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Saints Zelia and Louis Martin – Patrons of marriage

On Sunday 18 October 2015, Pope Francis canonised the spouses Louis and Zelia Martin — the parents of St Teresa of the Child Jesus. These married saints perfectly fulfilled their earthly calling: Louis as a husband and father, Zelia as a wife and mother.

Saints Zelia and Louis Martin – Patrons of marriage

These days, when the roles that God has assigned to men and women are being questioned, the example of the lives of Saints Louis and Zelia is a call for contemporary spouses to follow the road of growth in holiness in the sacrament of marriage, as God wills it. It is a question of being fully a woman, wife and mother; fully a man, husband and father; to achieve full happiness, that is, holiness.

The calling of men — husband and father

St Louis Martin was born in Bordeaux on 22 August 1823. In the family home, his parents propagated an atmosphere of authentic faith, “faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6). That environment helped Louis to grow, develop his character and deepen his relationship of love with God. When he was twenty-two he wanted to enter a contemplative order, but was not accepted because he didn’t know Latin. He continued his studies in Paris, specialising in clockmaking. In the big city, Louis was accosted by a variety of temptations and had to constantly fight spiritual battles, so as not to succumb to the apparent attractions of sin. He overcame every temptation only because he took part in the Eucharist daily, spent late nights in adoration of the Most Holy Sacrament, prayed the rosary and read the Holy Scriptures and good Catholic books. He became involved in charitable works, went to confession regularly and observed the Sunday abstinence from work.

The Lord God was always Louis’s top priority. He knew that you can’t be a real man if you don’t know God and don’t have a personal relationship with Him in love. That is why he consistently worked on his character and took great care to always keep himself in a state of sanctifying grace.

After his studies, Louis met Zelia, who was to become his wife. They went through a wonderful period of youthful love. Their meetings always began and ended with prayer, because they both believed that it was Jesus who was the source of this amazing miracle that is mutual love. Louis and Zelia asked God for the gift of pure hearts, so as not to permit sin to destroy the treasure of their mutual love. Faith in Jesus permitted them to safeguard their chastity before marriage, which took place on 13 July 1858. In the sacrament of matrimony, the Lord Jesus united Louis and Zelia in the bond of His love. From that time on, they were husband and wife for each other. They remembered that as spouses they had an amazing treasure, which was the real presence of Christ in the sacrament of matrimony. After their wedding, Louis’s marriage and family became the most important sphere of life for him. He wanted to model his calling to be a husband and father on Christ the Good Shepherd. His daughter, St Teresa, wrote in one of her letters that her parents asked God to grant them many children, and that all of the children should belong to Him. And that’s the way it happened: the Lord God gathered to Himself four of their children immediately after they were born, and He called the other five to the consecrated life.

“I don’t know how to express how much I loved Daddy. Everything about him provoked delight in me” (St Teresa)

Louis’s wife held an exclusive place in his heart. She was the second most important person for him after the Lord God Himself. Louis treated caring for marital love as his particular duty, and his contact with Jesus in prayer as well as the sacraments gave him strength to increase it.

Together with his wife, Louis participated in the Eucharist every day at 5:30 a.m. The nurturing of virtues, the struggle against vices and self-discipline were his everyday duties. His reward was the joy of his dear ones at having a real man — a leader, a good shepherd, a “king”, as St Teresa frequently described him. She sincerely admired her father: “I don’t know how to express how much I loved Daddy. Everything about him provoked delight in me”. Teresa was probably under the influence of the example of his life when she wrote: “The good Lord led me to feel that true praise is that which lasts forever, and that to achieve it you don’t necessarily need to perform amazing works, but you hide yourself away and practise graces in a way that the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing”. Louis loved his children demandingly, but with a father’s tenderness. He attended to the physical and spiritual safety of his daughters. He didn’t permit any “wolf in sheep’s clothing” into the lives of his children. St Teresa pointed out that her father was vigilant not to “leave anything in my presence that could sully my innocence, and especially that I not hear any word that could permit vanity to slip into my heart”.

The next essential sphere of Louis’s life was work. By profession he was a clockmaker. He ran his own business. He was remembered by his friends and employees as an extraordinarily honest, diligent, conscientious and kindly person. He respected God’s precepts pertaining to work, especially the prohibition of work on Sunday. Even though many people advised him to work on Sunday, he always steadfastly refused.

The nurturing of virtues, the struggle against vices and self-discipline were his everyday duties

To be a man means to protect the weak, care for the needy and perform acts of mercy. This is another sphere in which Louis developed his calling to be a husband and father. As a human, he had his passions, but he always refrained from occasions of sin. During the nineteenth century, France was beset by economic crises, and many businessmen lost all their goods playing cards. Louis never allowed himself to be dragged into such amusements, choosing his associates prudently. His had a great fascination for fishing. Sometimes he would take Teresa: “those were beautiful days for me, when my beloved king took me fishing with him” — the saint recalled. But what he loved most was to relax with his family, alongside his wife and daughters. With faith, and completely submissive to God’s will, Louis accepted all painful situations: the deaths of four of his children, and later of his beloved wife. After Zelia’s death, he moved to Lisieux with his daughters. After a few years of peaceful life, four daughters began to enter the Carmelite convent one after the other. After his youngest beloved daughter Theresa entered the convent in 1888, Louis began a particular time of uniting himself to Christ in suffering. He became seriously ill and was paralysed. He passed the last years of his life in his house, surrounded by the attentive care of his daughter Celina. He died on 29 July 1894 aged seventy-one.

The call of a woman — wife and mother

Zelia Guerin, Louis’s wife, was born on 23 December 1831. After her studies, she wanted to enter the religious life, but was not accepted. So she began to occupy herself with artistic embroidery and opened her own workshop. After meeting Louis, the two fell mutually in love. There are extant excerpts from letters in which Zelia expresses her love for Louis: “I love you beyond life”, “I hug you with all the love that I have for you”, “I keep you in my thoughts the whole day through”, “It seems to me that it wouldn’t be possible for me to live without you”. Their love was known to all. Zelia and Louis knew that the only source of their love was Jesus Christ present in the sacrament of matrimony. This is why they went to mass every morning. Zelia understood perfectly her vocation as a woman, wife and mother. When her brother asked her in a letter how he should go about looking for a wife, she replied: “The most important thing is to find a woman with good attributes, who won’t be afraid to get her hands dirty in work, who doesn’t attach more importance to her appearance than is appropriate, who knows how to raise her children for work and piety”.

Zelia nurtured the development of her spiritual life. She was industrious, and focused herself on raising her children wisely. She didn’t make beauty her first priority, but she took care to see that her daughters were nicely dressed. For her, her children were a gift from God. Zelia accepted her pregnancies and the births of each of her nine children with great joy. She loved them very much, and prayed that they would walk the difficult path of faith to heaven. She regarded their bearing and raising as her most important task in life. She didn’t treat the children as her property.

She accepted the deaths of four of them with great pain, but with total submission to God’s will. She was an excellent observer of the lives of her children, as well as a leader for them. She spent a great deal of time with them, adjusting her mothering methods to each of them, taking into account the distinct predilections and characters of each of them. She believed that God had a wonderful plan with regard to her children, and she wanted them to be as well prepared as possible to fulfil their life’s obligations. St Teresa aptly expressed her parents’ efforts in raising their children: “what would happen if an inept gardener failed to graft his bushes well? If he didn’t know how to identify the variety of each of them and wanted the roses to bloom on apricot trees? He would kill the tree that was otherwise good and capable of producing fruit. This is how one must know how to identify what God expects of a soul even in its youth, and cooperate with the action of grace, never outrunning it nor holding it back”. Together with her husband, Zelia managed to accommodate her professional activities with the raising of the children. They raised them teaching them to work on themselves and on their humility, to overcome egoism, and showing them the treasure of faith in word and by example. Thanks to Zelia and Louis, their house became a “home church”.

The spouses prayed together, went to mass together, and taught their children to sympathise with and help the poor. Even though they had a large family, they always supported the needy. One daughter, Celina, recalled: “even though the rule of saving was preeminent in our family, we none the less exercised generosity towards the poor. We sought the poor out and invited them to our home, and after feeding and clothing them, our parents encouraged them to do good. To this day, I remember an image of my mother caring for a poor old man. I was seven years old at the time. We were out with Mama and met him in the street. Mama asked Teresa to give him a little bit of money. She struck up a conversation with him, after which mama invited him home. She served him a generous dinner, gave him shoes and clothes, and on bidding him farewell told him that he could always come to us when he needed help. My father tried to find work for him, and when he got sick, a place in the hospital. Every Monday, the poor came to our house asking for alms. We gave them money and food. It was Teresa who most often worked at this. One day, on leaving the house, we met a homeless person. Our father invited him into the house, fed him and gave him whatever he needed, and at the end he asked him to bless us. Daddy, Teresa and I knelt, and he blessed us and left”. Zelia accepted Jesus’ call to be holy as her own. The cross of Christ’s suffering accompanied her from her youth. When she became sick, and it seemed the illness would be fatal, she wrote in one of her letters: “If the good Lord wants me to get well, I will be very happy, because I would like to live longer and not leave my husband and children. But at the same time, I tell myself: if my health isn’t going to improve, it will be better for them for me to go”. Zelia died on 28 August 1877, aged forty-six.

In their married life, the holy spouses Louis and Zelia Martin fulfilled the will of God to the end. They were heroically faithful to the teaching of the Gospel, and hence became “the salt of the earth”, as well as “the light of the world” (Matt. 5:13, 14). Holy parents raise holy children. The callings of the Martins, perfectly fulfilled, helped their daughters to properly discern and fulfil their own callings. St Teresa grasped this in this way: “In the same way that little birds learn to sing by listening to their parents, so children acquire the knowledge of virtues, the poignant song of God’s Love, at the sides of those souls which are obliged to instruct them in life.”


The article was published with the permission from "Love One Another!" in September 2020.

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