Sr. Francoise-Therese, V.H. M.
Sr. Mary Christine Martens, V.H.M. tells the touching story of how St. Therese's older sister, Leonie, struggled to overcome tremendous personal difficulties and the beginnings of her religious vocation.
"A Century ago on January 28, 1899 after three previous attempts to become a religious, Leonie Martin entered the Visitation Monastery of Caen, France and made her religious profession July 2, 1900. Leonie, like St. Therese her sister, wanted to be a religious ever since adolescence. As proof, we have this excerpt from a letter written by Leonie at the age of thirteen to her dying Visitandine aunt, Sr. Marie Dosithee. "My dear aunt, when you get to heaven, please ask God to give me the grace of conversion and also a vocation to be a true religious. I think and pray about this every day. . . " (L3) For Leonie, being a true religious meant being such a good religious that she would become a saint. Yet twenty two years were to pass before Leonie achieved this desire of her heart. Why?
Leonie, born June 3, 1863, was the middle child in the Martin family of five daughters who lived to maturity. Her four sisters were healthy and beautiful, bright and docile little girls. But Leonie was different; she was a difficult, unattractive, and a sickly child inclined to tantrums. So while the family loved Leonie and supported her, they did not know how to help her and were reluctant to speak about her outside the family.
Zelie Martin, her mother worried about her. First, Leonie was eighteen months old before she walked. Then, a severe case of eczema covered her entire body. In desperation Zelie Martin asked her sister, a Visitation nun at Le Mans called Sr. Marie-Dosithee, to pray for her little one. So effective were these prayers that in June 1865 shortly after Leonie's second birthday, Zelie wrote to her brother, "Leonie is a darling and fairly strong. One thing is certain; she has never been sick since Elise prayed to the Blessed Margaret Mary [Alacoque]... For sixteen months she had hovered between life and death. After the novena, she was running about like a little rabbit." (B12) Although Leonie's physical health became more stable, her emotional health remained unpredictable. She threw tantrums whenever she was crossed, e.g., when she was not allowed to visit her uncle in Lisieux. Also she became quite reckless and rough in her play as she grew physically stronger. But what most distressed her mother was Leonie's slow intellectual development. She wrote to her sister-in-law in March 1870, "The poor child worries me; she has a very undisciplined nature, and mentally she is underdeveloped." (B14) These latter two qualities made it difficult for Leonie to be accepted into the Le Mans Visitation boarding school where Marie and Pauline were pupiIs. Towards the end of the 1871 school year, Sr. Marie-Dosithee volunteered to tutor Leonie till the holidays. Zelie wrote to her brother,"[Leonie] was delighted to go. I hope they will be able to keep her. I know her to be in good hands, and I have such peace of mind that I feel as if I am in Paradise." Shortly after this, Sr. Marie-Dosithee wrote to the same brother, "At the moment I am taking care of Leonie, that terrible little girl; she keeps me on my toes. It's a continual battle; she isn't afraid of anyone but me." (B17)
When it was time for Leonie to receive her First Communion, Sr. Marie-Dosithee offered to prepare her. In January 1874, Leonie again enrolled in the Visitation boarding school with her sisters. Sr. Marie Dosithee described her efforts to teach Leonie gentleness and pliability of heart in this letter to the Guerins,
"Leonie, in the little time I had her with me gave me great hope for her future. . . it is hard work, but, with the grace of God, it can be done... As you know, the poor child has plenty of faults... [At first,] I scolded her whenever she didn't do well... I was making her unhappy... I wanted to be God's Providence to her so I stopped scolding her and started to be very gentle with her, telling her that I saw she wanted to be good ... and that I had faith in her. This had a magical effect - not just temporary, but lasting; now I find her a lovely, obedient child ... The job is far from finished, and I know that in the future, I will have to temper gentleness with firmness more than once." (B19)
But being good for Sr. Marie
Dosithee was not enough for Leonie. Within five months Leonie was expelled for the third
time because whenever she played with the other students, she became disruptive and
unruly. Her family would have to prepare Leonie for her First Communion. Zelie wrote to
her sister-in-law....... "it saddens me deeply to see Leonie as she is. At times I
have hope for her, but often I become discouraged. Still my sister says that she is sure
Leonie will become a saint." (B21) Leonie, seeing how different she was from
her sisters once expressed the fear that she had been exchanged for another baby at birth.
Finally on May 23, 1875, Leonie received her First Communion. Much later, she described
the occasion as: "That day was not the finest of my life; my childhood and my youth
were spent in suffering the bitterest trials." (B22)
Leonie, the rebel tomboy of the family, was like a pendulum. Zelie, her mother, wrote to the Guerins, "I am fairly pleased with Leonie; if we could only subdue her obstinacy and soften her character, she would be a good girl - faithful and unafraid of the suffering she must endure. She has a will of iron; when she wants something, she will fight her way past any obstacle to reach her goal." Yet a few weeks later Zelie had to tell Pauline, "I don't know what to do with Leonie. She does exactly as she pleases." (B23) Still her trust in God was so great that in December 1876, she wrote to her sister-in-law, "As for Leonie, only God can change her - and I am confident that he will." (B24) Zelie had asked her sister, now at death's door, to obtain a miracle from God for Leonie. Scarcely a month, after Sr. Marie-Dosithee's death on February 24,1877, Marie solved the mystery of Leonies rebellious behavior by noticing a maids influence on the child. Zelie Martin involved with a time-consuming lace-making business and weakened by illness, was unable to supervise Leonie properly. So she had entrusted this task to the maid, Louise Marais, who abused her power. In her biography of Leonie, Marie Baudouin-Croix writes, "When there was nobody to see her, Louise beat and threatened Leonie, taking advantage of the child's weakness to satisfy her need for power. The tyrannical servant forced Leonie to obey no one but her. Leonie was left helpless and terrified at the thought of the punishments to be inflicted on her if she behaved well for her parents." (B27)
Freed from her fear of Louise and her punishments, Leonie became docile and loving to her mother. Zelie attributed this "miracle" to the prayers of her sister, Sr. Marie-Dosithee. Time passed and Leonie worked hard to mend her ways. But progress was slow. Knowing that she would soon die, Zelie made a pilgrimage to Lourdes where she implored the Blessed Virgin to cure Leonie, to develop her mind, and to make her a saint. Marie her oldest daughter promised to take her place with Leonie. With the help of her father and her sisters, Marie kept this promise. While never forcing Leonie even though her periods of repentance often were brief-- Marie helped the plain, physically unattractive, emotionally unstable and slightly backward fourteen year old girl develop into a joyful, confident and considerate woman Sr. Marie-Dosithee had predicted that Leonie, though difficult to raise, eventually would be equal of her sisters. For "she has a heart of gold, good judgement and a strong admirable character. When she matures and really studies, nothing will I stop her .. She will overcome every obstacle before her. Indeed, she has a strong and generous nature, and I approve of that. But if the grace of God is lacking, what will happen to her?" (L2)
The death of Zelie Martin on August 28, 1877 was a traumatic experience, for the family and especially for Therese who described her memories in the Story of a Soul. By mid-November of that same year the family had moved into Les Buissonets in Lisieux. Two months later Leonie became a boarder and Celine a day student at the Notre-Dame du Pre school. In her childhood memoirs, Therese frequently mentions Pauline, her second Mama, Marie, her godmother, and Celine her playmate. But Leonie is seldom mentioned. Her death letter (L2-4) relates four such incidents. First, Therese is quoted as having said, "Dear little Leonie - she, too, claimed a lot of my affection. She was so fond of me; and when the rest of the family went out for a walk in the evening, it was she who looked after me. I can still hear the lullabies with which she used to put me to sleep." (L2) Next, Therese also mentioned that her father held his "little queen" on his knee as he helped his "good Leonie" with her homework. (L4) Copied from the Story of a Soul is the incident in which Leonie gave her little sisters a basket full of doll dresses and other odds and ends. (L4) While Therese had used this story to highlight her desire "to choose the whole lot" in the spiritual life, the tale also depicts Leonie's generous spirit. It is said that a person had only to admire something belonging to Leonie in order to receive it as a gift. (L4) Finally, Leonie was Therese's godmother for her confirmation in 1884. Therese wrote much later that Leonie "was so moved that she wept during the whole ceremony" (L4)
As often happens in families, Marie and Pauline shared a room and their secrets; so did Celine and Therese. At one time Leonie too had enjoyed the intimate friendship of a younger sister. But Helene had died when Leonie was not quite seven. That left Leonie all by herself in her own Iittle room. Later, Leonie was to write that she had known "loneliness of heart" in the midst of her family. However, she was never jealous of her sisters; she tenderly loved each of them. A holy card, dated January 1, 1882, bears this message to Pauline from Leonie: "May God, through the intercession of [St. Francis de Sales], shower my dear Pauline with graces and blessings. Your little sister, who loves you dearly, sends you these wishes from the bottom of her heart." (B35) Leonie seemed to accept as her due this place of low esteem in the family. When Therese wrote of her serious illness in the spring of 1883 she said, "Leonie so kind to me, doing her best to keep me amused. I sometimes hurt her feelings. She could tell that for me, no one could replace Marie." Still Leonie was kneeling among her sisters at the moment the Blessed Virgin Mary's healing smile cured little Therese.
In October 1886 the family accompanied Marie on a goodbye visit to her friends in Alencon before her entry into the Carmelite convent in Lisieux. Leonie, now twenty-three, had considered becoming a Poor Clare Nun ever since childhood when she had attended Franciscan Tertiary meetings with her mother. She took advantage of this trip to visit the Poor Clares in Alencon. The Abbess listened and then advised Leonie to enter that very day. She even gave her the postulants habit. But the austerity the Rule was to great for her health, and Leonie was sent home on December 1, 1886. Therese commented, "God was satisfied with two months of sacrifice and Leonie came back to us, to show us her blue eyes again - although they were often wet with tears."
Meanwhile Marie had entered Carmel and Therese had told her father of her desire to enter Carmel when she was fifteen. Leonie was so depressed by her failure in the Poor Clares that her health continued to deteriorate. Pauline, sensing the reality of Leonies vocation to the religious life, wrote her father in May 1887, "Leonie, too, is a pearl there is so much goodness and humility in her heart. It is impossible that God will not find a place in the garden of religious life for that humble violet." (B40) Paulines words were prophetic. This story always has been part of Visitandine tradition.
"One day the founders of the Visitation Nuns, Francis de Sales and Jane de Chantal, were speaking together about the many Religious - Orders in the Church. He told her to "reverence and admire them, but otherwise be content with the little one God has given you; it is adequate for you; love your own Order best of all, rejoice in its lowliness, and thank His infinite goodness for having given it to you. In a word, remember that in the Church of God you are like the violet among the flowers - of little account, insignificant, and with no brilliancy of color; but planted there by the Divine Majesty for His service, and to give a little perfume to His Church." (H207)
Francis de Sales had chosen the
gospel passage in which Jesus says......."Learn from Me for I am gentle and humble of
heart," (Mt. 1 1:29) as the foundation stone of the Visitation Order. As he phrased
it, "The spirit of the Visitation is one of profound humility towards God and of
great gentleness towards the neighbor." (S240) Following the example of
Francis, the violet has symbolized for all Visitandines their gospel call to gentleness
and humility. In today's culture, this call has become the slogan - Be a gentle presence
in a violent world.
Without waiting for her health to improve, Leonie entered the Monastery of the Visitation in Caen on July 16, 1887, less than eight months after having left the Poor Clares. Again she had acted impulsively, and again her health failed. God's time had not yet arrived, and a crestfallen Leonie returned to 'Les Buissonets' on January 6, 1888. Still trusting that God eventually would call Leonie to religious life, M. Martin joyfully welcomed his daughter home where she spent her time visiting the poor and sick, doing housework, and visiting her older sisters in the Carmelite Convent. Although she ardently desired to be a religious, Leonie did not envy her Carmelite sisters. She recognized her own deficiencies and trusted in God's transforming mercy to prepare her for religious life. The young Therese sensed that Leonie had found her niche and told her cousin Marie Guerin that only at Visitation would Leonie find happiness. There she would find all she lacked in the world." (B41)
On April 9,1888, Leonie and her family attended Mass together in the Carmelite chapel. At the convent door, Therese embraced each one, knelt to receive her father's blessing, and entered Carmel. How did Leonie feel as she saw her youngest sister embracing the rugged life of Carmel while she herself had to leave the Visitation Convent to return to the peace and comfort of family life? How troubled she must have been by her own instability - one moment, seeking God's will in religious life, and the next, fleeing from its sacrifices.
Life at home also held sacrifices. A month after Therese's clothing as a novice on January I 0, 1889 M. Martin suffered a severe stroke and was hospitalized at the Bon-Sauveur asylum in Caen. During the weekly visits to their father, Leonie would slip into the nearby Visitation to pray and visit with her former novice mistress. Then on May 10, 1892 M. Martin was brought back to Lisieux. Two days later he visited his Carmelite daughters. As he left them, he said tearfully, "Until we meet in heaven." Then, in a little house near the Guerins, the two sisters did all they could to make their father happy.
A year later Leonie began a week-long retreat at the Visitation of Caen. Celine, peeved that Leonie had chosen to go on a retreat instead of on a trip to La Musse with the rest of the family, wrote an angry letter which reduced Leonie to tears. At the end of her retreat, Leonie, now thirty years old, asked to re-enter the convent. M. Guerin, her guardian, gave his consent and promised to assist Celine in the care of their father. It was June 24, 1893. Celine vented her grief to her Carmelite sisters when she wrote, "...my dear sisters, if you only knew how my heart broke ... I cried. I kept thinking of Leonie, my companion in misfortune, who was abandoning me. Now I have nobody left in the world; there is only emptiness, all around me ... Life seems so terribly sad ... I feel a great bitterness in my soul." (B50-51)
Celine's distress lasted little more than a year, for on July 24, 1894 God welcomed M. Martin into heaven. Seven weeks later, on September 14th, Celine entered the Carmelite Convent in Lisieux. Then on July 20,1895 Leonie, despite her efforts and good will, was asked to leave the Visitation Convent. In her death letter it states, "At that time, a young sister's ability to follow all the practices of the Rule from the day of her entry was considered a sign of her vocation. Poor Leonie was among those sent away because of her delicate health." (D6) The Guerins welcomed her lovingly into their midst. A month later Marie Guerin entered the Carmelite Convent in Lisieux. What a difficult time this must have been for Leonie who was convinced of her call to a life consecrated to God. Hoping against hope, she stubbornly clung to her dream of one day becoming a Visitation nun at Caen.
While the following books provided the resources
for this article, most of the quotations are a composite of various sources. In the text
of this article the 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. Abbe Combes. 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. Frances Therese Martin, V.H.M." Unpublished circular from the Visitation Monastery of Caen, France. Trans. M.C. Martens, V.H.M., 1941 Hereafter known as (L__)
"St. Francis de Sales and 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 Newmwn Press, 1962. Hereafter Known as (S__)
Part 2, Leonie's Spiritual Guide, Part 3, Visitation at Last.
This story was printed in the May-June issue of the "APOSTOLATE of The Little Flower" a magazine published by the Discalced Carmelite Fathers and Brothers at The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Little Flower. I recommend that you write them and receive their publication by mail. They will not ask that you make a donation toward the cost of publishing their Apostolate, but I will.
Their address is:
Apostolate of the Little Flower
P.O. Box 5280
San Antonio, Texas 78201-0280
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