There can still be found in the French countryside not only isolated rocks of religious enthusiasm but also, as it were, great alluvial deposits, scarcely covered with sand, wherein the convictions of their forbears endure and only need a turn of the plowshare to bring them to light. The middle-class people of Alençon were practicing Catholics. At Corpus Christi, they hung flags outside their houses, and officials regarded it as an honor to carry the canopy at the procession; the men went to the high Mass every Sunday, and most of them fulfilled their obligations at Easter.
But Christians of the quality of the Martins were certainly rarer, and they were a cause of inverted scandal.
Louis Martin the Clock-maker
M. Martin’s father came from Athis in the département of the Orne. He fought in Napoleon’s wars and stopped on in the army after Waterloo, often changing his station. That is how the third of his children, Louis, came to be born at Bordeaux in 1824. When Captain Martin retired, he settled down at Alençon, not far from his birthplace, because it was convenient for his children’s education. He was as good a Christian as he was a soldier and never trifled about duty; everything had to be exact, and he would allow no deviation from rules. This piety that he passed on to Louis may well be called military, and with it went a soldierly bearing that his son never lost.
Louis was a tall upstanding fellow, always looking straight before him; at twenty, he was the handsomest young man in the place. But he was never a soldier. He went to some cousins at Rennes, and there he adopted Breton dress and became a clock-maker, perfecting himself under a friend of his father at Strasbourg.
When he was twenty, he set out for the Alps, traveling partly on foot and partly by stage-coach, half tourist and half pilgrim, until he came to the snow-clad solitude of the Austin canons in their monastery on the Great St. Bernard. He did not know enough Latin to be accepted there; so, with his father’s approval, he decided to take up serious studies. They were stopped by sickness.
Then, disappointed but resigned to disappointment, he went back to clock-making and, after a short residence in Paris, opened a small shop at Alençon. It was in the rue du Pont Neuf, a few yards from the river. The name Martin can still be seen on the signboard, surrounded by watches and clocks and rings and necklaces, for later he added a jewelry business to his trade. Here he lived a bachelor’s life until he was thirty-five.
People did not know what to make of this monkish watch-maker. He was good-looking, with a full well-kept beard, reticent in manner, educated; he never went outside his shop without putting on a frock coat and bowler hat. As he went about the street, he did not look at women, even out of the corner of his eye, and seemed to think as little about getting married as he did about recreation. When he found a man drunk in the gutter, he would help him up and lead him home.
He was at Mass every morning, and his house was a meeting-place for several devout old men, who discussed with him the best way of helping the needy. This haunter of churches was so well thought of by everybody that he quite upset the accepted opinion that a man “given to good works” must necessarily be sour in disposition or a hypocrite. It must be added, to place him exactly, that he was a keen angler.
Zélie Guérin the Lace-maker
At this same time, there lived in the house in the rue a certain Mademoiselle Zélie Guérin, together with her old father (a retired police officer), her brother Isidore, and a sister. She was a local girl and had been to school at the Adoration convent. An irresistible sympathy for human sufferings had prompted her to seek admission among the Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, but the superior of the Hotel-Dieu had refused her. Where Louis Martin had failed, so Zélie Guérin failed, too.
M. Guérin had very little money, so Zélie became a lace-maker. Thenceforward she could be seen at her window, putting together squares of point d’Alençon or making charming designs on paper for the discharge of the orders that came in such marvelous numbers. She wrapped herself in contemplation, and God was always with her. She mused on the possibility of serving Him more fully by marrying a husband who would be no less concerned for his glory, and bringing many children into the world who should be consecrated to his service.
Meeting on St. Leonard’s Bridge
These two craftsmen, the clock-maker and the lace-maker, lived in different parishes, and their families were not acquainted. The two did not know one another. They waited. How they met one fine day on St. Leonard’s bridge, like Joachim and Anne at the Golden Gate; how he made way for her, and she passed him; how they looked at one another; how Zélie recognized unerringly that this was the companion intended for her by God: all this is a secret that Heaven has kept well.
We only know that there was mutual understanding and delight, that the families met, and that the two were married. Louis Martin was careful for his own maidenhood and believed that it was his wife’s wish, too, to shelter hers under the fine veil of a purely spiritual union; and there is documentary evidence that they lived together for a year as brother and sister, like St. Valerian with St. Cecilia. This awesome and superhuman paradox might have subsisted their whole lifetime, but Thérèse would not have been born, and it would seem that, in the plan of divine providence, this marriage had no other object.
Zélie told her husband that she wanted children, that he and she should found a family of saints in accordance with his own desire. Her wishes were fulfilled: of her nine children, four went to God between the ages of six months and six years; the other five all became nuns.
For their first christening-name, all were called after our Lady, and there were successively Mary Louisa, Mary Pauline, Mary Léonie, Mary Helen, Mary Joseph Louis and Mary Joseph John Baptist, Mary Céline, Mary Melania Thérèse, and lastly she who was to be Saint Thérèse of Lisieux. Helen, Melania, and those longed-for sons, the two Josephs, who they had hoped would be missionaries, died in childhood. Of the surviving daughters, Mary Louisa, who by privilege of the firstborn was called simply Mary, was not quite fourteen when the youngest, Thérèse, was born.
Zélie Guérin’s practical aptitude was as keen as her faith, and her lace-making business, which she had continued to carry on, became so prosperous that, in 1870, her husband gave up his own shop in order to help her with the increasing work; as his father was dead, there was nothing to keep him in the rue Pont Neuf. Meanwhile, war had broken out, and they underwent the miseries of the German invasion; had it not been checked, his age would not have prevented Louis from serving with the volunteers. His father-in-law also being dead, he inherited the house in the rue Saint-Blaise, and the family settled down there, where they lived for seven years. So we come back to the birthplace of the saint.
After the death of Mary Helen, when she was five and a half, Mme. Martin’s sister, a Visitation nun at Le Mans, wrote to her with innocent simplicity:
I can’t help thinking that you’re privileged to give these chosen ones to Heaven, where they will be your joy and your crown. And one day your unfailing trust and faith will have a tremendous reward . . . You may be sure that God will bless you, and the consolations that are now withheld will be the measure of your bliss. For if our good Lord is so pleased with you that He sends you the great saint that you have wanted so much to honor Him with, won’t you be well repaid?
Msgr. Laveille, one of the best writers about Thérèse, compares these words with those that Mme. Martin herself wrote to her sister-in-law at Lisieux when she had suffered a similar bereavement:
When I have to close the eyes of my dear little children and follow their bodies to the grave, of course I am utterly miserable, but my sorrow has always been resigned. And I don’t regret the trouble and care that they have been to me.
Everybody says, “It would be much better if you’d never had them.” I can’t bear such talk. It doesn’t seem to me that pain and difficulties can be put into the balance against my children’s eternal happiness.
That letter shows the quality of Zélie Martin’s faith. It is alleged that she often received graces out of the ordinary, so sensitive was her spirit — foreknowledge, supernatural advice, and enlightenment. And all the time she nursed her idea of giving a “great saint” to the world.
The two elder girls went to school at their aunt’s convent in Le Mans. The third, Léonie, was delicate and a source of worry. Céline began to walk. Little Mary Melania died. There was no sign of the long-desired, perhaps promised, saint. Then, in 1872, another pregnancy raised fresh hopes, and again a daughter came to fill the empty cradle. She was born on January 3, 1873, when Mary and Pauline were home for the new-year holiday. Their mother’s suffering kept them awake, until at midnight M. Martin tapped at their door and told them that they had a baby sister.
Next day, Mary Frances Thérèse Martin was christened in the church of our Lady. It is the most beautiful church in Alençon, with a triple gothic porch, strong and delicate, a very garden of carved stone: this was her doorway into the world of grace. The font whereat she received the spirit of God is in the first chapel on the south side. Her eldest sister, Mary, was godmother, but the name Thérèse prevailed over the others.