The Mother of St. Thérèse of Lisieux
October 2001By Joan Gormley
Sister Joan Gormley teaches Scripture at Mount St. Marys Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland.
Zélie Martin is no stranger to those who have read her daughter St. Thérèse of Lisieuxs autobiography, Story of a Soul. In the first chapter, the mothers voice introduces the daughter through a series of anecdotes and insights, a precious, privileged, and unique witness to the earliest days of a saint. Thanks to a series of letters Zélie Martin wrote to her daughter Pauline, when the latter was a boarder at the Visitation School in Le Mans, eyewitness testimony to Thérèses infancy and childhood exists, largely lost to the saints own memory. In writing the account of her life, it is clear that Thérèse excerpted generous portions from these letters, incorporating them into the narrative of the dawn of her life. Obviously, in allowing her mothers voice to be heard, Thérèse was also introducing her mother to readers of her autobiography. But, though Thérèse quotes her mother and recounts memories of her, the figure of Zélie Martin remains in the background and then disappears almost entirely after her death, of cancer, when her youngest child was four years old.
But one wonders. Can the figure of Zélie Martin emerge from the background? Are there sources available to allow for such an emergence? Happily, the answers are affirmative. During the years of 1863 to 1877, Zélie wrote faithfully to members of her family. Many of the extant letters were unavailable, and perhaps even unknown, to Thérèse when she began working on her autobiography. She knew and used the above-mentioned letters to her sister Pauline. But the most substantial part of the collection, published in book-form in France in the 1950s (and still unavailable in English), consists of letters Zélie wrote to her brother, Isidore, beginning from his student days in Paris and continuing to the end of her life. There are also many letters written to her sister-in-law, Céline Guerin, with whom Zélie maintained a strong friendship from the time of Célines marriage to Isidore. Zélies brother, with reluctance and with some editing of passages considered too personal and intimate, surrendered the precious collection of letters to the Carmel of Lisieux after the death of Thérèse. These letters, together with several Zélie wrote to her husband when he was away from home, comprise a collection of more than 200 letters. They constitute an invaluable witness, not only to St. Thérèse, but also to the daily life of the Martin family and the struggles of the Church in turbulent 19th-century France. They are especially invaluable for the witness they give to the life of Zélie Guerin Martin, a wife and mother whose holiness the Church has already recognized in declaring her, together with her husband, Louis Martin, to be venerable.
These letters can serve as our principle source for tracing the development of Zélies personal sense of her vocation within the Church. They lead us from her earliest aspirations and plans to enter religious life to her eventual vocation as wife and mother. Finally, they give us a context in which to consider the vocation of suffering in absolute abandonment to Gods will, which characterizes the whole of Zélies life and finds its most eloquent expression in her own suffering and death.
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