The hidden life of Léonie Martin: the rebel sister of St. Thérèse emerges from oblivion
Léonie Martin, one of the older sisters of Saint Thérèse, was born 150 years ago, on June 3, 1863. More and more pilgrims come to pray at her tomb, at the Visitation of Caen, and to confide their family worries to her. A difficult temperament, an eventful life . . . Following the steps of Léonie the rebel.
Adrian. Illustrations by Miguel Labor
Imbiriba, for Famille Chrétienne. June 8, 2013. No. 1847.
[English translation copyright 2013 by Maureen O'Riordan. I thank Famille Chrétienne for its gracious permission to translate and publish its article].
Even in death, Léonie Martin continues her hidden life. It is not easy to find her tomb in the dim light of the crypt of the Visitation of Caen, a few steps from the Abbaye aux Hommes, where this older sister of the “little Thérèse” lived for 41 years before “entering into life” on June 17, 1941 at the age of 78 years. She rests in an underground room, under a slab, at the foot of an altar. Around this gray stone, a black-and-white portrait of Sister Françoise-Thérèse—her religious name--, four candles with bouquets, a package of letters with stamps from around the world.
Since her death, Léonie rests there, in the shadows, as she wished,” explained Sister Françoise-Bernadette. “One hardly spoke of her at the beginning of the 20th century, when the dramatic buildup of Thérèse in her glory eclipsed everything. The preachers spoke well of the saint’s three Carmelite sisters, but of Léonie, no mention! As if she had never existed.”
Yet, during the last fifty years, Léonie has emerged from obscurity. “The first letters we received asking for prayers in her name dated from 1960,” the Visitation nun continued. “Then the pilgrims started to flock in. Today, it’s almost every day that a mother, a couple, a group, come to meditate at her tomb.”
On the altar in the crypt, a book of intentions. One cannot leaf through it without moistening it with some tears, at the reading of supplications of parents in suffering, rendered powerless by the chaotic itineraries of certain of their children, or of young people in crisis who have trouble finding their way. “One of the first letters we received was mailed from the United States,” indicated Sister Thérèse-Marie. “It summed up what the pilgrims seem to expect from the intercession of Léonie: ‘It seems to me that she is an inspiration for the young people of today who have difficulty adjusting to our world, and also for the parents who have difficulty adjusting to their children!’”Unlike her sisters, the third daughter of Louis and Zélie Martin was neither lively, nor brilliant, nor gifted. She was a difficult child, a rebel, not a pretty character. Expelled four times from her school, she left monasteries three times.
“Cinderella” suffering from isolation, stuck between the two older sisters and the two younger ones, as demonstrated by the location and narrowness of her bedroom at Les Buissonnets, in Lisieux, where Louis Martin installed his family after the death of his wife.
Paradox: the “lame duck” of the family attracts more and more pilgrims. “One feels near her,” murmured a mother, come from Rouen to implore Léonie for an uncontrollable teenager.
“More and more people want to know the one whose mother called her ‘poor Léonie,’ noted Marie Baudoin-Croix, author of Léonie Martin: A Difficult Life [now available as an e-book]. “For this unbearable child came little by little to sweetness and humility, as a true spiritual daughter of Francis de Sales. And her struggle to conquer a tough temperament gives hope to all who pass through the same trials.” St. Francis de Sales, “the saint of 'douceur' (gentleness)”, affirmed that “God carries the sick in his arms, and the strong, he leads by the hand.”
In the vestibule of the crypt of the Visitation the photographs taped to the wall retrace the life of Sister Françoise-Thérèse. However, two things strike one about the whole thing: there are no photos of Léonie as a child. “Probably because of the purulent eczema that disfigured her,” Sister Thérèse-Marie presumed. “She had a series of illnesses to the point that her mother asked for a novena for her from her sister, a Visitation nun at Le Mans.”
Léonie was born at Alençon on June 3, 1863. The family home at 50 rue Saint-Blaise, across from the police station, was restored in 2009 on the occasion of the beatification of Louis and Zélie Martin. A well-lighted reception hall welcomes pilgrims. Before beginning the visit to the building with the rose-pink façade, pilgrims meet this uncommon family thanks to the large panels dedicated to each of its members. But there is nothing about Léonie’s childhood: not a word, not a photo. “It is truly an omission!” regretted Laurence de Valbray, supervisor of the pilgrimages for the shrine at Alençon.
This mother of five children is touched by the unloved child. Above all, by the difficulty Zélie experienced in tolerating her daughter, whom she never stopped comparing to others. “Zélie shows that one can make errors in education and nevertheless be a saint,” stressed Laurence de Valbray, as though reassured. “For example, Zélie allowed the maid to establish a psychological domination over Léonie without noticing anything.” It was in the kitchen that Léonie passed most of her time, in submission to the tyrannical servant. On the table of rough wood stands a porcelain soup tureen. “One day, in serving the soup, Léonie the blunderer dropped the dishcloth inside it. She went on to serve it.”
Léonie emerges as the moving story of the success of grace which corrects a rough nature and overcomes obstacles.
“You, who know what suffering means, intercede for us.”
Under the lacey portal of the Basilica of Notre Dame at Alençon, its parish rector, Father Thierry Hénault-Morel, comes to the defense of Zélie Martin. “She saw the good heart of her Léonie.” For proof, he cites a letter of Zelie to her daughter Pauline, written the same year as Zelie’s death, in 1877:
The mother confided to God a prayer that she might be allowed to remain alive “a few years to have time to raise my children, and, especially, poor Léonie, who needs me so much and who I feel so sorry for. She has fewer natural gifts than you, but in spite of this, she has a heart that asks to love and be loved and there’s only one mother who would be able to show her the attention she’s hungering for and follow her closely enough to do her good. . . . However, with time, I’m almost sure I’ll be able to manage to make her love God a lot and be pleasant to everyone.” “It is marvelous,” exclaims Father Hénault-Morel, “Zélie saw the answer to her prayer for her daughter just before her death! This makes me think that there are three kinds of prayers: those which are answered immediately, those to which the answer takes time, and those where we don’t see the answer here on earth. This prayer of Zélie took some time . . .”
Return to the Visitation at Caen. Read at random the pages of the book of intentions: “Little sister Léonie, protect my whole family who are in depression. Kisses.” “You who know what suffering means, intercede for us.” “That our son might return to us,” etc. And, in big, ill-formed letters: “I want to be wise. Signed, Thomas.” This wish brings a smile to the apple-pink face of Sister Marie-Blandina, 90, the last seventy of those years spent in the convent: “I remember this little boy, six years old, very mischievous. His parents had come to pray for him. He also had to write his intention."
Léonie, the “saint” of the hard-pressed but also the "brain-storming" patron of the families of TVB [Tout Va Bien]. “One could think that her ‘detestable childhood’ prevented the Martin family from falling into the self-satisfaction of parents endowed with children who were gifted, docile, pleasant, and constantly bringing them credit,” replied Marie Baudoin-Croix. From this point, it’s only one step farther to say that Léonie’s life did not count for nothing in the sanctification of her parents and of her little sister, in the happy estimation of the Biblical scholar Anne-Marie Pelletier (see the interview below). The first biographer of Léonie, Father Piat, argued that “If Thérèse is the masterpiece of the grace that goes before, Léonie appears as the moving story of the success of the grace that corrects a rough nature and overcomes obstacles.”
Lame ducks are also the children of God.
Unhappily for the discreet Léonie, her cause for beatification also is not improbable, as she would undoubtedly have dreamed. The rebel could, in fact, join her sister Thérèse and her parents on the altar. Mgr Boulanger, the bishop of Bayeux and Lisieux, is her ardent advocate. And the postulator of the cause of Louis and Zélie Martin, Father Antonio Sangalli, just declared in May, at the recognition of a second miracle which should mean their approaching canonization, “This exceptional couple educated not only the most famous of their five daughters, Thérèse, but also the other four, and in particular Léonie. She was a child who presented problems. Almost seventy-two years after her ‘entry into life,’ she is surrounded by a veritable reputation for sanctity. I hope that we can open a process of beatification and canonization for her without delay, as innumerable letters ask us to do.”
If one “must not take God’s children for wild ducks,” Léonie shows that the lame ducks are also God’s children—often, even, God’s favorites. And that He can make holy water fonts out of broken pots. In short, there is hope for the whole world.
Marie-France and Hubert Lorentz, 67 years old:
“Léonie saved our children from drugs.”
Léonie has acted in our family beyond all our hopes. She has truly worked miracles. We have six children, four of whom we adopted in 1999. Our two youngest boys, Cornel and Claude, had fallen into using drugs, and Claude into violence and delinquency: a hell for them, a nightmare for us. From the human viewpoint, there was no escape; we were at the end of our rope, desperate, when one of our daughters—our two oldest are nuns—borrowed from our library a book I’d never opened: Léonie Martin: une vie difficile. I plunged myself into it. I’d scarcely read a quarter of the work when I knew that Léonie had just entered into our life forever. I prayed to Léonie with all my heart: “Léonie, I beg you, take Claude’s hand, and never let it go.” The same evening, Claude said to us: “I no longer have a choice! I am going to the Cenacle (a Christian community that welcomes young people who are addicted , alcoholic, or disturbed, to help them break out of their addictions).” A week later, with the agreement of the judge, he entered their house in Lourdes. Then I whispered to myself, “Léonie, you have worked a first miracle for Claude. A thousand thanks. If you work another for Cornel, I will go on foot to Caen to pray at your tomb.” A few months later, Cornel left in his turn for the Cenacle house at Hondeghern. Today they are not the same boys; they have recovered the faith; they are attentive, peaceful, responsible, and resolved not to fall again into the mortal trap. With Hubert, my husband, we kept our word. Because there is no safe route with signposts on which we could walk from Nîmes to Caen, we accomplished the 922-kilometer (573 miles!) journey by walking seven or eight kilometers (about four or five miles) a day around Nîmes, reciting the rosary all the while. To complete the pilgrimage in beauty, we plan, very soon, to walk together from Lisieux to Caen—perhaps even with Cornel—to give thanks for Léonie’s intercession and to ask for the canonization of the woman who suffered so much that she lays her hand with a particular tenderness on those who are tried.”
- Interview by Luc Adrian.
The grace of the last place
The biblical scholar Anne Marie Pelletier shows how Léonie Martin rescues us from the picture of success and of holiness in which we are trapped
Interview by Luc Adrian
Q: What is it in Léonie Martin that inspires you, the mother of a family, the woman, the Christian that you are?
Unquestionably, I feel attraction and tenderness for this member of the Martin family who was so easily marginalized, forgotten, erased from our memory. Perhaps because, as a Biblical scholar, I am sensitive to a Revelation where God takes a wicked pleasure, if I dare say so , in conniving with those whom life has left at the side of the road and whom we have a tendency to ignore.
One remembers, for example, the story of David, where God chose the youngest of his family, the one who was thought the least, to make him his elect and his king. Yet, today, as yesterday, we have a tendency to shine the light, to value beings and situations other than God. In particular, to evaluate the success of one or another in our families according to criteria that are not necessarily those of God.
Q. You argue paradoxically that Léonie, the “lame duck” of the Martin family, created an opportunity for it. Why?
Léonie was a disappointing daughter to the Martins, and, even so, she did not spoil the family picture: she brought to it, on the contrary, something essential, a credibility that this family and the holiness of Thérèse herself would perhaps not have had so powerfully without her.
For there is a real danger of looking at the Martins simply as an admirable family, uniting people gifted for the Christian life and living in a rarefied atmosphere of holiness which did not know, the weaknesses of ordinary Christians.
But the Christian life is not an athletic performance! The true Christian life is always a matter of poverty offered to God and transfigured by Him!
Q. All family life, according to you, includes the ordeal of disappointment?
Yes, and to say that is not to declare a belief in pessimism. It is simply to acknowledge that living with others leads necessarily, sooner or later, to recognizing them as they are, in their uniqueness and their difference. I mean by “disappointment” this experience of truth. The truth of the other, which does not necessarily coincide very strongly with what I could dream of them, or for them.
The Martin family was confronted singularly, in the person of Léonie, with this experience. And it is fortunate. For, after all, God does not meet us on the heights of our ideals, but instead in the very concreteness of real life.
Q. Does a fundamental inequality exist between Léonie and her sisters?
And this inequality is all the more noticeable because they were lively, talented, precocious girls. We know from experience that this kind of disparity may be a source of violence that can poison a family’s life. Moreover, there was everything in Léonie’s life to make her a rebel, jealous, or simply sadly resigned, trapped in resentment. And yet Léonie is not that.
Q. How did she escape jealousy?
God, in her, prevented her wounds from festering and becoming deadly. But this healing is inseparable, in Léonie, from the practice of the “little way” inaugurated by her sister: God treated Léonie’s wounds by engaging her in the way of humility and love. God forged in her the rationale for, and a liking for, this “little way.” He made Léonie its living illustration.
One could even think that this “way” of Thérèse found in her sister its first principle of verification. It is the reception of Thérèse’s thoughts that finally allowed Léonie to assume her very concrete poverty: physical disfavor, a slow intelligence, an impossible temperament.
Q. Did she feel inferior to her sisters?
Effectively, she was beaten down with a devalued self-image right until the end of her life, justifying the objections of her sisters, who reminded her that she was Christ’s “dear spouse.”
Léonie needed to escape the psychological trap of a poor self-image, she needed to prevent herself from being crushed by this negative self-image, enclosed in a desperate concern for herself. She also needed to escape the temptation to muster her strength to acquire virtues that had escaped her, which had been her intention in the beginning.
Finally, she had to allow
the misery within herself to be converted, so that what emerged and what she
affirmed was her poverty, this spiritual truth of the being which knew that her
strength was only the strength of God within her and which consented to receive
from God that which she asked. The story
of Léonie is the passage from scorning
the self to forgetting herself.
Second surprise: the difference between the expression of the young Léonie and the expression of the photo taken in her religious cap and veil at the end of her life. The first is austere, self-controlled, pinched—rather awkward, with her thick nose, her protruding chin, her hair pulled back; the second is smiling, open, peaceful, a little mischievous. “She experienced a completely interior conversion thanks to the ‘little way’ of Thérèse, who loved her tenderly and who was her spiritual master,” Sister Thérèse-Marie resumed.
Q: What was the fulcrum of this conversion?
Her precocious and tenacious desire for holiness! She declared it very early, even when she was treated as a nasty little girl. It was in order to realize this desire, when she knew she was without the talent or the disposition, that she came to follow the “little way” of Thérèse. That is to say that she consented to her weakness, to her fragilities, which she had experienced as her misery. In a very Theresian fashion, she came to understand that her poverty, which was often so objectionable to her, was not an obstacle to this desire that lived in her, but was the way God invited her to take to realize this desire. Finally, Léonie’s road shows that God uses his power in a heart in proportion to the poverty it consents to offer to him.
Q. Isn’t that a justification of failure?
Certainly not. Her
life is not at all like that, resigned.
She was not someone who confronts bad fortune with a good heart or who,
unable to pretend to grandeur, sublimates her pettiness. All the business of her life was to become a “great saint.” So she fought to stand in the truth of
her humility, which knows that it is God who will be her holiness, who will accomplish
in her the holiness she desires, beyond anything she could do, to succeed or to
Yes, profound! Although ten years her junior, Thérèse was for Léonie a true spiritual master, like a mistress of novices. In particular, she taught her the patience of love, of “taking Jesus by the heart,” to put her trust in the little things done out of love for Jesus.
Conversely, Thérèse had received in Léonie a sister through whom she, Thérèse, showed us the “little way” lived radically, that is to say lived in true poverty, a poverty that is naked, austere, this kind of poverty which one risks passing by without seeing anything, without seeing God, who is there, and who is there in His greatness.