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Tracing the Lives of Zélie Guérin and Louis Martin


tOn Thursday, October 16, I arrived in Lisieux, in France, to retrace the steps of the soon-to-be-beatified Zélie Guérin and Louis Martin. On Saturday morning, I was part of a small group that had the honor of representing the United States at a small reception given by the city of Lisieux for Cardinal Saraiva Martins, the Pope’s legate. Pietro Schilirò, the enchanting six year old boy, cured of a lung disease at the intercession of Louis and Zélie in 2002, was there with a little girl from Toulouse who was healed at the intercession of Saint Therese. The radiance of these two smiling children, living images of God’s healing love, lit the room.

We went by bus to Alençon, where Zélie and Louis spent their married life. At Saint Pierre de Montsort, their parish until 1871, the Very Reverend Jean-Claude Boulanger, Bishop of Séez, spoke on “Louis and Zélie Martin: What is their message for our time?” I nerved myself to approach the tall bishop, elegant in black soutane and red zucchetto, and ask for the text of his conference to translate it for my web site, thereseoflisieux.org. Graciously he introduced me to Deacon Keith Fournier, who instantly presented me with the text along with plenty of other information, photographs, and materials.

tWith a singing heart I left for the Pavilion, Louis Martin’s garden on the outskirts of Alençon, recently bought by the Church and open to pilgrims for the first time in decades. The sunny October day rejoiced with us. In the large walled garden we saw the niche where Louis enshrined the statue of the Virgin of the Smile. In the small hexagonal tower, we visited the second-floor room where he read and meditated, and we saw the stairs leading up to the top floor, where he sometimes allowed homeless persons to sleep. In the tower one feels near him, and, in the garden, it is easy to imagine his little girls picnicking and playing.

We paused on the bridge over the River Sarthe where Zélie first saw Louis and heard an interior voice say “This is the one I have prepared for you.” Whimsically I asked God, “Lord, where’s my voice? Where’s my man?” My friends shouted with laughter. I heard no voice, but sensed the divine amusement and realized that, since calling me to the single life many years ago, God has had no change of heart.

We stood outside the house on Rue Pont-Neuf where Zélie and Louis lived until 1871 and where all their children, except Therese, were born. We imagined nine German soldiers crowding into the house during the Franco-Prussian war, and soberly remembered the four children who died here. I realized that, like us, Louis and Zélie could not control their circumstances. The genius of their sanctity lay in how they accepted what happened to them; they accepted their own powerlessness, that God might be all-powerful in their lives.

At Notre-Dame Church, where Louis and Zélie married and Therese was baptized, Cardinal Saraiva Martins celebrated a Pontifical Mass. He acknowledged the diocese of Séez as the birthplace of the sanctity of Zélie, Louis, and Therese. I realized that, although the passion of Louis and Therese was at Lisieux, the beginning of the Martin family was at Alençon, in some ways a new Nazareth for us.

tOn Sunday, through the chilly moonlit dawn, we made our way to the basilica. Escorted at every step, we found the delegates’ table, presented the episcopal vicar’s letter, and found our seats. The basilica filled quickly with four thousand people including the Schiliro family, the Carmelites of Lisieux, seven nuns of the Visitation at Caen who represented Léonie, and pilgrims from all over the world. The Irish delegation waved small Irish flags. I tried to be a channel of the love of the American friends of Zélie and Louis. After the long procession of white-robed priests, bishops, and cardinals, Father Sangalli proclaimed the life story of Zélie and Louis, and the Cardinal read the Pope’s letter declaring them blessed. When the portrait of Louis and Zélie was unveiled and we sang Therese’s refrain, “God gave me a father and a mother more worthy of heaven than of earth,” I suddenly remembered my own parents, of whom I could say the same, and wondered how many others around the world were children of such hidden sanctity, now gloriously revealed in Zélie and Louis in the basilica dedicated to their daughter.

The reliquary was carried to the foot of the altar, presented by little Pietro and his parents. My heart throbbed to see that living child standing beside their bodies. They accepted the deaths of four of their children with such blind trust. Now God cured Pietro at their request to encourage us to become saints like them. At the end of the Mass, the pilgrims waved bright scarves as the reliquary passed them. It was placed on the esplanade, where people thronged to venerate it all day.

On Tuesday I went to Caen, where Therese’s sister Léonie entered the Monastery of the Visitation in 1899; she died there in 1941. In a moment of private prayer there something unexpected happened. Suddenly I remembered all the places in my life where I had been deeply hurt, and I felt Léonie, who was treated so badly, assuring me that the wounds these experiences had left were no obstacle to sanctity.

At the Bon Sauveur hospital, I saw the buildings Louis knew and the autumn gardens, which seemed like a symbol of his last gift to God: himself. The next day, in Lisieux, we visited Rue Labbey, the house where Louis and Céline lived from 1892 until 1894. The owners, Jacques and Anne-Marie Hervieu, thoughtfully showed us the ground floor, where Louis lived, and the long garden, stretching down to a stream, where he loved to sit. Paralyzed, he could no longer fish, but he loved to listen to the water. Surrounded by his family, he was photographed here in his wheelchair. Our gracious hosts urged us to take some cider. We sat at a table in Louis Martin’s garden, sipping cider and eating sweets in the sunshine. We saw the trees he saw and heard the birds singing and the stream trickling. Awesome.

Marveling at all these pilgrimgraces, I remembered Therese’s letter to her spiritual brother, Father Adolphe Roulland, “If, as I believe, my father and mother are in heaven, they must be looking at and blessing the brother whom Jesus has given me . . . since a missionary has become my brother, he is also their son, and in their prayers they cannot separate the brother from his unworthy sister.” To those who have lost their parents or whose parents could not take care of them, Therese offers Louis and Zélie, who mirror to each of us the sacrament of the motherhood and fatherhood of God. They wrote with their lives a new chapter in the story of conjugal love. May they obtain for us the grace that in us, as in them, the desire for Jesus Christ becomes greater and more intense than any other desire.

Maureen O’Riordan, a student of Saint Therese, lives in Philadelphia. For many years she has been speaking to parish, Carmelite, and retreat groups about the spirituality of Saint Therese, and she has written on Saint Therese and her parents for Carmelite publications. To learn more about Blessed Zelie and Louis and about Saint Therese, please visit her Web site at thereseoflisieux.org.

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