The Life Story of Léonie Martin
(With grateful acknowledgement to the Sisters of the Visitation,
Visitation Monastery, Caen. France)
Léonie Martin was born in Alençon on 3rd June 1863. Her father, Louis was a jeweller and watchmaker, who married Zélie Guérin an accomplished lace maker. They were canonized in 2015. They had nine children - seven girls and two boys and had hoped to have a son a priest. Only five of their children survived infancy and early childhood: the family was given the grace of having all five - Marie, Pauline, Léonie, Céline and Thérèse enter religious life.
The birth of Léonie disturbed a previously peaceful home. Léonie was frail and sickly, a fair-haired child who contrasted sharply with her older sisters Marie and Pauline, two lively and pretty brunettes. Léonie suffered various illnesses in quick succession: whooping cough, measles, and convulsions. For sixteen months the child was between life and death; eventually weeping eczema covered her little body and Madame Martin no longer knew what to do. She wrote to her sister who was a nun in the Visitation Monastery in Le Mans, begging prayers for this poor child. Sister Mary Dosithée made a novena to St. Margaret-Mary the famous Saint of Paray le Monial who at that time was about to be beatified and to everyone’s surprise, Léonie was cured. A radiant Madame Martin later wrote “She scampers about now, like a little rabbit.” Léonie started to grow, but she was to suffer the after effects of these illnesses for the rest of her life remaining fragile, emotional, a little sickly and with an intelligence that had only developed slowly. She had difficulties with a maid who worked in the Martin family. However when the unfavorable influence of the maid was discovered, the child showed herself to be less wild and temperamental.
When Léonie attended school she was rather a carefree student and later in life she realised that she had made a poor pupil. Her parents used to pray “Lord, if she is to be a Saint one day, cure her!” But her Aunt in the Visitation Order was hopeful and wrote “Léonie is a difficult child, but I believe that later she will be worth just as her sisters. She has a good heart, and if slow in intelligence, she makes up for it with good judgement”. In another letter she added “I can quite see her as a Visitandine.” This dear Aunt became the model for Léonie to imitate. In fact as early as ten years old she said “When I grow up I am going to be a Visitation Nun like my Aunt.”
After the death of Zélie Martin, Monsieur Martin moved with his children to settle in Lisieux near to Monsieur and Madame Guérin - Zélie's brother Isidore and his wife Céline. In their new home known as “Les Buissonnets”, the years rolled by, full of peace and happiness. Léonie settled down, and slowly opened up, showing her kind and tender heart to her loved ones. Her father used to call her “my brave Léonie”.
It is hardly surprising then that Léonie, having grown up in such an atmosphere, thought very early about entering the Visitation Order. She had a boundless admiration for her Aunt at Le Mans, and also had been cured as a baby by St. Margaret Mary. So quite naturally Léonie inclined towards the Visitation. After a brief stay with the Poor Clares at Alençon, which only lasted a few weeks, she made three attempts at the Visitation, and one can only admire her perseverance. Some years before, Sister Mary Dosithée had predicted “When Léonie sees her duty, nothing will stop her, she will overcome all obstacles, and there will be a few of those along the way.”
Did Léonie have any idea of Thérèse’s audacious prayer for her during the Profession Ceremony of Thérèse? “My God make it Your Will that Léonie becomes a Visitandine, and if she does not have a vocation, I ask You to give her one. You cannot refuse this request.” And afterwards Thérèse said to her sister Marie “after my death I will make Léonie return to the Visitation and remain there.”
On 28th June 1899, Léonie entered the Monastery for the third time and she did, indeed, remain there!
Léonie in the Visitation
So, Léonie was in the Visitation, and this time, there to stay! God had intervened at the request of Thérèse; not in a spectacular way, but discreetly, as He so often does, using the ordinary events which frame our lives. There was quite simply a change of Superior, the new one showing herself to be more understanding and flexible in allowing any necessary dispensations to the Rule. Several of Léonie’s former companions who had previously been unable to persevere, also found themselves back with her in the Novitiate.
Léonie was happy, she seemed to have emerged from a long tunnel and she entered into Religious Life, confident that Thérèse would help her. On 30th June 1899, she received the Habit of the Visitation, and this time took the name of Sister Françoise-Thérèse. She made her Profession on 2nd July 1900. She said that the day of her profession was the best of her life. She wrote “The following day when I awoke, my joy was so great at being able to press my Profession Crucifix to my heart, this Cross which has cost me so much.”
Over the years, Léonie held many different posts in the Monastery, but always as an assistant. She loved to be unnoticed, “I long to disappear, to hide and to be counted as nothing. To be little is my happiness and my strength.” Thérèse’s book “The Story of a Soul” was her bedtime reading. There Léonie found solid Salesian spirituality.
Léonie wanted that her sister Thérèse was recognized and loved. She went to Lisieux for Thérèse’s process of beatification to give her testimony. She was very happy to meet her three sisters at the monastery of Lisieux: Pauline, Marie and Céline.
A short testimony of her personality
She was very humble, she said: “I want to grow and to remain little at the same time. Hidden like the humble violet under the foliage of the perfect submission”. She said also: “Modesty is my happiness and all my force”; and “May I be strong enough to love God completely – living only for love and humility – that’s enough for me” and again “like my Thérèse, I want to be fascinated with forgetting self.”
She loved Jesus very much. In the morning when she puts her Crucifix on her pillow she says: “You have enough worked, enough cried, enough suffered, it’s up to me.” She had a great hope of eternal life, to be with Jesus. She said “I’m dreaming of Heaven! When will the beautiful day of eternal gathering come?”
She loved the Eucharist and the heart of Jesus. She said: “Our Heaven here, it’s the Eucharist, perhaps in the faith, but really in waiting the Face to Face in Heaven.”
She had a great confidence in the Mercy of the God. She wrote: “I want to be, I’m so little, so little that Jesus was obliged to keep me on his arm.”
Some writers have said that of all her four sisters, Léonie understood Thérèse’s “Little Way” the best. It had strengthened and matured her, allowing her to approach the call to Holiness. She grew in a spirituality that calmed and transformed her. Léonie wrote “I am so grateful to the Lord, He has cared about me with such love, and has Himself placed me in the Visitation, which is a sweet ‘waiting room’ for Heaven.”
The work of Divine Grace is visible too in her retreat notes, “to be little, to forget self, and place myself in God’s hands.”
She loved Jesus’ childhood.
She was very funny and enthusiastic.
She was great fun at recreation, happy to help and to please others.
She was thoughtful, caring and always smiling.
She offered all her infirmities for the souls’ salvation, for the pope, her bishop and for the Church.
The end of her life
As time went by, love accomplished great things in this Soul, which had humbly opened itself to God. The last photo taken of Léonie, a year before her death, shows her calm and smiling, but with a twinkle in her eye. The rather wayward little girl of times past had become a nun, who radiated peace, happiness and stability. Her life was drawing serenely to a close, and she went peacefully to Lord on 17th June 1941.
In some of her notes we find the following words “May I be strong enough to love God completely – living only for love and humility – that’s enough for me” and again “like my Thérèse, I want to be fascinated with forgetting self.”
One of the early letters came from the United States, and seems to sum up what has made Léonie popular. The correspondent wrote, “Léonie is an inspiration for those young people of today who have difficulty in adjusting themselves to our world; also for parents who have problems with their children.” The writer had defined Léonie’s mission. Today our world is a place where traditional values seem to be disintegrating; many disabled children, young people who are searching, in revolt or unstable, and parents who suffer over the behaviour of their children, all experience Léonie’s help and support. Indeed she had a difficult childhood, she can understand them.
The Lord seems to have given her a task; to help children, adolescents, the disabled, youth that has lost direction, and worried or distraught parents. All whoever met Léonie recognised her heart of gold and saw how this goodness united her to God. She will surely show the same benevolence from Heaven, extending her help to all who pray to her, happy as in her life on earth, to please, to soothe and to console. There are already many instances of cures, resolution of family problems, and spiritual favours obtained through her intervention.
Within the Church, St Thérèse of Lisieux is seen as a brilliant rose whose fragrance extends to the ends of the earth. Léonie on the other hand is the humble violet, whose gentle perfume envelops, strengthens and calms the hearts of all who call upon her.
To quote St François de Sales,
“There are many different flowers in the garden of the Church.”