Sr. Francoise-Therese V.H.M. (Leonie) at age 77.
On January 28, 1899 Leonie entered the Visitation convent in Caen for the third time. A few days later she described her first impressions in this letter to her Carmelite sisters:
"I was a bit nervous, but full of faith. My first words were, 'When I leave here, it will be in my coffin. Then I went before the Blessed Sacrament. I felt that Jesus understood me and so experienced deep peace. I know our Therese is always beside me. Our Mother said to me, 'Don't be afraid; wait and see, your soul will expand.' Her prediction is being fulfilled to the letter. I am ready to make all the sacrifices that will be required of me. At the moment I am so small and so weak! I want to grow and stay small at the same time." (B 74-75)
Pauline responded to this letter on March 21, 1899 when she wrote,
"My dear Leonie, I ask the Holy Spirit to aid you in the struggles of religious life! While we live on this earth we must expect to stumble and fall. if everything went well and we could say, 'Ah, I am getting somewhere; I have acquired this virtue!' Then we would become proud. Leonie, pray for the virtue of humility, and you will never be surprised by your own weakness. Love God very much. Leonie, do you love night as much as day, shadows as much as light' Seek total detachment so as to be worthy of our angel and a little like her." (B 76-77)
About a month later Leonie, knowing her shortcomings and wanting support, begged this favor of Mother Marie Gonzaga, the prioress of the Lisieux Carmel,
"I think of Therese constantly. Every moment I call her to my side. I do not want to be without her for an instant. I humbly ask you to allow my sisters to take turns writing to me bi-weekly until my profession. Their letters do me much good. I am so sure you will grant me this wish that I thank you in advance." (B 77)
After a four month postulantcy Leonie received the holy habit and the name of Sr. Francoise-Therese in memory of her beloved little sister. She wrote to her sisters asking them to pray that "your little Leonie may be changed, not only in name, but in everything which might be displeasing to Him whom alone she wishes to love." (B 79)
As a postulant, Leonie had been aware of her shortcomings and gratefully accepted correction for her mistakes. But her novice mistress was a more demanding person. The transition from the loving, nurturing care of her first mistress to the growth-producing expectations of the second was a painful experience for her. She would go to see her mistress armed with two handkerchiefs. Seeing that Leonie was firm in her vocation and recognizing her goodness, this wise mistress decided that the moment had come to break the ties which kept her captive to self-love. Leonie's slowness in adapting to the practical details of religious life coupled with her meticulous care for anything given for her use provided ample material for many, well-deserved reprimands. Though she felt these humiliations keenly, she knew her weakness and joyfully recalled that Therese, by offering Jesus her littleness, was able to live and die of love. The thought of imitating Therese enabled Leonie to receive correction with sweetness and peace. Her joyous spirit enlivened the recreations. She knew how to accept teasing from the Sisters as shown in the following story: Leonie had chosen the bean that made her Epiphany queen in 1900. That evening her companions played the prank of placing six hot water bottles on her bed. Without a word, Leonie kept one and then calmly distributed the others to various sisters who also suffered intensely from the cold. (L 7)
In May 1900 L6onie wrote to her uncle, "I have reached my harbor. What joy! My holy Visitandine aunt's prophecy has been fulfilled to the letter: "I am and shall be for all eternity a little - just a very little Visitandine." (B 80) She also wrote to her Carmelite sisters begging their pardon for the pain she repeatedly had caused them during her dreadful childhood. Marie responded that all had been forgotten long ago. Her sisters were rejoicing in the miracle of grace that Therese had obtained for their beloved Leonie. Finally on the feast of the Visitation in 1900, Leonie was professed. Canon Levasseur, the preacher on the occasion, spoke these words to Leonie, "For St. Paul, the result of grace was the knowledge of the crucified Christ. Isn't this what you too desire with a firm and generous determination? May Christ be your Life! Live in Him, live by Him, live like Him!" (B 82) About a month later Leonie described her profession day to her sisters:
"What a beautiful day! I have never been so happy! What rejoicing for Therese to see my crown being placed at the feet of Our Lady! Time cannot take away my happiness. I am the bride of God for all eternity. On waking the next morning I pressed the profession cross to my heart and said, 'Nothing can take this blessed cross from me. What joy to belong totally to Jesus!" (B83-84,D 67)
Once professed, Leonie was given various tasks in the community. Comments in various letters to her sisters give glimpses of both Leonie's personality and her life as a Visitandine. At one time she wrote, "Here, our time is not just sliced up - it is chopped up. We live a life of renunciation which kills Mother Nature over a slow fire." (B 84) This structured disciplined lifestyle was one in which every moment of the day was accounted for from the 5:00 a.m. rising bell until the 8:30 p.m. going to bed signal. While Leonie was never more than an assistant at any job, she described her experiences with a delightful wry humor, for example,
"I have been appointed aid to the procurator. It is just the job for me; I put things in order here and there, all through the house. I regard myself as the convent's little mule, and my lot is an enviable one. So many opportunities for sacrifices known only to Jesus! How many souls can I save by these little nothings! The souls of priests are my particular goal. (B 84, D 69)
For the last ten days, I have been the nurse. You would be very amused to see how busy I am, sometimes I don't recognize myself Here is my secret: I ask Therese to be the nurse; I am only her little helper. We do a good job; but the glory all belongs to her. (B 84, D 74)
I am still doing my humble job in the dining room. Considering my incompetence, I should be very honored to be entrusted with anything in the house. When I catch myself wishing for something more at times, I quickly submerge myself in the will of God." (B 8 5)
But her favorite job was that of sacristan. In her ardent love of the Eucharist and her spirit of faith, Leonie considered it an honor to prepare the altar for Mass and even to clean candlesticks. As for making altar linens, she cherished that privilege until she was 73. Leonie was content in this littleness. She truly considered herself a useless servant. On the eve of her profession she had prayed,
"My God, do in me what You will; let me be good and charitable even to excess, so that I may follow my Therese's example in practicing Your new commandment. Act in me and for me, I beg of You, in this difficult venture; for I have every reason to fear my great weakness which has betrayed me so often. My Jesus, my faith in You is all the greater because I am so small and so worthless." (B 86)
Leonie had acted immediately upon this prayer by offering to help whenever she noticed someone needed assistance. Mindful of her own difficulties as a newcomer in religious life, she was interested in the postulants and novices. One sister admitted that she has never forgotten the comfort received as a tearful postulant when Leonie came up and silently hugged her. An elderly sister was so impressed by the thoughtfulness of Leonie that she wrote to Pauline in Carmel, "Sister Francoise-Therese fills my old age with her many affectionate attentions; she comes regularly to take me in my wheelchair to chapel or to community meetings. I've asked God to bless her; he is courageous and exact in the practice of our holy Rule despite her poor health." (B 86, D 103, L 16)
Leonie's goal was to become a saint. To attain this, she entered fully into the Visitandine ideal of gentleness, joy, humility and simplicity in her relationships with her sisters in community. Her stubbornness became an asset since she persevered in beginning again after each failure. Such cooperation with grace eventually made her a docile person. As for her shortcomings, she wrote, "I have suffered greatly from my inferiority; I have felt keen isolation of heart. I experience the same difficulties again and again: worries, dislikes, weariness of all sorts. But I feel that all these torments are a purification and I thank God for them. I have only one dream: to become ever more hidden and unnoticed." (B 87, D89, L13) While she was ever smiling and friendly to other sisters, L6onie suffered intensely because as she put it, "I eat fire every morning in Holy Communion; but my icicle of a heart is still an icicle." (B 87)
Leonie decided that following her little sister Therese in the Way of Spiritual Childhood was her path to God. This was so evident to her community that in a letter written after Leonie's profession by her superior to Mother Agnes in Carmel is found this comment: "...the ambition to imitate her holy sister Therese in devoting herself to priests exerts a happy influence upon our dear Sr. Francoise-Therese. In this apostolic role she accepts many little sacrifices painful to her nature." (D 68) Leonie pondered over the Story of Soul until she had internalized the teachings of Therese regarding the way of spiritual childhood. Aware of her frequent failures and broken promises of amendment, she too cast herself into the arms of her merciful, heavenly Father. Leonie even began to sound like Therese; for example, in a letter to Pauline she wrote, "I wish to be little, so very little, that Jesus is forced to hold me in His arms. This is what gives me confidence: I know that He will not let me fall. (B 88)
On two occasions Leonie physically sensed the presence of Therese. In 1902 she was startled during morning prayer by suddenly seeing a luminous hand hovering over her office book. She later said, "It was little Therese, my second Angel Guardian, who came to arouse my fervor." This experience made a lasting and beneficial impression on Leonie. Years later when failing health had forced her to give up chanting the Office, Pauline reminded her, "Oh my dear little Leonie, how I grieve with you! But since your soul sings unceasingly the praises of our good God, all is well. Recall the luminous hand of our Therese. She has come invisibly this time to close your office book so as to open even more your great heart." (D82, L II) Then in 1912 on the fifteenth anniversary of Therese's entrance into heaven, Leonie perceived the fragrant perfume of roses - a gift from Therese. In relating this fact to her sisters, she wrote,
"I was very much consoled by this gift which lasted only a few moments. So great was my joy that I cried out,'O my beloved little sister, you are near to me. I am sure of it.' Since then, my only desire is that this little Nothing also may become a saint like he,. Alas! sometimes I am dismayed that it is so difficult to practice littleness." (L 9)
Leonie was hanging up the community's wash when she learned that Therese's cause was being introduced in Rome. Her spontaneous reaction was, "Therese was sweet but to canonize her?" She then added, "It is true that no one ever had anything to reproach her for." (B 102) Still in 1910 Leonie willingly wrote her deposition about her saintly sister. When called to testify before the ecclesiastical tribunal in Bayeux, Leonie remained serene throughout the proceedings. She confided to a friend, "As Therese is raised in glory, I thirst to disappear and to be counted as nothing. What a grace!" (L 9) In 1915, Leone was permitted to participate in the interrogation held at the Carmel in Lisieux. She commented about this trip, "How good it was for the four sisters to be reunited for the glorification of their Benjamin!" (L 10) This trip gave her the opportunity to visit the places made holy by her sister. She spent many hours praying in the austere cell of her little sister and reminiscing with her Carmelite sisters.
"After her return to Caen, Leonie resumed her hidden and humble lifestyle. She continued to plumb the depths of the little way of spiritual childhood which is the treasure of the daughters of St. Francis de Sales." (L 10) As the Little Flower became well known, visitors to the Caen monastery were eager to meet her blood sister. Leonie, as aid to the portress, often received these requests. The following story is typical.
"When a certain priest asked to see Sr. Francoise-Therese, Leonie replied, "I'll ask our Mother Superior, but I do not believe that such a thing is possible. I am very sorry to disappoint you, Father, but I assure you that you are missing nothing. That sister is not worth the trouble." Astonished by such a reply he left without a word. When he mentioned the incident to the convent chaplain, he was told, "My poor Father, you have been tricked - you were talking to Leonie herself" The priest's shock was transformed into edification of Leonie's humility. (L 11)
Leonie was incapable of envying her more talented sisters. Everything coming from Carmel was admired by her, especially Celine's painting of the Holy Face. She wrote, "How can I express my gratitude for your picture of the Holy Face! This true portrait of my Jesus is priceless to my heart. I look at His divine features and recall the pain and atrocities of His passion. Then my heart aches with sorrow and with love." (L 12)
When Therese was canonized in 1925, L6onie was 62 years old. She avidly followed the ceremonies that celebrated the occasion in the Visitation Chapel. She edified her Visitandine sisters by her gracious simplicity in accepting their greetings. A few months later Leonie was again the center of attention when Cardinal Vico of Rome came to celebrate Therese's canonization with the community. After blessing the new statue of Therese in the garden, he gave Leonie a Papal Blessing in honor of her silver jubilee. After this, Leonie happily returned to her humble place within the monastery with no other desire than that of living a life ever more closely united to God.
A year later, Leonie's superior wrote to Mother Agnes, "Our beloved Sr. Francoise-Therese walks courageously along the road of the interior life which for her is not a road of consolations but of naked faith. We all love her very much. Her title of 'sister of a Saint' brings her many expressions of affection which she receives with beautiful humility. Her prayers are asked by many people everywhere and we observe that her prayers for them have been very efficacious." (D 90-91)
Leonie had assimilated the Way of Spiritual Childhood taught by Therese as well as the spirit of the Visitation bequeathed by Francis de Sales. She considered them the same as her retreat notes of 1928 indicate, "The splendor of the Visitation is to have no splendor. 'Our grandeur is our littleness,' said Francis de Sales. How that delights me! It corresponds completely to all my desires and to my ideal of perfection. Humility is my only hope for salvation; I love it above all other virtues. I would wish, like my Therese, to become enamored of being forgotten." (D 91)
In the winter of 1930 L6onie received the last rites after a bad cold turned into pneumonia. In her delirium she prayed aloud aspirations of love which deeply touched all at her bedside. Although her health was permanently damaged by this illness, Leonie slowly recovered. Among her visitors was Bishop Suhard who wrote to Mother Agnes of Jesus, "I have just returned from Caen where I blessed Sr. Francoise-Therese. This dear invalid truly is in the hands of God. After a very brief conversation with her, I came away totally edified. She seems to live constantly in an atmosphere echoing heaven." (L 13) Pius XI's telegram giving Leonie an apostolic blessing during her illness drew this remark from her, "I am sure it was the Holy Father's blessing which kept me on this earth; so I beg of you, if I fall ill again, be sure not to tell him!" (B 101)
Leonie was indomitable. Although her recovery from pneumonia had been slow, she eventually returned to community life and to the practice of all the daily exercises. With light-hearted simplicity she joked about her increasing handicaps as in this 1937 New Year' letter to Carmel, "I am doing wonderfully well, and so is my lumbago, which makes me stoop like a little old woman of a hundred; it and I are happily on our way to heaven together." (B 101) She visited the bedridden sisters in the infirmary, reading aloud to them articles from recent issues of the Annals of St. Therese of Lisieux. Every so often she would say, "You can see that her holiness has nothing to do with the scent of roses. No, it is her practice of heroic virtue, dont you agree." (L 16) She remembered the special anniversaries of each sister and treated everyone with solicitude and respect. Many a sister, especially during WW II, was encouraged by a loving embrace and the words, "My dear Sister, you have nothing to fear. Little Therese w ill watch over your loved ones. She will protect them. Let go of your worries, I beg of you." (L 16)
As regards her devotions, Leonie sacrificed and prayed much for the Church and for priests throughout her whole religious life. But the Eucharist was the source and center of her strength; she spent hours in adoration before the tabernacle. She honored especially the Sacred Heart and the Virgin Mary. While moving about in the cloister, Leonie prayed her rosary which she held in her hands day and night. "My happiness," she said toward the end of her life, "is to sow Hail Marys." (L 14) Finally, she truly loved her saintly founders, St. Francis de Sales and St. Jane de Chantal. Whenever she met a sister who, like her, had attempted to become a nun in a more austere order, she would say, "What would have become of us if our father Francis had not founded Visitation? How grateful we must be to him and to our mother Jane who so wonderfully continued what he began." (L 15) Her retreat notes of 1937 indicate how the spirit of the Visitation and the way of spiritual childhood had become one in Leonie's being. She wrote,
"It is inappropriate for me to moan over my faults as I have done until now. That is pride. As our Holy Founder said, it is no wonder that weakness is weak; I must humble myself, not vex myself. I want to be little, so little! Little children fall without hurting themselves badly; they are too small for that. This is the example I want to follow. I can feel that this is what Jesus expects of me." (B 96)
In the winter of 1940, Leonie had to take up permanent residence in the Sisters' infirmary. Even there she did what she could to lessen the discomfort of others, and was grateful for the least kindness shown to her. She continued to follow the community exercises saying, "Yes, I suffer much but I don't want to stop. I want to keep on going until the end." (L 18)
For her seventy-eighth birthday on June 6, 1941 the community planned a special party for Leonie complete with entertainment by the younger sisters. But the greatest joys of the day for her were 1) a lifetime gift of the Little Flower's profession crucifix from Carmel and 2) a papal blessing requested the year before which read,
"On the occasion of the fortieth anniversary of her religious profession, we bless our dear daughter in Jesus Christ, Francoise-Therese, of the Visitation of Caen. Through the intercession of her blessed sister, St. Therese of the Child Jesus, we beg for her the grace of the highest holiness in the midst of the most fervent humility. This is the prayer of our heart." (L 18)
Leonie at this time was radiant with happiness at the thought of the blessed eternity which she felt was near. She told her superior, "Our divine Lord is at the gate, my Mother, but do not trouble yourself. I am ready. I have given everything; now I trust myself to His loving Providence." (L 19) Truly, everything had been consumed by the Merciful Love whose little victim she had become. On June 12th, Leonie suffered a stroke; two outsisters soon arrived from the Lisieux Carmel to bring her the comfort and love of her sisters, Pauline and Celine. For four days she lingered, praying unceasingly. As death approached late in the evening of June 16th, Leonie awaited the coming of her Lord with Marie's rosary and Therese's profession crucifix in one hand and a lighted candle in the other. The whole community and the two Carmelite outsisters surrounded her bed. Shortly after receiving the blessing of her superior, Leonie slipped peacefully into the embrace of Our Lord. Spontaneously the Magnificat was sung by those present who thus bore witness to the graces which Leonie had received during her difficult life. Her funeral Mass on June 21, 1941 was followed by burial in the Monastery crypt. The Visitation Sisters end the account of her life with this petition, "We pray that the perfume of the cloistered lives of silence and prayer led by the rose of Lisieux and by our little violet of Caen will be a blessing and support for the Church and the entire world." (L 21)
That prayer seems to have been heard. Since Leonie's death, the Visitation monastery of Caen has become a place of pilgrimage. Parents, disappointed by their children's behavior, ask help from the rebel who had been such a trial to her parents. Religious, concerned about their vocations, seek her insights. People of delicate health beg Leonie's intercession for healing and/or self-acceptance of their limitations. In fact, Leonie considered the patroness of those in difficult living circumstances. When Fr. Dolan asked her if she regretted not being a Carmelite like her sisters, she replied, "I have no such regrets, Father. I had no vocation to the Carmelite Convent but one to the Visitation Rule, and instead of regrets I have nothing but gratitude to God for having given me my Visitation vocation which I love." (D 97-98)
Through her mastery of the way of spiritual childhood Leonie became the ideal Visitation nun. Many Visitandines smile at God's sense of humor. In their minds, the Carmelite, Therese of Lisieux, embodied the gentle spirit of the Visitation while the Visitandine, St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, excelled in the austere way of life more commonly associated with Carmel. Some think Therese absorbed from Pauline, once a student at Visitation in Le Mans, the Salesian charism of total dependence on a loving God. Therese expanded it into her way of spiritual childhood which was mastered by Leone. Thus the rebellious, sullen child was transformed into the joyously obedient Visitandine - a miracle of grace!
While the following books provided the
resources for the article, most of the quotations are a composite of the various sources
In the text of this article, the bold-type letter(s) after each quotation refer to the
books listed below.
Baudouin-Croix, Marie. Leonie Martin: A Difficult Life. Dublin: Veritas
Publications, 1993. Hereafter known as (B)
Collected letters of St. Therese of Lisieux Trans. F J. Sheed.
Ed. AbbeCombes. New York: Sheed & Ward, 1949. Hereafter known as (C )
Dolan, Albert H. God made the Violet Too. Chicago: The Carmelite Press,
1948. Hereafter known as (D)
Life of Sr Francoise-Therese Martin V.H. M. UnpubIished circular from the Visitation Monastery of Caen, France.
Trans. M. C. Martens V H. M., 1941. Hereafter known as (L)
St. Francis de Sales In His Letters. Trans. Dom Benedict Mackey. Ed. The Sisters of the Visitation, Harrow-on-the-Hill.
St. Louis: B. Herder Book Co., 1933. Hereafter known as (H )
The Spiritual Conferences of St. Francis de Sales. Trans. Dom Benedict Mackey. 1906. Westminster MD: The Newman Press, 1962. Hereafter known as (S)
Part 1, The forgotten sister of St. Therese. Part 2, Leonie's Spiritual Guide.
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