Her Early Years
Marie-Francoise-Therese Martin was born on January 2, 1873, and baptized two days later on January 4th. “All my life, God surrounded me with love. My first memories are imprinted with the most tender smiles and caresses…Those were the sunny years of my childhood.” Thus Therese, twenty-one years later, described her home life in Alencon, France. “My happy disposition,” she added with characteristic candor, “contributed to making my life pleasing.”
The Baby of the Family
The Martin household was a lively place. Therese’s father, Louis, had a nickname for each of his daughters. Her mother, Zelie, wrote her relatives constantly about the joys each child gave her. Therese was the baby and everyone’s favorite, especially her mother’s.
Due to Therese’s weak and frail condition at birth, she was taken care of by a nurse for her first year and a half. Because of this care, she became a lively, mischievous and self-confident child. But Zelie was not blind to her baby’s faults.
Therese was, she wrote, “incredibly stubborn. When she has said ‘no’, nothing will make her change her mind. One could put her in the cellar for the whole day.” Therese’s candor appeared early and was unusual. The little one would run to her mother and confess: “Mama, I hit Celine (her sister) once-but I won’t do it again.”
Little Therese was blond, blue-eyed, affectionate, stubborn, and alarmingly precocious. She could throw a giant-sized tantrum. Her bubbling laughter could make a gargoyle smile.
In a note, Zelie advised her daughter Pauline: “She (Therese) flies into frightful tantrums; when things don’t go just right and according to her way of thinking, she rolls on the floor in desperation like one without any hope. There are times when it gets too much for her and she literally chokes. She’s a nervous child, but she is very good, very intelligent, and remembers everything.”
Through it all, however, Therese thrived on the love which surrounded her in this Christian home. It was here, where prayer, the liturgy, and practical good works formed the basis of her own ardent love of Jesus – her desire to please Him and the Virgin Mary.
“I Choose All”
At the age of twelve, Therese’s sister Leonie felt she had no further use for her doll dressmaking kit, and stuffed a basket full of materials for making new dresses. Leonie then offered it to her six year old sister, Celine, and her two year old sister, Therese.
“Choose what you wish, little sisters,” invited Leonie. Celine took a little ball of wool that pleased her. Therese simply said, “I choose all.” She accepted the basket and all its goods without ceremony. This incident revealed Therese’s attitude toward life. She never did anything by halves; for her it was always all or nothing.
On Sundays, Louis and Zelie Martin would take their daughters on walks. Therese loved the wide open spaces and the beauty of the countryside about Alencon. Frequently, the walks tired little Therese. This would result in “Papa” Martin carrying his daughter home in his arms.
Unfortunately, the pleasant family times would soon come to an end. The shadow of death that had previously occupied the Martin household, once more relentlessly returned. Therese’s mother, Zelie (after an illness of twelve years), died of breast cancer in August, 1877. Therese was only four years old at the time.
The Winter of Great Trial
Shortly after his wife’s death, Louis Martin moved his family of five girls (ranging in ages from four to seventeen) to Lisieux. He rented a home and named it “Les Buissonnets” (“The Hedges”). Therese then entered what she termed “the second” and “most painful” period of her life. Because of the shock of her mother’s death, “my happy disposition completely changed,” she remembered. “I became timid and retiring, sensitive to an excessive degree….”
Louis Martin and his daughters did all they could to help little Therese who missed her mother so much. They lavished affection and attention upon the motherless child. At Les Buissonnets, under the tutelage of her sisters Marie and Pauline, Therese began her first schooling.
Each day after classes were over she joined her father in his study. Louis called Therese his “little queen.” Eventually the two would go for a walk. They would visit a different church each day and pray before the Blessed Sacrament. The bond between father and daughter grew stronger and stronger. “How could I possibly express the tenderness which Papa showered upon his queen?” she later exclaimed. Her sister Celine, nearly four years older, became her favorite playmate.
The passage is all the more remarkable because it revealed the theme of exile which dominated her whole life. Therese maintained the first word she learned to read was “heaven.” From her childhood she interpreted all her world as only the beginning, only a glimpse of a glorious future.
Sundays had tremendous significance. They were days of rest tinged with melancholy because they must end. It was on a Sunday evening this youngster felt the pang of exile of this earth. “I longed,” she explained, “for the everlasting repose of heaven – that never ending Sunday of the fatherland…”
Therese, given the proper occasion, continued to produce extreme temper tantrums. The following is her own account of one of the more sparkling scenes that took place between herself and her poor nurse, Victoire.
“I wanted an inkstand which was on the shelf of the fireplace in the kitchen; being too little to take it down, I very nicely asked Victoire to give it to me. But she refused, telling me to get up on a chair. I took a chair without saying a word, but thinking she wasn’t too nice; wanting to make her feel it, I searched out in my little head what offended me the most. She often called me a ‘little brat’ when she was annoyed at me and humbled me very much.
So before jumping off my chair, I turned around with dignity and said, ‘Victoire, you are a brat!’ Then I made my escape leaving Victoire to meditate on the profound statement I had just made… I thought, if Victoire didn’t want to stretch her big arm to do me a little service, she merited the title ‘brat.'”
Her School Years
In October, 1881, Louis enrolled his youngest daughter (Therese) as a day boarder at Lisieux’s Benedictine Abbey school of Notre-Dame du Pre. Therese hated the place and stated “the five years (1881 – 1886) I spent there were the saddest of my life.”
Classes bored her. She worked hard, and loved catechism, history and science, but had trouble with spelling and mathematics. Because of her overall intelligence, the good nuns advanced the eight-year-old to classes for fourteen-year-olds. She was still bored. Her keenness aroused the envy of many fellow pupils, and Therese paid dearly for her academic successes.
Off to School
Genius has its price, and the youngest Martin girl was paying it. The ordinary games and dances of other children held little interest for her. She was uncomfortable with most children and seemed to be at ease only with her sisters and very few others. Of all the Martin girls, Pauline was closest to Therese.
Therese thought of her as her second mother. Pauline was the little one’s first teacher and ideal. Then one day Therese’s second mother told her she was leaving to enter the convent at the Carmelite Monastery in Lisieux. Nine-year-old Therese was stunned.
Again employing the exile theme, she described her sorrow: “…I was about to lose my second mother. Ah, how can I express the anguish of my heart! In one instant I understood what life was; until then I had never seen it so sad, but it appeared to me in all its reality and I saw it was nothing but a continual suffering and separation. I shed bitter tears…”
“Our Lady of the Smile”
During the winter following Pauline’s entrance into the Carmelite monastery, Therese fell seriously ill. Experts have diagnosed her sickness as everything from a nervous breakdown to a kidney infection. She blamed it on the devil. Whatever it was, doctors of her time were unable to either diagnose or treat it.
She suffered intensely during this time from constant headaches and insomnia. As the illness pursued its vile course, it racked poor little Therese’s body. She took fits of fever and trembling and suffered cruel hallucinations. Writing of one bout of delirium, she explained: “I was absolutely terrified by everything: my bed seemed to be surrounded by frightful precipices; some nails in the wall of the room took on the appearance of big black charred fingers, making me cry out in fear. One day, while Papa was looking at me and smiling, the hat in his hand was suddenly transformed into some indescribable dreadful shape and I showed such great fear that poor Papa left the room sobbing.”
None of the treatments helped. Then, on May 13, 1883, Therese turned her head to a statue of the Virgin near her bed, and prayed for a cure. “Suddenly” Therese writes, “…Mary’s face radiated kindness and love.” Therese was cured. The statue has since been called “Our Lady of the Smile.”
It was shortly after Pauline’s departure that Therese decided to join her at Lisieux’s Carmelite Convent. She approached the prioress of the monastery and sought entrance. Carefully little Therese explained she wished to enter, not for Pauline’s sake, but for Jesus’ sake. The prioress advised her to return when she grew up. Therese was only nine years old at the time.
During her long illness, her resolve to join the Carmelites grew even stronger. “I am convinced that the thought of one day becoming a Carmelite made me live,” she later declared. After her illness, Therese was more than ever determined to do something great for God and for others. She thought of herself as a new Joan of Arc, dedicated to the rescue not only of France but of the whole world.
With unbelievable boldness the ten-year-old stated, “I was born for glory.” And thus another great theme of Therese’s life manifested itself. She perceived her life’s mission as one of salvation for all people. She was to accomplish this by becoming a saint. She understood that her glory would be hidden from the eyes of others until God wished to reveal it.
At ten years of age, then, she reaffirmed and clarified her life’s goals. She was intelligent enough to realize she could not accomplish them without suffering. What was hidden from her eyes was just how much she would have to endure to win her glory.
“Spiritual torment” was to be her lot for years to come, slackening only when she started preparing for her long-awaited First Communion. At the age of eleven, on May 8, 1884, Therese received her first “kiss of love”, a sense of being “united” with Jesus, of His giving Himself to her, as she gave herself to Him.
Her eucharistic hunger made her long for daily communion. Confirmation, “the sacrament of Love,” which she received on June 14, 1884, filled Therese with ecstasy. Shortly thereafter though, the young Martin girl experienced a peculiarly vicious attack of scruples. This lasted seventeen months. She lived in constant fear of sinning; the most abhorrent and absurd thoughts disturbed her peace. She wept often.
“You cry so much during your childhood,” intimates told her, “you will no longer have tears to shed later on!” Headaches plagued her once more. Her father finally removed her from the Abbey school and provided private tutoring for her.
During this time her sister, Marie, became very close with Therese, and helped her to overcome these fears. But Marie in turn, also entered the Lisieux Carmel (on October 15, 1886). This was very hard on Therese, who at the age of thirteen, had now lost her “third” mother.
The Christmas Conversion
After midnight Mass, Christmas, 1886, the shadow of self-doubt, depression and uncertainty suddenly lifted from Therese, leaving her in possession of a new calm and inner conviction. Grace had intervened to change her life as she was going up the stairs at her home.
Something her father said provoked a sudden inner change. The Holy Child’s strength supplanted her weakness. The strong character she had at the age of four and a half was suddenly restored to her. A ten year struggle had ended. Her tears had dried up. The third and last period of her life was about to begin. She called it her life’s “most beautiful” period.
Freed from herself, she embarked on her “Giant’s Race.” She was consumed like Jesus with a thirst for souls. “My heart was filled with charity. I forgot myself to please others and, in doing so, became happy myself.”
Now, she could fulfill her dream of entering the Carmel as soon as possible to love Jesus and pray for sinners. Grace received at Mass in the summer of 1887 left her with a vision of standing at the foot of the Cross, collecting the blood of Jesus and giving it to souls. Convinced that her prayers and sufferings could bring people to Christ, she boldly asked Jesus to give her some sign that she was right. He did.
In the early summer of 1887, a criminal, Henri Pranzini, was convicted of the murder of two women and a child. He was sentenced to the guillotine. The convicted man, according to police reports, showed no inclination to repent. Therese immediately stormed heaven for Pranzini’s conversion. She prayed for weeks and had Mass offered for him. There was still no change in the attitude of the condemned man.
The newspaper La Croix, in describing Pranzini’s execution, noted the man had refused to go to confession. Then on September 1, 1887, as the executioner was about to put his head onto the guillotine block, the unfortunate criminal seized the crucifix a priest offered him and, the newspaper noted, “kissed the Sacred Wounds three times.” Therese wept for joy, her “first child” had obtained God’s mercy. Therese hoped that many others would follow once she was in the Carmel.
Her Life at Lisieux Carmel
Marie Martin, the oldest daughter of the family, joined her sister Pauline at the Lisieux Carmel in 1886. Leonie Martin entered the Visitation Convent at Caen the following year. Therese then sought permission from her father to join Marie and Pauline at the Lisieux Convent. Louis was probably expecting the request, but it saddened him nevertheless. Three of his girls had already entered religious life. But, characteristically generous, he not only granted Therese’s request, but worked zealously to help her realize it.
Therese was not yet fifteen when she approached the Carmelite authorities again for permission to enter. Again she was refused. The priest-director advised her to return when she was twenty-one. “Of course,” he added, “you can always see the bishop. I am only his delegate.” The priest did not realize what kind of girl he was dealing with.
To his dying day, Bishop Hugonin of Bayeux never forgot her. She came to his office with her father one rainy day and put her surprising request before him. “You are not yet fifteen and you wish this?” the bishop questioned. “I wished it since the dawn of reason,” young Therese declared.
Louis’ support of her request amazed the bishop. His Excellency had never seen this type of support before. “A father as eager to give his child to God,” he remarked, “as this child was eager to offer herself to him.”
Just before the interview, Therese had put up her hair, thinking this would make her look older. This amused the bishop, and he never spoke about Therese in later years without recounting her ploy.
Although charmed by her, Bishop Hugonin did not immediately grant Therese’s request. He wanted time to consider it, and advised Therese and her father that he would write them regarding his decision.
Therese had planned that, should the Bayeux trip fail, she would go to the Pope himself. Thus in November, 1887, Louis took his daughters, Therese and Celine, to Italy with a group of French pilgrims. Catholics from all over the world were journeying to the Eternal City, to celebrate Leo XIII’s Golden Jubilee as a priest.
In her autobiography, Therese sketched a charming picture of her travels through Southern Europe. In Rome she was enamored of the Coliseum. Its history of Christian martyrdom stirred the very roots of her being.
Once inside the Coliseum, the two sisters ignored regulations prohibiting visitors from descending through the ruined structure to the arena floor, sneaked away from the tour group, climbed across barriers and down the ruins to kneel and pray on the Coliseum floor. Gathering up a few stones as relics, they slipped back to the tour. No one, except their father, noted their absence.
The great day of the audience with Pope Leo XIII came at the end of their week in Rome. On Sunday, November 20, 1887, “they told us on the Pope’s behalf that it was forbidden to speak as this would prolong the audience too much. I turned toward my dear Celine for advice: ‘Speak!’ she said. A moment later I was at the Holy Father’s feet…Lifting tear-filled eyes to his face I cried out: ‘Most Holy Father, I have a great favor to ask you!…Holy Father, in honor of your jubilee, permit me to enter Carmel at the age of fifteen.'”
Father Reverony, the leader of the French pilgrimage, stared stonily at this bold little girl, in surprise and displeasure. “Most Holy Father,” the priest said coldly, “this is a child who wants to enter Carmel at the age of fifteen. The superiors are considering the matter at the moment.”
“Well, my child,” the Holy Father replied, “do what the superiors tell you.” “Resting my hands on his knees,” Therese continued, “I made a final effort, saying, ‘Oh, Holy Father, if you say yes, everybody will agree!’ He gazed at me speaking these words and stressing each syllable: ‘Go – go – you will enter if God wills it.'”
Therese did not want to leave the Holy Father’s presence, so the papal guards had to lift her up and carry the tearful young girl to the door. There they gave her a medal of Leo XIII. Her old nurse, Victoire, probably could have told the Pope he should not have been surprised. Victoire had seen Therese in some rare displays of determination.
On New Year’s day, 1888, the prioress of the Lisieux Carmel advised Therese she would be received into the monastery, but that she had to be patient and wait a little bit longer. On April 9, 1888, an emotional and tearful, but determined Therese Martin said good-bye to her home and her family. She was going to live “for ever and ever” in the desert with Jesus and twenty-four enclosed companions: she was fifteen years and three months old.
The only cloud on her horizon was the worsening condition of her father, Louis, who had developed cerebral arteriosclerosis. Celine remained at home to care for their father during his long and final illness. The good father was growing senile.
Once in June of 1888, he wandered from his home at Lisieux and was lost for three days, eventually turning up at Le Havre. In August, after a series of strokes, Louis became paralyzed.
Many years earlier, when Therese was a little girl, she would peer out of an attic window. Therese loved reveling in the glory of the day. One day however, while her father was in Alencon on business, she suddenly saw in the garden below the stooped and twisted figure of a man.
She froze in terror. “Papa, Papa” she cried out. Her sister, Marie, who was nearby, heard the unmistakable note of panic in Therese’s cry and ran to her. The figure in the garden disappeared. Marie assured her it was nothing and told her to forget everything that had happened.
But the vision continued to cling like a sad portent in the corner of Therese’s mind for the next fourteen years. Now, with her father paralyzed, the meaning of Therese’s vision in the garden so long ago had became apparent at last.
Louis however, rallied his strength, and managed to attend the ceremonies of Therese’s clothing in the Carmelite habit on January 10, 1889. Shortly thereafter, on February 12th, Louis was taken to the hospital after an attack of dementia.
Seeing her father’s humiliation hurt Therese deeply. “Oh, I do not think I could have suffered more than I did on that Day!!!” With that, Therese began to understand the sufferings of the mocked Christ, the Suffering Servant foretold by Isaiah. Therese’s father made one last visit to the Carmel in May, 1892. He died peacefully two years later, in 1894, with Celine at his side. Celine then joined her three sisters at Carmel in September of 1894.
Therese spent the last nine years of her life at the Lisieux Carmel. Her fellow Sisters recognized her as a good nun, nothing more. She was conscientious and capable. Sister Therese worked in the sacristy, cleaned the dining room, painted pictures, composed short pious plays for the Sisters, wrote poems, and lived the intense community prayer life of the cloister. Superiors appointed her to instruct the novices of the community. Externally, there was nothing remarkable about this Carmelite nun.
Therese was affected by the spiritual atmosphere in the community, which was still tainted by Jansenism and the vision of an avenging God. Some of the sisters feared divine justice and suffered badly from scruples. Even after her general confession in May 1888 to Father Pichon, her Jesuit spiritual director, Therese was still uneasy.
But a great peace came over her when she made her profession on September 8, 1890. It was the reading of St. John of the Cross, an unusual choice at the time, which brought her relief. In the “Spiritual Canticle” and the “Living Flame of Love,” she discovered “the true Saint of Love.”
This, she felt, was the path she was meant to follow. During a community retreat in October, 1891, a Franciscan, Father Alexis Prou, launched her on those “waves of confidence and love,” on which she had previously been afraid to venture.
The harsh winter of 1890-1891 and a severe influenza epidemic killed three of the sisters, as well as Mother Geneviere, the Lisieux Carmel’s founder and “Saint”. Therese was spared, and her true energy and strength began to show themselves. Therese was delighted when her sister, Agnes of Jesus (Pauline) was elected prioress in succession to Mother Marie de Gonzague in February of 1893.
Pauline asked Therese to write verses and theatrical entertainment for liturgical and community festivals. Included were two plays about Saint Joan of Arc, “her beloved sister”, which she performed herself with great feeling and conviction. When Celine joined Therese at Lisieux Carmel in September of 1894, she brought her camera. Through this, they were able to enliven their recreation periods, and leave Therese’s picture to posterity.
Therese develops her “Little Way”
Therese was aware of her littleness. “It is impossible for me to grow up, so I must bear with myself such as I am with all my imperfections. But I want to seek out a means of going to heaven by a little way, a way that is very straight, very short and totally new.”
Therese went on to describe the elevator in the home of a rich person. And she continued: “I wanted to find an elevator which would raise me to Jesus, for I am too small to climb the rough stairway of perfection. I searched then in the Scriptures for some sign of this elevator, the object of my desires and I read these words coming from the mouth of Eternal Wisdom: ‘Whoever is a little one let him come to me.’ The elevator which must raise me to heaven is your arms, O Jesus, and for this I have no need to grow up, but rather I have to remain little and become this more and more,” And so she abandoned herself to Jesus and her life became a continual acceptance of the will of the Lord.
The Lord, it seems, did not demand great things of her. But Therese felt incapable of the tiniest charity, the smallest expression of concern and patience and understanding. So she surrendered her life to Christ with the hope that he would act through her. She again mirrored perfectly the words of St. Paul, “I can do all things in him who strengthens me.” “All things” consisted of almost everything she was called upon to do in the daily grind of life.
Life in the Carmel had its problems too: the clashes of communal life, the cold, the new diet and the difficulties of prayer (two hours’ prayer and four and a half hours of liturgy). One day, she leaned over the wash pool with a group of Sisters, laundering handkerchiefs.
One of the Sisters splashed the hot, dirty water into Therese’s face, not once, not twice, but continually. Remember the terrible temper that Therese had? She was near to throwing one of her best tantrums, but said nothing! Christ helped her to accept this lack of consideration on the part of her fellow Sister, and she found a certain peace.
Again, in the daily grind of convent life, she was moved by her youthful idealism to help Sister St. Pierre, a crotchety, older nun who refused to let old age keep her from convent activities. Therese tried to help her along the corridors.
“You move too fast,” the old nun complained. Therese slowed down. “Well, come on,” Sister urged. “I don’t feel your hand. You have let go of me and I am going to fall.” And as a final judgment, old Sister St. Pierre declared: “I was right when I said you were too young to help me.” Therese took it all and managed to smile. This was her “little way.”
Another nun made strange, clacking noises in chapel. Therese did not say, but the good lady was probably either toying with her rosary or was afflicted by ill-fitting dentures.
The clacking sound really got to Therese. It ground into her brain. Terrible-tempered Therese was pouring sweat in frustration. She tried to shut her ears, but was unsuccessful. Then, as an example of her ‘little ways’, she made a concert out of the clacking and offered it as a prayer to Jesus. “I assure you,” she dryly remarked, “that was no prayer of Quiet.”
Therese, the great mystic, fell asleep frequently at prayer. She was embarrassed by her inability to remain awake during her hours in chapel with the religious community. Finally, in perhaps her most charming and accurate characterization of the “little way,” she noted that, just as parents love their children as much while asleep as awake, so God loved her even though she often slept during the time for prayers.
To learn more about Therese’s life at Lisieux Carmel, visit this site (written in French with an English tranlastion) Archives of the Carmel of Lisieux.
Her Illness, Death, and Sainthood
In the Infirmary
St. Therese had her first evidence of tuberculosis, the illness that would eventually end her life, in April 1896. By the following April she was gravely ill. Confined to the infirmary at Carmel, she spent her time, at the request of her Prioress Mother Marie de Gonzague, writing out her life story. This manuscript eventually became part of her book, “Story of a Soul” (L’histoire d’un ame).
Death and Sainthood
It became apparent in the summer of 1897 that Therese would not rally from her illness and she received Extreme Unction in July. Therese passed at 7:20 PM on September 30, 1897 at age 24. She died believing that her life was really just beginning for God, promising to spend her heaven doing good on earth. Her final words were, “Oh, my God, I love you!”
Within months, the Carmelites at Lisieux began to receive reports of “favors and graces” attributed to Therese. “Story of a Soul” had been published in October 1898 and pilgrims began to visit her gravesite at Carmel.
The cause for beatification and canonization grew at the beginning of the twentieth century. Thousands of letters poured into the Carmel monastery in Lisieux. Her canonization took place on May 17, 1925 at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome with 500,000 crowding St. Peter’s Square.
In 1997, St. Therese was declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope John Paul II, making her the second Carmelite nun to receive that distinction after St. Teresa of Avila. Pope John Paul II stated:
Therese of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face is the youngest of all the “Doctors of the Church”, but her ardent spiritual journey shows such maturity, and the insights of faith expressed in her writings are so vast and profound that they deserve a place among the great spiritual masters.
St. Therese’s promised “Shower of Roses” began at her death and has become a torrent in the Church ever since.
Important Dates in St. Therese's Life
- January 2, 1873 – St. Therese’s Birthday
- January 4, 1873 – Baptism
- August 28, 1877 – Death of her Mother, Zelie Guerin
- October 2, 1882 – Pauline, her sister, enters Carmel
- May 13, 1883 – Our Lady’s Smile; Therese Healing
- May 8, 1884 – First Communion
- June 14, 1884 – Confirmation
- December 25, 1886 – Christmas Conversion
- November 20, 1887 – Audience with Pope Leo XIII
- April 9, 1888 – Entry into Carmel
- January 10, 1889 – Therese takes the habit
- September 8, 1890 – Profession of Vows
- July 29, 1894 – Death of her Father, Louis Martin
- July 8, 1897 – Therese enters the infirmary
- September 30, 1897 – Her Death, Entry into Heaven
- September 30, 1898 – Her autobiography “Story of a Soul” is published
- June 10, 1914 – Cause of Beatification Introduced at Rome
- April 29, 1923 – Beatification
- May 17, 1925 – Canonization
- October 19, 1997 – Declared Doctor of the Church