Saint of the Month: Servant of God Léonie Martin

Servant of God Léonie Martin was a “black sheep” in her family, a devotee of her saintly sister, and a religious sister. Léonie was the third of nine children born to [Sts.] Louis and Azélie Martin at Alençon in northern France in 1863. Four of the nine Martin children died very young, leaving Léonie the middle of five daughters. Louis worked as a watchmaker and “Zélie” made the beautiful Alençon lace. From the outset, Léonie suffered with bad health, having whooping cough and measles before she was a year old. She had an especially bad case of the measles accompanied by convulsions. Zélie had a sister, Sister Marie-Dosithée, who was a Visitation nun, and she requested of her a novena for Léonie’s health to be restored. After the novena, Léonie never again suffered from a devastating illness.


From early childhood, Léonie was the most difficult of the Martin children. She struggled to focus and was restless and troublesome to manage. At age eight, she was enrolled at a Visitation boarding school. Despite her parent’s intense efforts to prepare her to concentrate and behave, and her aunt’s daily tutoring, she was dismissed after just a few months. She had a kind heart, but she was simply resistant to efforts to teach her. After she returned home, she was tutored at home for a time, but Zélie took over the duty herself.
Religion was a subject that Léonie enjoyed learning, and she made her First Communion in 1875. Her behavior became increasingly rebellious, however, greatly troubling her parents. In late 1876, Zélie was diagnosed with breast cancer, and she visited Sister Marie-Dosithée, who was gravely ill with tuberculosis, asking her to especially intercede for Léonie when she reached heaven. After her death, the reason for much of Léonie’s erratic behavior became known.


It was discovered that a household servant had been not only beating her, but indoctrinating her against her parents. Once the maid was forbidden to go near Léonie, her rebelliousness was greatly diminished. Since all of this occurred just weeks after her sister’s death, Zélie attributed it to her intercession. Zélie made it a priority during the last months of her life to spend a lot of time with Léonie, not only to undo the harm that had been done by the deranged maid, but to teach her to learn independently with no need for tutoring.


After Zélie’s August 1877 death, Louis moved the family to Lisieux, in order to be near her brother and sister-in-law, the Guérins. The three youngest daughters, Léonie, Céline, and Thérèse were enrolled at a nearby Benedictine school. Léonie still had difficulty with her classes, but not as much as before, and she graduated in 1881 at age eighteen. The Martin family, continuing with their usual practice, devoted themselves to assisting the poor, offering funds and daily essentials for the poor who came their way. By the fall of 1886, both of the oldest Martin sisters, Marie and Pauline, had entered the nearby Carmelite monastery, and Léonie had entered the Poor Clares.


Because of her weak health, Léonie had to leave her postulancy because the difficulty of the daily life was too much for her. Resolved to become a religious as had been her long desire, she entered the Visitation monastery at Caen. She truly desired to give her life to God, but sadly returned home after just six months, unable to bear the rigorous Rule. After the youngest Martin sister, Thérèse, entered the Carmelite monastery, it was left to Léonie and Céline to care for Louis, who had suffered several strokes, leaving him confused and eventually paralyzed. In 1893, Léonie was again accepted at the Visitation monastery at Caen, this time her postulancy proceeded. A more strict mother superior dismissed her and several other nuns in the summer of 1895, leaving her devastated. With Louis now deceased and Céline a Carmelite like her 2 older sisters, Léonie frequently visited her Carmelite sisters, and Thérèse in particular counseled her until just weeks before she herself succumbed to tuberculosis in 1897.


Finally, in 1899, Léonie re-entered the Visitation Monastery at Caen, professed the following year, taking the name Sister Françoise-Thérèse. There she lived for forty one years, often still dealing with health limitations, until her June 16, 1941 death at age seventy-eight.
Léonie Martin, Sister Françoise-Thérèse, was, for a long time, the “forgotten” Martin family member. Her parents are saints and her youngest sister is not just a saint, but a Doctor of the Church. She did not possess her sisters’ poise, intelligence, and pleasant disposition, but rather than becoming bitter or jealous, she persevered in her own unusual path to holiness. She was taught the Little Way of her ten-years-younger sister years before that approach to perfection was published, and became an exemplification of it. As a religious, she was remembered as being peaceful and very kind. After her death, she was mostly forgotten until about 1960, when her monastery began to receive letters requesting her help for conflicted families and people having difficulty finding their vocation. Her body rests at the Caen Visitation Monastery, and the cause for her possible canonization was opened in 2015.