The life of St Therese

Françoise Marie Therese was born on January 2nd 1873 in Alençon. She was baptised on January 4th 1873 in the church of Notre-Dame. Therese was the last of a family of nine children, of whom four died young. The Martin family often spent their holidays at Lisieux at the home of Isidore Guérin, Zélie’s brother, a chemist, and his wife Céline. Zélie had a sister too, Marie-Louise, Sister Marie-Dosithée, a nun at the monastery of the Visitation in Le Mans. Therese’s elder sisters Marie and Pauline were at boarding school there. Therese lost her mother when she was four and a half years old and was much affected by her death. Marie and Pauline became responsible for looking after the three younger sisters.

In 1877 her father moved to les Buissonnets with his five daughters. It was a remote house, where the Martin family lived quietly away from the town.

After the death of her mother Therese, who had been a cheerful and confident little girl, became “shy and quiet, sensitive to boisterous behaviour”.

She went to boarding school at the Benedictine convent in Lisieux, where she found the communal life difficult and looked for comfort to her sister Céline who was there with her.

In 1882 Pauline, the sister whom Therese had chosen as her second mother, entered the Carmelite convent.

The disease

At the end of 1882 Therese fell ill with a condition which caused dizziness and headaches. It got worse over the following months. Seriously worried, the family prayed to Our Lady of Victories. On 13 May 1883 Leonie, Marie and Céline were praying at the foot of Therese’s bed. They turned towards the statue of the Virgin; Therese was praying too, when she saw the Virgin smiling at her and she recovered. At Christmas 1886 she received the gift of conversion which marked her leaving behind her childhood. “Jesus armed me, and from that night I never lost a battle, far from it, I went from victory to victory and thus began, as it were, the journey of a giant.” (Ms A) In July 1887, as she was leaving Sunday mass at the Cathedral Saint-Pierre, her mission was revealed to her: to save souls by prayer and sacrifice.

Therese blossomed. She discovered the power of prayer when she saw her prayer for Pranzini granted (a man condemned to death, refusing all help from the church, nevertheless kissed the crucifix as the moment came for him to mount the scaffold).

She now had the desire to save other souls for God. She told her father that she wanted to join the Carmelites when she was 15. He agreed but she came up against the categorical refusal of Canon Delatroëtte, the Carmelite superior. To comfort his weeping daughter Louis Martin took her to see the bishop, Monseigneur Hugonin in Bayeux. He listened as she spoke of the vow she had made to consecrate herself to God, a desire she had had since childhood. But he put off his decision until a later date.

Journey to Rome

In 1887 Louis Martin took his daughters Céline and Therese on the diocesan pilgrimage to Rome: “Ah! The beauties of nature…I didn’t have enough eyes to see it all. Standing at the door I almost lost my breath; I wished I was on both sides of the carriage at once…” (Ms A 57v) During this visit, Therese dared to ask Pope Léon XIII to allow her to join the Carmelites when she was 15 despite the opposition. Finally the bishop of Bayeux-Lisieux, Mgr Flavien Hugonin, gave her his permission.

With the Carmelites

On 9 April 1888 Therese entered the Carmelite convent.

“I could feel my heart beating so violently that I didn’t think I would be able to move when they gave us the signal to approach the door of the convent; but I did move, thinking all the time that I might die from the force of my heartbeat …” (Ms A 69).   She learned the hard life of the order: “I found religious life just as I had imagined it. In the early days, there were more thorns than roses, because of the lack of judgement, education and sensitivity of some of the people – all those things that make life happy; just a word or a friendly smile is often enough to raise low spirits.” (Ms A 69v et Ms C 28r).

On 2 January 1889 she took the veil

Less than two weeks later, her father, who was suffering from a progressive brain disease, had a particularly serious fit and had to be taken into the Bon Sauveur asylum in Caen. Therese immersed herself in silence and prayer, spending long periods in contemplation of the Face of Christ. Her vocation deepened and in her desire to become a great saint, she became loving towards her sisters and read St John of the Cross.

Therese took her final vows on 8 September 1890, aged seventeen and a half, in the hands of her prioress, Mother Marie de Gonzague.

The source of her prayer life was reading the Gospel which she carried with her at all times. In 1893, Sister Agnes de Jesus (Therese’s sister, Pauline), became prioress and handed responsibility for the noviciate to Mother Marie de Gonzaque, who asked Therese to help her. Therese wrote her first devotional plays, short sketches enacted on major feast days by some of the sisters for the rest of the community. She also wrote spiritual poems. On 29 July 1894, Louis Martin died and on14 September of the same year, Céline entered the Carmelite convent in Lisieux. In August 1895, the four Martin sisters were joined by their cousin, Marie Guérin. Late in 1894, Therese discovered her “little way” and increasingly followed it, finally committing her life to merciful love on 9 June 1895.

 

At the request of her sister Pauline, Mother Agnes de Jesus, she started to write her childhood memories, which were to become part of Story of a Soul: “I come to entrust to you, my dear Mother, Mother twice over, the story of my soul. I have only one aim: to begin the song that I shall repeat eternally, “the mercies of the Lord!!!” (Ms A)

Illness – the ordeal of oblivion

In the night of the Thursday of Holy Week 1896, Therese coughed blood, which seemed to her to be “a sweet and distant murmur heralding the arrival of the Bridegroom” (Ms C 5r). A few days later, she was plunged into the darkest spiritual depths from which she never emerged. On 30 May, Mother Marie de Gonzaque gave her a second missionary to succeed abbot Bellière; he was father Roulland from the Overseas Missions office in Paris, who was preparing to leave for China, and he became a true soul-mate for Therese.

Entering life: April – 30 September 1897

Therese’s health declined rapidly, and she suffered a lot. She was taken to the convent infirmary, where Mother Agnes and Sister Geneviève started to write down their sister’s words. In June, at the suggestion of Mother Agnes, Mother Marie de Gonzague asked her to write down her memories of the Carmelites, on which she expended her remaining strength during June. She ended her manuscript with the word “love”, as she had ended her autobiographical manuscripts.

On the evening of 30 September, Therese died at the age of 24.

“I am not dying, I am entering life.”