Have you ever noticed that the vast majority of saints seem to be priests or religious? Don’t get me wrong; there is often plenty in the lives of holy men of the altar and women of the convent to inspire us and lead us into deeper holiness through their example. But in a way, these consecrated men and women have always seemed a little distant to me.
Enter Louis and Zelie Martin, the parents of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, who just happen to be the first married couple ever canonized together.
Their Vocational Curve Ball
These two being a holy married couple was what attracted me to them in the first place. I love a good layman saint as it is, but how awesome is a married saint couple?
What I didn’t know initially, though, was that neither of these two actually intended to grow up and marry anyone.
Louis, the third of five kids, wanted to become an Augustinian monk. But that obviously didn’t happen. His poor Latin skills prevented him from meeting the monastery’s standards, and he realized that this was not his vocation.
Zelie had a similar fate. She grew up in a somewhat puritanically religious household, but her faith grew strong regardless and she attempted to join the Sisters of Charity. As in Louis’ case, God had other ideas about her vocation, and the mother superior turned her away.
So, having first given God first dibs on their lives, they both then set out to find their place in the world. Louis took up the craft of watchmaking and Zelie of lace-making.
The funny thing is that both these trades were very much of the world and were services to wealthy people. But nevertheless, they both grew in holiness, setting the stage for the triangular love story between the two of them and God that was to come.
An Ordinary but Fateful Meeting
You might expect that these two met at Mass or while doing some charitable deed. But in fact their meeting was much more outwardly ordinary.
One day, they passed each other on a bridge. Some sources say they knew instantly that they were meant for each other.
But we have to think about how they had already been living their lives, in order that they were able to hear God’s plan and work with it in that instant of outward non-consequence, And I have to imagine that, already having established a strong faith life and explored the possibility of religious vocations, they were able to be instruments in God’s plan that much easier.
Smooth Sailing—with a Side of Suffering and Sanctity
From there, the Martin family began, and the family that would produce five religious sisters and at least one saint.
Three months after they first met, the two of them were married. And initially, they had their own ideas about how they were going to accomplish holiness in marriage. They fully intended to live as brother and sister in marriage and did so for the first ten months. Then a priest advised them to reconsider, and ever open to God’s will, they did. The couple went on to have nine children, four of which died as very young children.
Their youngest daughter Thérèse became a saint and a Doctor of the Church. But their other four surviving daughters also became nuns, and in fact their third daughter Leonie is a candidate for sainthood as well.
Immersion and Enculturation in the Faith
So obviously, their family life was characterized by holiness. Things like daily Mass and family spiritual reading were common. But unlike Zelie’s upbringing, this couple did not allow their devotion to put a damper on the fun and joy that should be present in family life. Things like games, parties, and celebrations were a regular part of their household.
The two of them put their heart and soul into raising their family in holiness, and we have to think they largely succeeded, especially if you consider that St. Thérèse must have learned the fundamentals of her famous “little way” from someone. These two were to reach an end of their happy time together rather early on, as Zelie developed breast cancer at age 45.
Sometimes, we get the impression that the saints always went easily into their deaths. In Zelie, we see a mixture of both trust in God’s will and a human reluctance to leave the world behind, as she said, “If the Good Lord cures me, I shall be happy, for I do want to live; leaving my husband and children would cost me dearly. But on the other hand, I tell myself: if I don’t recover, perhaps it would be better for them if I went.”
Louis then went on to raise their five living daughters without her, never holding on to bitterness toward a God who took his wife so early, but instead staying faithful to the God who had brought him so much joy through his wife of nineteen years.
Prayer to Saints Louis & Zelie Martin
For those of us who wish so ardently that we might have what these two people had, here is a prayer for their intercession:
Saints Louis and Zelie Martin, after having had the desire for religious life, you heard the Lord’s call to the vocation of marriage. You are the “parents without equal” of whom your daughter Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus speaks; the fortunate parents of Léonie, the Servant of God, Sister Françoise-Thérèse; of Marie, Pauline, and Céline, transplanted to Mount Carmel; and of the four children taken from your affection in their youth: Hélène, Joseph, Jean-Baptiste, and Mélanie-Thérèse.
You gave all glory to God through your humble and patient work, your commitment to the poor, and your family life, where reigned the happiness of loving and being loved. You lived your daily life concretely through the joys and sorrows of your existence. You love us as your own children, with the heart of a father and the heart of a mother, because you are the friends of God. Listen to our prayer and our request (state the request…) and intercede for us with God the Father, through Jesus Christ our Lord, in the grace of the Holy Spirit. Amen.