Léonie Martin is arguably the least known and admired member of her entire family, but I doubt she minds. She’s used to being in that position.
Her sister is St. Thérèse of Lisieux, justifiably one of the most loved saints of modern times. Her recently canonized parents, Sts. Louis and Zélie Martin, have quickly gathered a large following as one of the only canonized married couples. Léonie’s two older and two younger sisters all became Carmelites, so it is easy to picture the happy little nest of Martin sisters in the Carmel – Marie, Pauline, Céline, and Thérèse.
Marie and Pauline took their mother’s place to the younger girls Céline and Thérèse when Zélie died while they were still children. Then the two oldest Martins entered the convent, and later guided Thérèse in writing her treasured spiritual memoir, The Story of a Soul. Céline cared for her aging and infirm father in spite of a deep desire to enter the convent. But there was that other sister—poor, difficult Léonie. What could one admire in her?
A Childhood of Hardships
Léonie’s early life was beset with hardships. Her innate disposition was a stubborn one, and her mother found it difficult to guide and discipline her. This challenge to her personal happiness was compounded when she lost her sister Hélène when Hélène was five years old and Leonie was 6½. Marie and Pauline had each other, and Léonie and Hélène had each other – until Hélène was gone. Later Céline and Thérèse had each other, But Léonie was without such a “partner sister” for the rest of her life. The remaining family members all found it difficult to connect with Léonie. In The Hidden Face: A Study of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the author makes mention of all the pet names Louis had for his daughters: the well-known “Queen” for Thérèse, “Diamond” for Marie, and so on. Except for Léonie. Apparently he didn’t have a pet name for Léonie.
Léonie’s health was never very good. She was prone to respiratory problems and suffered from severe eczema for most of her life. Her mother worried about her intellectual abilities because she didn’t seem very bright academically (she may have had dyslexia).
To make matters worse, following Hélène’s death Léonie came under the influence of one of the Martins’ house servants, Louise. Louise manipulated Léonie in an abusive way, causing her to become more obstinate with her parents and sisters. Zélie was mystified by her increasingly poor behavior.
For example, Louise secretly told Léonie that she must always clean the dining room after meals. Zélie recalled that after a meal she would often encourage Léonie to run outside and play with her sisters, but Léonie would sullenly refuse and begin clearing the table. Zélie didn’t realize that she did want to play with her siblings, but feared punishment by Louise. Her behavior seemed unexplainable.
Though eventually the abuse was discovered and ended, Léonie still had more suffering to endure. Once Léonie was out from under the influence of Louise, Zélie’s efforts to draw her to herself were wildly successful. Léonie absolutely clung to Zélie, and Zélie, though still worried about Léonie’s stubborn nature and academic slowness had hope that Léonie would now be able to develop into a fine and holy young woman. At this crucial time, when Léonie was 14, Zélie died.
Now Léonie again felt totally alone. Marie and Pauline became “mothers” to Céline and Thérèse. Léonie seemed too old to be “mothered,” yet she was too young and vulnerable to be motherless. When the two oldest girls each left for the Carmel and the three remaining girls moved to a different home with their father, it was of course Céline and Thérèse who shared a room, leaving Léonie as literally alone as she figuratively felt.
Soon enough Thérèse left for the Carmel and everyone knew that Céline wished to be there, too. Léonie had a great desire to be a nun, but she knew that her health prevented her from being a Carmelite, whose penitential life was physically demanding.
Three times Léonie entered an order (first the Poor Clares, and twice the Visitation order) and three times she was required to leave and return to the world. The causes of her failures were sometimes physical, but in most cases her difficult temperament also played a role. Submission to the rule of the order and the requirement of strict but joyful obedience to her superiors was sometimes too much for her.
Some of her relatives thought she would never make a nun and wondered what could be done with her. How humbling and painful this period must have been for her. But one person who never doubted Léonie’s vocation was Thérèse. She had a deep sense that Léonie would become a bride of Christ one day; in fact, Thérèse predicted that this would happen after her death (and even predicted correctly what name she would take in religious life, Sr. Francoise-Thérèse). Her other three sisters also supported Léonie’s efforts to commit herself to the convent. It is touching to read the letters that passed between the sisters, full of encouragement of one another in the life of holiness.
Occasionally, however, even in these letters, one still detects some of the old family baggage. In one letter Pauline teases her, calling Léonie, who had always been conscious that she was less clever and less beautiful than her sisters, a “big sheep.” Many times, Léonie seems to refer to herself as less worthy than her sisters. Perhaps this was just a standard Christian expression of humility, but perhaps there is a more painful truth in these statements. She’d spent a lifetime feeling different and inferior, a state of affairs of which all the family members seem aware.
How easy it would have been for Léonie to give up—on herself, on the path to holiness, and on her vocation. Why didn’t she throw up her hands and declare that the religious life and its single-minded devotion to Christ were not for her? And how did she finally succeed?
Conquering Herself Along the Little Way
God used someone to help Léonie who has helped countless souls on the road to holiness: her sister Thérèse.
It was through Thérèse’s “little way” that Léonie found at last the means to conquer herself and persevere in the self-dying required by a religious vocation (and any measure of holiness). The Story of a Soul was published on September 30, 1898, and Léonie read it right away. Of course, through her correspondence with Thérèse she was already familiar with the outlines of her spirituality. But it seems evident the book also had a profound impact: four months later she entered the Visitation convent at Caen for the third and final time (her fourth attempt at religious life) and remained there until her death.
Léonie’s woundedness and small opinion of herself made her a natural disciple of Thérèse’s teaching. It was no foreign idea in her mind to think of herself as small. And because the temptations Léonie had to fight—stubbornness, inattention, sometimes sloth—were seemingly of a common, everyday nature, she had many opportunities to offer her small sacrifices to God. Indeed, as one reads in Léonie’s correspondence with Marie, Pauline, and Céline the constant use she makes of Thérèse’s example, one almost believes that the way of spiritual childhood, the little way, is meant more for someone like Léonie than someone like Thérèse!
It is a testament to Léonie’s humility also that none of the conversations remembered by the other Visitation sisters and none of her letters ever expressed any sinful envy of Thérèse or her other sisters. It seems almost natural that Léonie would have envied Thérèse—whether for the seemingly easy path she had to enter religious life, for her calm, peaceful demeanor, or later for the fame she gained following her death. Far from envying her however, Léonie looked to live according to the way her little sister had found and shared with others so lovingly.
Victory Among Defeats
Léonie would never “live up to” her sisters in the eyes of the world. When Thérèse was canonized the cardinal who gave the homily at her canonization Mass spoke of her three sisters in the Carmel, but did not even mention Léonie in the Visitation convent. The nuns there were attentively listening to the Mass being broadcast by radio; they glanced over at Léonie when this slight occured: her face was as serene as ever.
She battled temptations nearly to the end of her life. It never became easy to persevere in her vocation. Yet, aside from her superior, the sisters who lived with her had no idea of her challenges. When they learned about her troubled childhood after her death, they could hardly believe it was true.
Léonie had the ultimate victory in a life that had been full of defeats. Rather than letting the wounds of those defeats vanquish her forever, she chose to continue fighting the spiritual battle God set before her. She didn’t complain that her battle was different than the battles others were fighting. She set her eyes on the goal and trusted God to take care of her in her littleness. Her wounds, which allowed her to see her helplessness, may have been what saved her.