The Life of Léonie Martin:
an illustrated biography published by the Monastery of the Visitation at Caen in 2012, with an introduction by Jean-Claude Boulanger, Bishop of Bayeux and Lisieux.
“Poor Léonie,” said Madame Martin, her mother. And yet Léonie, who became a Visitation nun [Visitation nuns were then also called Visitandines] under the name of Sister Françoise-Thérèse, experienced the “little way of Nazareth” of her Carmelite sister. She embodied the spirituality of St. Francis de Sales. He loved to say: “The sick, God takes into his arms, and the strong, he leads by the hand.”
Léonie had the spiritual experience of the tenderness of God, who permitted her to be reconciled little by little with her weaknesses. After an attempt at religious life with the Poor Clares, which ended in failure, there were two fruitless attempts at the Visitation. Her famous little sister Thérèse died in 1897, after having predicted Léonie’s definitive entry into the Visitation, which finally became a reality in 1899. Thérèse had written Léonie two months before her death: “You want me, in heaven, to pray to the Sacred Heart for you. You may be sure that I will not forget to give him your messages and to ask for all that is necessary for you to become a great saint.” (July 17, 1897)
Story of a Soul, published in 1898, became Léonie’s bedside book and helped her to find new hope for her own vocation. At her religious profession, on July 2, 1900, she wrote: “I am and I will be a little, oh, yes, a very little Visitandine for eternity.”
As Bernanos wrote: “The poor, the little ones will save the world despite themselves, because they will let God save it through them.” May those tried by life rest assured: they will always find comfort in Léonie.
† Jean-Claude Boulanger
Bishop of Bayeux and Lisieux
The doorbell rings
at 3 rue de l'Abbatiale at Caen.
“May I go to pray at the tomb of ‘Léonie’?”
Yes, the pilgrims—more or less numerous according to the seasons—come to ask Poor Léonie to obtain graces for them.
But perhaps you would like to know WHO this Poor Léonie (as her mother called her) is?
She is one of the older sisters of St. Thérèse, an older sister who, in her childhood, caused her parents many troubles.
see that this situation is not new!
It was at Alençon, on June 3, 1863, that the baby was born, in the home of Monsieur and Madame Martin: the father was a watchmaker and jeweler; the mother, a skilled lacemaker. Two little girls, sparkling with life, were already in the house: Marie and Pauline. What a contrast with this baby so frail and fragile! And now, through the months, illness followed illness: whooping cough, measles, convulsions . . . . For several months, the baby’s life was in danger, and, to complete this already dark picture, purulent eczema ravaged her body.
In her profound distress, but in her great faith, Madame Martin wrote to her sister, a Visitation nun at the monastery in Le Mans. Sister Marie-Dosithée began a novena to Sister Margaret Mary at the monastery of Paray-le-Monial, the one to whom Jesus had shown all his love. [St. Margaret Mary Alacoque (1647-1690) was a nun at the Visitation convent of Paray-le-Monial. It was to her that Jesus said, in showing her his heart, “Behold this heart which has so loved humans and which is so little loved!”] And . . . voilà, the baby was cured! Three months later, her mother wrote to her sister: “Léonie, now, is running about like a little rabbit.”
Nonetheless, the little girl would feel the effects of these illnesses all her life.
Léonie was also consistently in opposition to her parents; obedience was practically unknown to her. And her poor mother wrote that “she has lost her Latin” and that her daughter “is the greatest suffering of my life.” Conflict between parents and children is not new, as we see.
Already fragile and unstable, the child was completely taken in hand by a servant (who perhaps thought she was doing good) who even threatened to beat her if she went to her mother. How can we explain how these goings-on could have lasted several months without her parents realizing it? It was Marie who, one day, discovered the painful pressure to which Léonie had been submitted. She told her mother, and the maid was forbidden to speak to Léonie, who then submitted in everything to her mother! “In everything” is perhaps a little exaggerated, for the teenager remained somewhat capricious and careless.
She herself admitted much later, perhaps with some exaggeration, to having had “a detestable childhood!”
Only her aunt, the Visitation nun, remained hopeful, and she turned out to be a good prophet, writing one day “She’s a difficult child, but I believe that later she will be worth as much as her sisters.
She has a heart of gold, and, if her intelligence is slow, I find in her good judgment.” And Madame Martin, too, often pointed out in her letters what a good heart Léonie has.
This aunt added in another letter: “I can very well see her as a little Visitandine!”
The future will prove her right!
But, before that, one trial followed another in the family: Hélène, born a year after Léonie, died at the age of five. She was the sister nearest Léonie in age. So this “departure” probably made Léonie’s difficulties worse. Two little boys, very much wanted, lived barely a year, and a little girl, born in 1870, lived only seven weeks.
Madame Martin, exhausted by her many pregnancies and her lace work, was increasingly wasted by cancer. Despite her courageous energy sustained by her deep faith, she died on August 28, 1877.
Monsieur Martin, although very much attached to Alençon, left that city and settled in Lisieux to be closer to his brother-in-law and sister-in-law, Monsieur and Madame Guérin. He leased a house, “les Buissonnets,” now known all over the world!
Peaceful years passed in this place.
Léonie, mellowed (perhaps thanks to the prayers of her mother), displayed
all the tenderness in her heart to surround her sisters and her Papa:
did he not say, in speaking of his daughter, “My good Léonie !”
In 1882, Pauline entered Carmel. In 1886, it was Marie’s turn, and, two years later, Thérèse, the little Thérèse, in her turn crossed the threshold of the cloister.
The cloister of the Carmel of Lisieux
Léonie and Céline would oversee the management of the increasingly poor health of their dear Papa, who was affected by a degenerative brain disease. In 1889, after M. Martin had run away several times, it was considered necessary to admit Monsieur Martin to the psychiatric hospital of the Bon Sauveur (the Good Savior) at Caen.
To make their visits easier, the two sisters settled for several months near the hospital, and Léonie renewed contact with the Monastery of the Visitation, which was on the way from the temporary lodgings of the two sisters to the hospital. Céline could write a little mischievously, “When Léonie is free, she goes to pray at the chapel of the Visitation,” the monastery where she had made a brief stay.
But, you may ask, the Visitation? What is it? It is mentioned in the Gospel . . . the story about the Virgin Mary and her cousin Elizabeth, but, no, Céline did not refer to this episode in the Gospel but to a religious order founded in 1610 in Annecy, France by Francis de Sales and Jane de Chantal.
This name “Visitation” was given by the founder to honor this hidden mystery . . . . Mary, learning from the angel Gabriel that her cousin Elizabeth was also expecting a child, did not hesitate to go to see her to help her, for this cousin was older! and this spontaneously, without thinking of herself and without ostentation. Is this not the mission desired by Francis de Sales for the religious of the Visitation? He wanted them to live their life in simplicity, transforming the realities of daily life with ever-fuller joy, offering this hidden life for those who do not know or who refuse to know God.
In this new religious order, to “counterbalance” the relaxation of the excessive austerities which were not lacking in other monasteries at the time, Francis de Sales did not want visible or extraordinary penances. But here one would “do all through Love and nothing through force.” “Love obedience more than you fear disobedience.”
This can be summarized by another remark of the holy Bishop: “See all as coming from God, and in everything go to God!”
Let’s get acquainted with the Monastery of the Visitation at Caen!
This monastery was founded during the lifetime of St. Jane de Chantal. (We make a slight digression here to remember that Jane was a widow and was the grandmother of Madame de Sévigné, the famous letter-writer). Let’s go back to Caen to recall that Jane herself chose the first sisters destined for this foundation. It was first at Dol in Brittany that the sisters settled, but different circumstances, which we will not stop to tell here, required the transfer to Caen, where the sisters had acquired a vast terrain in a suburb of the city, where they gradually erected some large buildings.
In 1792 (at the time of the French Revolution), the Visitation nuns were driven out. The army moved in, and, when peace returned, the nuns could not get the place back!
The community acquired an old building in the grounds of the former Abbey of St. Etienne, and gradually the buildings now standing were erected there.
Let’s not forget that Madame Martin’s sister was a Visitation nun, and that Marie and Pauline had been educated at the Visitation and were imbued with its spirituality. Pauline herself had planned to enter the Visitation before recognizing the divine will in the choice of Carmel.
The Martin family was steeped in Salesian spirituality: to recognize in every event God, who comes to us and waits for our response. All this lived with Love in the Church among the People of God.
So it’s not surprising that Léonie should feel attracted to this Order, especially since she was healed as a child through the intercession of the famous Visitation nun, Saint Margaret Mary [Alacoque].
It’s not without many difficulties that she remained permanently at the monastery. Her aunt had judged well when she once said: “When this little girl sees her duty, nothing can stop her, she will undoubtedly break down all the barriers in her path.”
Recall, however, that, when very young, Léonie had expressed her desire for the consecrated life and her desire to be a “holy religious.”
After a first attempt at religious life with the Poor Clares of Alençon, a trial that turned out to be short because of the problems of the community at that time, Léonie crossed the threshold of the Monastery of the Visitation of Caen on July 16, 1887, but she left it on January 6, 1888.
Why? A certain instability; a lack of understanding; a health issue: the purulent eczema, recurring frequently and resulting in sleepless nights; and severe headaches. How would she hold on? Especially since in the convent there was no longer the comfort of Buissonnets! The convents at that time were not heated; let’s not forget that Thérèse said “I suffered from cold until I almost died of it!”
Léonie returned to the monastery of Caen in 1893 and took the habit on April 6, 1894. It was during this sojourn that Monsieur Martin died, on July 29, 1894.
A year later, Léonie left the monastery again. Why?
Misunderstanding, too many restraints? Did she miss the life of Buissonnets, which was so different: comfort (for that era), the affection of her family? One can ask these questions. But God, who knows what is necessary for each, might have been hollowing out in her a humility that would soon blossom into an indestructible confidence.
So there she was again in the world. Alone, since Celine had entered Carmel, Léonie suffered deeply from this new failure, and certainly her morale was affected. She had to struggle against a tendency toward depression, but the affection (and the prayers) of her family helped her to maintain her composure. Her uncle and her aunt welcomed her with great kindness, but the girl suffered from the somewhat worldly atmosphere that reigned at the Guérins’ home.
But remember that Thérèse, before she died, had confided: “After my death I will cause Léonie to return to the Visitation, and she will stay there.” Indeed, she crossed the threshold in 1899 and . . . remained there! not only for her lifetime, but she is here forever, since her tomb is in the Crypt of the monastery!
Her final vows took place on July 2, 1900. She confided: “The next day, my joy was great to be able to press to my heart my profession crucifix, this crucifix that has cost me so much!”
She held various jobs but always as a “subordinate.” The Lord kept her in the hidden life; did she not say “I thirst to disappear, to hide myself,” and again: “Littleness is all my happiness and all my joy!”
She particularly loved Story of a Soul. In this memoir of Thérèse, she found the whole Salesian doctrine. In fact, the Salesian texts were familiar to the Martin family, and the teachings of its holy bishop strongly permeated each of its members.
So it is not surprising to find in Thérèse, who had grown up in this atmosphere, expressions very close to those of Francis de Sales. We cite some examples: “I love all that God does,” says the holy bishop, and Thérèse : “All that he does I love!”
Francis de Sales: “Be little like a child of love in the arms of your Father. Where you cannot walk, he will carry you.”
Thérèse : “Sanctity consists only in a disposition of heart that makes us humble and little in the arms of God.”
“Ask for nothing, refuse nothing,” repeated Francis de Sales. Echoing him, Thérèse says to us: “I no longer choose anything. I want only what He wants!”
One could multiply these citations.
So one can understand why Léonie could enter without any difficulty into the footsteps of Thérèse and why she could write to her Carmelite sisters: “My spirituality is that of Thérèse, and, therefore, that of our holy Founder. His doctrine and hers are all one. She is the soul of whom our great doctor dreamed!”
Léonie’s heart strengthened, expanded, and we can say that, of the four sisters of Thérèse, Léonie is the one who understood best and lived most fully the Little Way.
Léonie relaxed, became peaceful, was transformed, and she could write: “I am as if melted into gratitude toward God, who has gone before me with so much love, and who has deposited me in this sweet anteroom of heaven which is the Visitation.”
Very cheerful at recreation, she made it her happiness to render services and to give pleasure, full of solicitude and delicacy.
But that did not prevent her feeling a sharp pain on the day when a bishop of Bayeux, during a homily, named the Carmelite sisters of Thérèse and . . . completely forgot to mention her Visitation sister!
On the other hand, Léonie showed her humor one day when a priest, ringing the doorbell of the monastery, asked her whether he might see the sister of Saint Thérèse. She answered: “I will ask, but I don’t believe it will be possible.”
“Oh, I am very sorry,” answered the priest. What she
answered: “But, Father, I can assure you that you will lose nothing by
not seeing her; it’s hardly worth the trouble.” And she disappeared,
while the priest left, amazed and even shocked, until, meeting the
chaplain of the monastery, to whom he recounted, in a disapproving tone,
what had happened, he heard the chaplain reply, smiling, “But it was
she, the sister of Saint Thérèse, who told you that!”
We can see that, in the Martin family, fidelity to the gospel did not exclude humor!Her last photo, taken six months before her death, shows a serene, peaceful face, with a smile in which one finds a little mischief.
The capricious little girl of the early days has become a religious radiant with peace, with equilibrium, with serenity!
She “entered into life” on June 17, 1941 and lies in the crypt of the monastery.
months before her death, Mother Agnes (her sister Pauline) had written
to her: “I want you to come to join Marie in the vault we have prepared
for the four of us, under the shrine of Thérèse.” Léonie had smiled, but
she had answered very kindly: “I am a Visitandine; I want to stay at
Her wish was granted; she is buried in the crypt of the Monastery of the Visitation of Caen, this monastery where she had so much desired to live!
It’s there that, for many years, pilgrims have come to pray from almost every continent! Their motivations vary, but most often it is parents whose children have a difficult character and young (or not so young) people who are searching for their way.
Also, several times a week, letters come from all the continents asking for our prayers through the intercession of Léonie.
And it is remarkable that, often, people, having prayed near her, say to us: “Oh, how good it was, I feel peaceful!”
One of the first letters we received, long ago, from the United States, sums up just what the pilgrims seem to expect from Léonie’s intercession: "I think she will be an inspiration for today's young people, who have difficulty adjusting to our world, and also for parents who have difficulties with their children!”
Dear Léonie our Sister,
You have already intervened with God on our behalf,
and we would like to be able to pray to you officially,
so that many more might know you.
Come to the aid of parents who risk losing a child,
as you nearly died at a very young age.
Continue to uphold the families
where different generations have problems living together in peace.
Enlighten youth who question their future and hesitate to commit.
Show to all the way of prayer
which permits you to bear your limitations and your difficulties with confidence,
and to give yourself to others.
Lord, if such is your will,
deign to accord us the grace that we ask of you
through the intercession of your servant Léonie,
and inscribe her among the number of the venerable of your Church.
Through Jesus Christ, our Lord.
Imprimatur: March 25, 2012
† Jean-Claude Boulanger
Bishop of Bayeux-Lisieux
Persons who receive favors by the intercession of Léonie Martin
in religion Sister Françoise-Thérèse,
are asked to make them known to:
Monastery of the Visitation
3 rue de l’Abbatiale
We thank the Monastery of the Visitation at Caen for graciously allowing us to translate for "Saint Therese of Lisieux: A Gateway" this new booklet that is being offered to pilgrims at the Monastery. The booklet is owned by the Monastery of the Visitation at Caen and used with permission. The English text is ©2013 by Maureen O’Riordan. All rights reserved.