In the spring of 1858, a man and a woman were walking across a bridge in Alençon, then a small city of 16,000 in northwestern France.
Louis Martin, a watchmaker, was 34. Marie-Azélie (Zélie) Guérin, a maker of lace, was 26. As they passed by each other, she heard a voice inside her say, “This is the man I have prepared for you.”
Three months later, they were married. And 157 years later, likely in October during the Synod of Bishops on the Family — nine decades after the canonization of their youngest daughter, St. Thérèse of Lisieux — they will become the first husband and wife to be canonized together in Church history.
The Martins were part of a vibrant French Catholic culture, but they also lived in an era of intense anti-Catholicism: Three archbishops of Paris were murdered during their lifetimes.
Louis’ father joined Napoleon’s army and rose to the rank of infantry captain. At the age of 39, he married an 18-year-old woman, and the couple had five children. Louis, the third, was the only one who lived past 30.
Because of his father’s military career, Louis did not grow up in one place. He was born in Bordeaux, a city in southwestern France; from the ages of 4 to 7, he attended a school for military children 600 miles away in Strasbourg, in eastern France.
When Louis was 8, his family moved again — this time to Alençon, 450 miles away from Strasbourg. There he attended a school run by the Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools. At the age of 19, Louis made a 125-mile journey to Rennes, where he lived for a year with his cousins and began to learn how to make clocks and watches.
When he was 22, Louis sought to enter an Augustinian monastery in Switzerland, but the Canons Regular at Grand-St.-Bernard refused him entrance because he did not know Latin. During the next 10 months, Louis took more than 100 Latin lessons from a priest in Alençon. In the end, though, he ended these studies and moved 120 miles away to Paris, where he apprenticed as a clock and watchmaker.
At 27, Louis completed his apprenticeship, returned to Alençon and opened a successful business. A lover of silence and solitude, he “diligently fulfilled his religious duties and cultivated union with God, prayer and meditation, for which he showed a special propensity,” in the words of the 1994 Vatican decree on his heroic virtues.
Zélie’s father was drafted into Napoleon’s army at the age of 20 and became a policeman at 27. When he was 39, he married a 23-year-old woman, and the couple had three children. Élise, Zélie’s older sister, had a vocation to the Visitation Sisters, while Isidore, Zélie’s younger brother, became a pharmacist.
Unlike her future husband, who moved from city to city throughout France, Zélie lived only in the Alençon area. She was born in Gandelain, then a town of 1,200 a dozen miles from Alençon, and at the age of 12, after her father’s retirement, the Guérins moved to Alençon itself. Élise and Zélie attended a school run by the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary.
“My childhood, my youth, was as sad as a shroud, because, if my mother spoiled you, as you know, she was too strict to me,” Zélie recalled in an 1865 letter to Isidore. That letter is one of 244 letters in “A Call to a Deeper Love: The Family Correspondence of the Parents of St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus” (Alba House, $29.95), a book that offers readers a glimpse into the minds and hearts of Louis and Zélie.
When Zélie was 19, she sought to enter the Daughters of Charity in Alençon but was refused admission for reasons that are no longer known. The following year, while praying to the Blessed Mother about her future, she heard an interior voice tell her to “see to the making of Alençon lace,” an aristocratic style of lace. She threw herself into lace-making and became a successful businesswoman. According to the Vatican decree on her heroic virtues, she performed her work “expertly and diligently” and “prepared herself for the matrimonial state, desiring to do God’s will and to be able to consecrate many children to him.”
Marriage and children
In the hours following their wedding, Louis and Zélie traveled 35 miles to the Visitation Sisters’ convent to visit Élise. Zélie, who like her husband had longed for the consecrated life, burst into tears.
“I can say on that day I cried all my tears, more than I’d ever cried in my life, and more than I would ever cry again,” she recalled years later. “I compared my life to hers, and I cried even harder,” but Louis “understood me and consoled me as best he could, because his inclinations were similar to mine.”
For nearly a year after their wedding, the couple, in imitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Joseph, abstained from marital relations until they were persuaded by a priest to do otherwise. Nine children followed between 1860 and 1873: Marie, Pauline, Léonie, Hélène, Joseph, a second Joseph, Céline, Thérèse, and a second Thérèse.
Attending Mass each morning at 6:30 and creating an atmosphere of prayer, devotion, forgiveness, generosity to the poor and affection, the Martins found joy in Catholic family life. Working hard at their home-based businesses (they lived above the storefront), they experienced relative financial prosperity.
The Martins also experienced much suffering. Because Zélie was often unable to nurse, she sometimes had to entrust her infants to the care of wet nurses who lived as far as 20 miles away. Following morning Mass and a day of lace-making and care for her family, Zélie would leave at night to spend some time with an infant.
Three of their children — the two Josephs and the first Thérèse — did not live to see their first birthday, and the first Thérèse died of starvation because her wet nurse proved to be an alcoholic. Hélène died at the age of 5. Léonie was abused by a servant.
Pope Francis on March 18 signed a decree approving a miracle attributed to the intercession of Louis and Zélie Martin. While the Vatican released no details of the miracle, Father Antonio Sangalli, the postulator of their canonization cause, spoke about healing of a girl born in 2008 in an interview with the Catholic news agency Zenit.
“It is the healing of a child born prematurely and that, sometime after, suffered a fourth degree brain hemorrhage. This, together with other infectious complications that occurred earlier, predicted the unfortunate outcome of this birth,” Father Sangalli said. “The parents were already preparing the funeral celebrations.
“The father and mother of this girl then entrusted themselves to St. Thérèse’s parents, at the suggestions of some nuns who they turned to. Even the nuns prayed to the Martins for the healing of this little one, and they all surrounded her with their love.
“Then the miracle happened! ... The doctors were totally amazed ... Not only that: five to six years after her healing, the girl has not suffered any of the consequences that the doctors feared; she is completely healthy like all girls of her age."
Zélie developed breast cancer and “bore her cross with remarkable strength of spirit and with interior and exterior tranquility,” in the words of the Vatican decree. “She tried to console her family members and especially her young daughters.” She died at the age of 45.
Louis sold his business and moved 60 miles away to Lisieux, then a town of 17,000, so that his children could be near his brother-in-law and his family. Although Louis “enjoyed a certain wealth, he lived a simple and sober life, one estranged from riches and the vanities of the world,” in the words of the Vatican decree.
Between 1882 and 1888, four of his five daughters entered religious life, with three of them entering the Order of Discalced Carmelites in Lisieux.
In 1887 and 1888, Louis suffered several strokes and began to suffer from dementia. He was placed in a home for the mentally ill, but in time his brother-in-law’s family was able to care for him, as did Léonie, who had left her convent before entering another, and Céline, who would later follow in the footsteps of her other sisters and become a Carmelite. After another stroke and two heart attacks, Louis died in 1894.
One hundred years later, St. John Paul II declared that the Martins lived the virtues heroically, and following the miraculous healing of an Italian infant, Louis and Zélie were beatified in 2008. The miraculous healing of a Spanish infant paved the way for their canonization.
The Second Vatican Council called upon spouses to “sustain one another in grace in the course of their whole life, and imbue their offspring, lovingly received from God, with Christian teachings and Gospel virtues.” Louis and Zélie Martin lived out the Church’s teaching heroically, and with their canonization in October, they will become universal examples of the grandeur of being a Christian husband and father, a wife and mother.
J.J. Ziegler writes from North Carolina.