Léonie Martin: A Difficult Life
By Marie Baudouin-Croix
Ignatius Press, 2017
168 pages, $15.95
Originally published as a French edition in 1989, the new English edition of Léonie Martin: A Difficult Life introduces more readers to the story of an older sister of St. Thérèse of Lisieux.
Throughout, author Marie Baudouin-Croix utilizes numerous excerpts from letters written by members of the Martin family that provide candid insights into Léonie’s physical and emotional problems. Indeed, her turbulent childhood and adolescence dominated the family dynamic.
Léonie herself wrote that her childhood and youth “were spent in suffering, in the bitterest of trials.”
From birth, she suffered from painful eczema and frequent intestinal ailments. The third child and third daughter of Sts. Louis and Zélie Martin, she was clumsy and a slow learner; she failed in boarding school and was expelled.
Most troubling were her outbursts of defiance that multiplied exponentially as she grew older, aimed particularly at her overwrought mother, who was suffering from terminal breast cancer and felt helpless to gain her daughter’s trust.
Overwrought, her mother, St. Zélie (who along with her father, St. Louis, is celebrated by the Church July 12), shared her anguish in a letter to her oldest daughter, Pauline: “The poor child is absolutely full of faults. I don’t even know where to begin! Yesterday, she had a dreadful day. She did everything as badly as she could.”
The source of Léonie’s enigmatic behavior was finally revealed during her early teens, when her sister Marie discovered her in the clandestine company of the family’s longtime maid, who was beating Léonie and threatening more of the same if she ever obeyed her mother. It was a brutal practice inflicted by the maid upon the young girl for years. With the maid’s immediate dismissal, Léonie was at last able to bond with her mother before her death.
But the scars of abuse ran deep. Unable to stabilize, she entered and then left convents three times, plagued by bouts of depression, self-doubt and illness. During the interims, she helped to care for her father during his final illness, performed works of charity among the community, and corresponded in letters with her Carmelite sisters, whom she would always esteem as her closest friends.
Before her sister Celine entered Carmel, while visiting relatives in La Musse, Léonie penned a letter to her, revealing her soul: “More and more, I see the meaninglessness of all that passes, and this does me good, gradually increasing my detachment; but there is always this sadness, deep within me, that I can never completely overcome. Although I feel that I am, for the moment, where God wants me to be, I suffer — I suffer terribly — and my exile seems very long to me. Only Jesus knows what it costs me.”
Never without hope, Léonie’s desire to become a bride of Christ was finally realized. At age 36, two years after Thérèse’s death, Léonie entered the Visitation convent in Caen, fulfilling the Little Flower’s prophetic words during her last days on earth, “After I die, I will make Léonie rejoin the Visitation Order, and this time she will stay.”
In her religious order, Léonie chose the name Sister Francoise Thérèse, again a prediction of her saintly sister: “She will take my name and that of St. Francis de Sales.”
Although Léonie experienced peace and joy as a Visitandine, perhaps the greatest miracle of her life was that she never succumbed to harboring resentment about her past difficulties.
Through persistent prayer, she lived the Gospel according to the inspired teachings and example of her saintly sister and accepted her limitations with good humor. Describing her life in a letter to her Carmelite sisters, she wrote, “I have been appointed assistant to the bursar. It is just the job for me; I put things in order here and there, all through the house. I think of myself as the convent’s little donkey, and I certainly find my lot an enviable one. So many sacrifices, known only to Jesus! How many souls I can save by these little nothings — as little as I am myself — which are my humble harvest!” Attuned to the Heart of Jesus, in 1923, upon hearing of the death of the maid from her childhood, she wrote, “I forgive my tormentor with all my heart.”
Her cause for canonization now underway, Léonie Martin has a story that will inspire all who seek holiness.
Jennifer Sokol writes from