No family is perfect. Well, maybe one. But Jesus, Mary, and Joseph are definitely the exception.
Even in the best of homes, even when the parents are canonized together and a child becomes one of the most beloved saints of all time, there can be deep hurt. And rather than run like an ugly scar over an otherwise beautiful thing, this brokenness can be instead a ribbon of redemption tying the whole story together. This is the miracle of the difficult life of Léonie Martin.
We all know St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the Little Flower, the gentle saint whose ‘Spiritual Childhood’ doused our Church like a sudden spring rain – fresh, simple, fruitful, and awash with grace. She seemed to singlehandedly make holiness accessible. By embracing her own weakness and abandoning herself completely to the mercy of God, Thérèse provided the map to the quickest and surest way to heaven.
Her parents, the first married saints to ever be canonized together, provide great insight into her simple genius. The teaching left to us in her Story of a Soul was really a spiritual rediscovery of the tender love and pure devotion of her family life. Louis and Zélie Martin gave their five daughters a safe place to be small. They knew they were loved by their parents, they knew they were loved by God, and for the most part, they learned quickly to surrender themselves to the tender power of that love. Essentially, the way of Spiritual Childhood was born in Thérèse’s own.
But one daughter would learn the lesson slowly and painfully, spread out like a slow sunrise rather than a spring shower. From the first, Léonie was different. Born on June 3, 1863, she was a weak child and suffered from an awful case of eczema which would plague her for life. She was sick with convulsions and intestinal troubles so often that Zélie was constantly worried about her health, and finally asked her sister, a Visitatine nun, to pray a novena for Leonie. After two years of suffering, it appeared the prayers were answered in her favor—Léonie’s ailments eased immediately.
By this time, Léonie already had a younger sister, Hélène, who became her little playmate. When Hélène died at the age of only five, Léonie was left behind, the middle child who never had the benefit of a close confidant. Her two older sisters, Marie and Pauline, were each other’s constant companions, and the youngest two, Celine and Thérèse, were inseparable. But Léonie, often left to herself, would sometimes be so lonely and bored she would simply fall asleep in the middle of the day.
Temperamentally, she was difficult and seemed to be slower than her sisters. In letters, her mother described her as having an undisciplined nature and being mentally underdeveloped. Despite several attempts at the convent boarding school with her aunt, Sister Marie-Dosithée, Léonie simply couldn’t overcome her own rebelliousness and lack of self-control. The “terrible little girl,” as her aunt wrote, was time and time again sent home.
Léonie would look at her gifted sisters, lovely and accomplished and pious, and wonder if she had been exchanged for another baby by her nurse! Zélie assured her that she had never even had a nurse as an infant. But this reveals how much she must have felt a misfit in a family filled with saints. Insecure, she would sometimes ask her mother, “Do you love me? I won’t disobey you anymore.” Her resolutions never lasted for long, to her own frustration. “My childhood and youth were spent in suffering, in the bitterest trials,” Léonie would say later.
Perhaps the most terrible trial was a hidden cross which was relieved almost immediately after the death of Sister Marie-Dosithée in 1877, who seemed to help her from heaven in a way she could not on earth. It was suddenly revealed that one of the servants was abusing poor Léonie, and had been for years. Immediately after coming to light, this evil broke its hold on her, and Léonie reattached herself to her mother and redoubled her efforts at reforming her troubled little heart.
But then she lost her mother, too. Zélie died when Léonie was only 14. Plunged into grief, the family moved to Lisieux to be near their mother’s brother and his family. Lost and alone again, Léonie would watch her sisters one by one enter the Carmel there. She desired a religious vocation herself, and tried over and over to live the life of a nun, first as a Poor Clare and then twice at the Visitation Convent where her aunt had lived. Three times she returned home, unable to endure the rigors of the convent, broken and defeated. In the midst of it all, she had watched her father’s health fail and after years of suffering, he too died.
Then, just a few years later, Thérèse died. The only one of the family left in the world outside Carmel, Leonie led the funeral procession as they buried her sister. She would visit the grave often to leave flowers. But of the shower of roses Thérèse released from heaven, it would seem Léonie would actually be the one to receive the first blooms.
Thérèse had predicted of her troubled sister, “After my death, she will enter the Visitation Order, and this time she will succeed; she will take my name, and that of St. Francis de Sales.” Another time the Little Flower told their sister Marie, “After I die, I will make Léonie join the Visitation Order, and this time she will stay.”
She kept her word. Léonie devoured Story of Soul as soon as it was released, hanging on every word and phrase in the teaching of Thérèse and her Little Way. It seemed to be written just for her and gave her the courage to try again. “I think of Thérèse constantly,” she wrote to Carmel, “Every moment, I call her to my side; I do not want to be without her for an instant.” In 1899 she entered the Visitation convent to stay and took the name Sister Françoise-Thérèse, just as her little sister had foretold.
Sister Françoise-Thérèse was to become a disciple of her sister. She embraced the humility of her sister’s Way of Spiritual Childhood and found in it the key to her vocation. She realized that making herself even smaller was the only way to grow in sanctity. She discovered her own efforts would never be enough—it was Jesus alone who could lift her above her limitations. Still struggling at times with insecurity and despondency, she begged in a letter to her little saint, “You shall be my beloved spiritual director; in me and with me, you must continue your religious life.”
From the convent, she would follow in amazement the ‘whirlwind of glory’—the flurry of spiritual activity which would culminate in Thérèse’s canonization in 1925. Crowds would come to the Visitation convent, seeking the sister of the new saint, but Léonie remained hidden and constant. She had found her corner of heaven on earth and would remain veiled there until her death in 1941.
She has now been declared a Servant of God. Her life, conquered by Christ, is nothing less than a triumphal arc of redemption and restoration through which we can pass on our own journey. She seems to say, if I can do it, friends, so can you. Leonie reveals that sanctity is sometimes a messy, long, and painful process, and may not always begin ‘coming up roses.’ But with Jesus, it can certainly end that way.