aunt, Sister Marie-Dosithée, was a nun. The superior did not want to accept Léonie. However, her aunt obtained permission to take her on probation: "I now have Léonie, that terrible little girl," she would write, "and I assure you, she does not give me little to do. It's a continual struggle I'm the only one she's afraid of!" The probation did not last, and she was sent back into her family.
Madame Martin had her given special lessons. But Léonie understood nothing about counting and lined up numbers with the greatest fantasy. Another try at the Visitation was considered. Her mother wrote: "We're getting her bag ready. I believe it's just a waste of money, but what worries me the most is the trouble she's going to cause her aunt She is the only one who has influence over her. When poor little Léonie is asked what she will be when she grows up, the answer is always the same: `I will be a Visitation sister with my aunt.' May such be God's holy will, but it's too sublime; I don't dare hope for that."
Madame Martin's correspondence betrayed her pedagogical preoccupations, especially concerning Léonie, whose emotional and intellectual slowness demanded most particular attention. She was not unaware of the fact that confidence is the soul of education, and she left no stone unturned in order to win over that withdrawn heart. Zélie wanted her daughters to be expansive, open, beaming. By dint of love, she aroused confidence or consent, but she knew how to be firm, without letting by stubbornness or caprice. She stimulated the generosity of her daughter and made use of daily events to teach her to conquer herself, with insistence on fidelity to her duties of state.
"The role of parents in education is of such importance that it is almost impossible to provide an adequate substitute," teaches the Catechism of the Catholic Church "Parents have the first responsibility for the education of their children. They bear witness to this responsibility first by creating a home where tenderness, forgiveness, respect, fidelity, and disinterested service are the rule They should teach their children to subordinate the material and instinctual dimensions to interior and spiritual ones" (CCC, 2221, 2223).
A lifelong task
To educate also means to form the moral sense and the conscience. "Conscience must be informed and moral judgment enlightened. A well-formed conscience is upright and truthful. It formulates its judgments according to reason, in conformity with the true good willed by the wisdom of the Creator. The education of conscience is indispensable for human beings who are subjected to negative influences and tempted by sin to prefer their own judgment and to reject authoritative teachings. The education of the conscience is a lifelong task. From the earliest years, it awakens the child to the knowledge and practice of the interior law recognized by conscience. Prudent education teaches virtue; it prevents or cures fear, selfishness and pride, resentment arising from guilt, and feelings of complacency, born of human weakness and faults. The education of the conscience guarantees freedom and engenders peace of heart" (CCC, 1783-84).
However, the caring affection of Madame Martin did not succeed in overcoming Léonie's spirit of contradiction; the latter even seemed at times to close herself up in sulkiness. But her mother was not discouraged. She even noted the least signs of improvement. "I am not unhappy with my Léonie," she wrote one day; "if only we could conquer her stubbornness and soften up her character a bit, we could make a good, devout girl out of her, one who would not fear difficulty. She has an iron will; when she wants something, she overcomes all obstacles in order to get it." But a few weeks later, she confided to Pauline: "I'm unable to succeed; she does whatever she wants and the way she wants."
"He will give in"
Zélie was sustained in her ongoing task by this thought: the child of so many prayers and so much anguish could not perish! Praying for her daughter is part of her role as educator and mother. "When we share in God's saving love, we understand that every need can become the object of petition. Christ, who assumed all things in order to redeem all things, is glorified by what we ask the Father in His name" (CCC, 2633). Zélie was hoping for Heaven to intervene: "The more difficult she seems to be, the more I am convinced that the Good God will not allow her to remain that way. I will pray so much that He will give in. She was cured at the age of 18 months of an illness which should have killed her; why would God have saved her from death if He did not have plans of mercy over her?" A few years later, the "Little Thérèse" would have this beautiful word to say: "We obtain from God as much as we hope for." Madame Martin's hope would not be deceived. Thus is verified the Catechism's observation: "Children in turn contribute to the growth in holiness of their parents" (CCC, 2227).
Her aunt, Sr. Marie-Dosithée, died at the Visitation Convent in Le Mans on February 24, 1877. Léonie had entrusted her with "messages" for Heaven: "When my religious aunt gets to Heaven," she told her sister Marie, "I want her to ask the Good God to grant me a religious vocation I want to be a real nun."-"A real one? What do you mean by that?"-"A saint." Soon, one of the mysteries hovering over Léonie's destiny came to light. Louise, the family employee, had been exerting her tyrannical influence over the child for two years: she thought she was serving the good cause by "taming" Léonie with bodily chastisements. She demanded that the child keep this secret and forbade her to have any conversation with her mother. Finally, the evil was discovered. Madame Martin explained it in a letter to her sister-in-law: "Yes, I see a ray of hope which portends a complete change soon to come. All the efforts I had made up to now to attach her to me had been fruitless, but today this is no longer true. She loves me as much as it is possible to love, and along with this love, the love of God is sinking little by little into her heart. She has unlimited confidence in me and goes so far as to reveal her least faults; she really wants to change her life and makes every effort that no one appreciates as much as I do."
Her ceaselessly renewed efforts bore fruit: "Human virtues acquired by education, by deliberate acts and by a perseverance ever-renewed in repeated efforts are purified and elevated by divine grace. With God's help, they forge character and give facility in the practice of the good. The virtuous man is happy to practice them" (CCC, 1810).
But on August 28, 1877, Madame Martin died of cancer. The family then left Alençon for Lisieux, where Uncle and Aunt Guérin were living. On October 2, 1882, Pauline entered the Carmelite convent of Lisieux, where Marie was also admitted in 1886. Léonie took advantage of the trip to Alençon in order to be admitted into the Poor Clare Convent in that city. Uncle Guérin reassured the Martin family concerning this "holy" caprice of Léonie: "Don't worry; she won't stay." Indeed, on December 1st, Léonie left the convent in deep depression.
Choosing with discernment
The following year, she gave religious life another try with the Visitation nuns of Caen. The choice was judicious, for the Founders of the Visitation Order, Saint Francis de Sales and Saint Jeanne de Chantal, had conceived the order to make contemplative life accessible to feeble healths. But, after six months, Léonie was obliged to interrupt this second try. Back in Lisieux, she spent her time visiting the poor and the sick, and she even took care of the dying; she gave help both inside the homes and out. On April 9, 1888, Thérèse entered Carmel at the age of 15. Then came the mental illness of Mr. Martin who had to be interned in Bon-Sauveur Hospital in Caen. For several years, Léonie and Céline would take care of their father, with the help of their aunt and uncle.
On June 24, 1893, Léonie made a second try at the Visitation Convent in Caen, but had to leave again in July 1895. Her father had died one year before, and Céline had entered Carmel in September 1894. Léonie needed a lot of courage to assume her inconsistent and unstable character, in spite of her tenacious obstinacy for the religious life. But Thérèse, a mistress of the spiritual life, was a true guide for her by means of her simple and persuasive pedagogics. The way of spiritual childhood which she taught her by letter or in the Carmel parlor, awoke sentiments of abandonment and confidence in Léonie, establishing her more and more in peace.
On September 30, 1897, Sister Thérèse of the Child Jesus died in the Carmelite convent of Lisieux. One year later, her autobiography (Story of a Soul) came out. Léonie devoured the book and was moved by the memories of her childhood found therein; but especially she discovered the secrets of love between Thérèse and her Beloved Lord. The Story of a Soul became her bedside book and helped her to hope for the realization of her own vocation.
All God's, finally
On January 28, 1899, Léonie once again entered the Visitation of Caen, this time for good. She was 35 years old. She took the habit on June 30, 1899, and received the name of Sister Françoise-Thérèse. The recommendations of Saint Francis de Sales were present to her mind: "Let us practice certain little virtues proper to our littleness: patience, bearing with one's neighbor, service, humility, meekness, affability, tolerance of one's imperfection It is not the greatness of our actions which pleases God, but the love with which we perform them."
Sister Françoise-Thérèse's health remained quite weak. At times, eruptions of eczema covered her whole body. She wrote one day: "Eczema covers me like a hair-shirt from head to feet, making me itch and keeping me from sleep; if I have the misfortune to scratch myself just a little, it's a real burn. I think it would be worse to be in Purgatory, so I offer my sufferings for all the major intentions which touch particularly the heart of our Pontiff and beloved father (the Pope). Besides, all these desires of apostolate help me to be generous." What is more, she suffered from repeated migranes, scalp dermatosis, ingrown nails, frequent intestinal crises, rheumatism, etc
In 1930, Sister Françoise-Thérèse was in a very bad condition and received the last sacraments. "The dear patient is truly in the hands of God; I am quite edified by the conversation I had with her," wrote Bishop Suhard, who at that time was the local bishop. Little by little, however, she came back to good health. She wrote to Céline: "I can no longer get acclimated to this earth. Everything leaves me annoyed and weary; pray much for your poor little coward, for, all things considered, it's pure cowardice to no longer want to suffer for the Good God, who is still more offended now than ever I cling as much as I can to His will which I love and desire above all things, but all my poor efforts are quite fruitless and leave me often in unspeakable sufferings."
However, these pains were accompanied by deep joy. She was greatly surprised when she found out that Thérèse was going to be canonized: "Thérèse was so kind," she wrote, "but canonization!" On April 29, 1923, Pope Pius XI proclaimed her to be Blessed. Then on May 17, 1925, he canonized her. For the imposing ceremonies of canonization, the four Martin sisters were offered to come to Rome. All four preferred the silence and oblivion of the cloister. "I am much happier here than in Rome," wrote Sister Françoise-Thérèse; "I prefer being in the last place Silence alone is appropriate But all this, by the grace of God, far from dazzling me, just makes me long even more for Heaven."
At the start of 1941, Sister Françoise-Thérèse left her cell for the infirmary. She wrote to her sisters: "I am going to my eternity, what bliss! There is nothing healthy in me except for my eyes, my heart and my head, thanks be to God; but He can take everything, it's all His! Complete abandonment, even of my very little and poor intelligence!" During the night of June 16-17, in the presence of her Superior, Mother Marie-Agnes Debon, who blessed and embraced her for her sisters, she peacefully left this world.
During her 78 years of life, of which 43 were spent in the convent, Léonie knew many trials: feelings of inferiority, failures, darkness, physical sufferings, interior temptations of revolt But she who had been a problem child of whom, humanly speaking, nothing was to be expected, became, by the powerful action of the Holy Spirit, a "saint." Still recently, Mother Marie-Agnes Debon, her last Superior, testified to the kindness, simplicity and voluntary self-effacement of the problem child of Alençon who became, by her efforts and the grace of God, an accomplished nun. This profound moral transformation is one of the most beautiful achievements of the "way of spiritual childhood" of Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus for whom holiness is a disposition of the heart which makes us humble and little in the arms of God, conscious of our weakness, and boldly confident in His fatherly goodness (cf. Novissima verba, August 3, 1897).
Since the death of Sister Françoise-Thérèse, a universal glow of attraction to her has rapidly spread abroad. From all parts of the world requests for prayers and gratitude for graces obtained arrive at the Visitation Convent of Caen. She who caused so many worries to her parents has become the recourse of those who experience difficulties in educating their children.
"O my God," wrote Sister Françoise-Thérèse, "in my life, You have put little of what shines. Grant that, like You, I may go towards authentic values, disdaining human values, in order to esteem and will only the absolute, the Eternal, the love of God by dint of hope." Theses words are inspired by the Imitation of Jesus Christ which she often used to read: "Lord, my God, I consider it to be a singular grace that You have granted me few of the gifts which appear outwardly, and which draw the praise and admiration of men. Indeed, upon consideration of one's poverty and abjection, far from being dejected, far from being grieved and sad, one should rather fell sweet consolation and great joy; for You have chosen, my God, for Your friends and servants, the poor, the humble, those whom the world despises" (Book III, 22). The life of Sister Françoise-Thérèse, so full of humility, is presented in these few words.
With confidence, we pray that she will teach us to walk in her footsteps and intercede with Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus, Saint Joseph and of course our Blessed Lady for all those who are dear to you, living and deceased.
Dom Antoine Marie osb.