By John P. Walsh
October 1 is the feast day of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux (French, 1873-1897), one of only four women “doctors” in the Roman Catholic Church, and popularly known as The Little Flower of Jesus. Her religious name is Thérèse of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face and, with St. Francis of Assisi, she is one of today’s most popular saints. For a young Norman woman who died at 24 years old in an obscure convent in northern France that is a surprisingly solid list of titles and accolades. Yet when she died on September 30, 1897, the Carmelite nuns in her community at the Carmel in Lisieux didn’t think they had any accomplishments to cite for her obituary. Her sister Céline (1869-1959), a nun in the same convent as Thérèse, observed: “In general, even in the last years, she continued to lead a hidden life, the sublimity of which was known more to God than to the Sistersaround her.”1
Born Marie-Françoise-Thérèse Martin in 1873, she was the youngest of five sisters and lively and precocious. She lost her mother Zélie Martin (née Guérin, 1831-1877) to breast cancer as a four-year-old and the decade that followed – according to Thérèse’s journal (The Story of a Soul, begun in 1895) she faced the most “distressing” years of her life.2 Thérèse’s mother was the breadwinner in the Martin house and after she was gone Thérèse naturally turned for nurturing to her father Louis (1823-1894) and four older sisters, especially the second eldest, Pauline. For the rest of the 1870s and into the 1880s Thérèse was the high-spirited baby sister in a family home called Les Buissonnets in the French town of Lisieux.
As three of Thérèse’s sisters left the family homestead to enter convents – two of them to a Carmelite convent (“Carmel”) in Lisieux and another later to a Visitation convent in Caen – it became the youngest sisters, Céline and Thérèse, who remained at home with their father. Although Louis adored Thérèse and called her his “little flower,” Thérèse was often headstrong and obstinate and considered it a big favor that she do household chores. Soon the young child began to have panic attacks. Though intelligent and educated, at ten years old Thérèse believed a statue of the Blessed Virgin in her bedroom that her late mother had given to her had smiled at her. While unusual, from that point forward, the girl’s nerves calmed. Yet these early tantrums left their mark on her reputation. These, along with some of her later writings in journals, letters, and poems, left the future saint a prey for others in her lifetime and after her death to be talked of as a person whose spirit was “immature” and “sentimental,” even “neurotic.”3 Doubtless some of Thérèse’s thoughts sound naïve yet she writes profoundly: “At times when I am reading certain spiritual treatises in which perfection is shown through a thousand obstacles…my poor little mind quickly tires; I close the learned book that is breaking my head and drying up my heart and I take up Holy Scripture. Then all seems luminous to me; a single word uncovers for my soul infinite horizons, perfection seems simple to me, I see it is sufficient to recognize one’s nothingness and to abandon oneself as a child into God’s arms.”4
On April 9, 1888, a 15-year-old Thérèse entered the Carmel de Lisieux on Rue du Carmel, less than a one-half mile walk from Les Buissonnets. Younger than a typical postulant, exceptions had to be made. She received the habit after some delay (mostly because of her father’s declining health) in January 1890. Although her profession was also postponed, Thérèse’s spiritual life was deepening through her reading of another Carmelite, St. John of the Cross (1542-1591). In due time, despite difficulty in prayer and doubts about becoming a nun, Thérèse received the black veil in September 1890. In early 1891 an 18-year-old Thérèse was made a sacristan’s aide, a duty she carried into 1892 as her father lay slowly dying. During this time her reading and prayer transitioned to the Gospels and she began to write poems for which she had talent. Founded in 1838 as a “progressive” convent so that by the 1890’s the nuns were allowed to practice photography within its walls, the Carmel was also a working-class foundation comprised of daughters of shop-keepers and craftspeople brought up to expect a day’s work for a day’s wage. When Thérèse’s favorite sister Pauline was elected prioress in early 1893, Thérèse was appointed novice master (and remained a novice herself) and embarked on her second artistic avocation of picture painting. Scheduled to graduate from the novitiate in September 1893 it was postponed in part due to convent politics and the duty of doorkeeper’s aide was added to Thérèse’s tasks. In the spring of 1894 Thérèse began to experience chest pains and a hoarse throat that grew worse by summer. After her father died in July and Céline entered the Carmel six weeks later, Thérèse began to seriously formulate her “little way” of seeking holiness of life based on scripture passages and before the year was out Pauline (Mother Agnes Of Jesus) ordered her to begin to record her life story in a journal (The Story of a Soul) that the novice would compose in segments in her free time over the next two and one-half years left to her. Early in 1895 Thérèse voiced the first prediction of her death as her prayer life was working out an idea for what she would dedicate her life to. It would be a life with God whom she termed Merciful Love. She confided these developments to Céline so that by summer 1895 Thérèse could recommend the same devotion to more nuns in the community. Throughout the rest of that year Thérèse continued to compose poems (and give them as gifts on special occasions), write plays and paint pictures. Her spirit was characterized by humility. Thérèse writes: “How shall she prove her love since love is proved by works? Well, the little child will strew flowers, she will perfume the royal throne with their sweet scents, and she will sing in her silvery tones the canticle of Love.”5 (the emphases are Thérèse’s).
Thérèse at 13 years old taken in February 1886. At Christmas 1886 she made her first holy communion and immediately her nervous childhood sensitivity ceased. About these events in December 1886 she later wrote: “I felt love enter my soul, and the need to forget myself — and since then I have been happy.”
A pretty and well-dressed Thérèse at 15 years old in a photograph taken in October 1887. At this time Thérèse was seeking permission from the bishop at Bayeux to enter the convent of Carmel. She finally entered on April 9, 1888.
Thérèse as a novice in Carmel in a detail of a photograph taken in January 1889. She was 16 years old and in the convent nine months.
Thérèse (right) was one of five Martin sisters who became religious nuns. This photograph is taken by Céline in late 1894 or early 1895.
In these photographs taken by Céline between January 21st and March 25th, 1895 in the convent courtyard Thérèse is dressed as Joan of Arc. It was for a part she played in her own play called “Joan of Arc Accomplishing Her Mission.” Joan of Arc, patroness of France, would be canonized on May 16, 1920.
Close up of a photograph taken by Céline of Thérèse dressed as Joan of Arc in 1895.
Community of 23 Carmelites in a photograph taken by Céline on Easter Monday, April 15th, 1895. First row left to right: Geneviève of the Holy Face (Céline). Second row left to right: Mother Agnès of Jesus (Pauline) and Thérèse of the Child Jesus.
Photograph taken by Céline in early-mid November 1896 of her sisters and cousin showing the work of the sacristan. Thérèse stands at right.
The second pose of three posed photographs taken by Céline in the sacristy courtyard on June 7th, 1897. Thérèse was just beginning to complete the last section of A Story of a Soul.
Circumstances, however, were growing more difficult for Thérèse. In 1896 a new prioress of Carmel confirmed Thérèse’s role in the novitiate where she could continue to teach her “little way” and work in the sacristy and the laundry room. In addition to finding it difficult to pray, in April 1896 she began to spit blood, a sure sign of the seriousness of her illness. The last eighteen months of her life proved a dark period for the vivacious five-foot three-inch Norman young woman. Her physical pain was often unrelenting and any dreams she had of becoming a foreign missionary to Vietnam were abandoned. However, the priest in charge of foreign missions, Father Adolphe Roulland (1870–1934) whom she met in July 1896 as he was on his way to China, asked her to be a “spiritual sister” to the mission priests. This charge meant not merely to pray for the priests but in her correspondence with them to “console and warn, encourage and praise, answer questions, offer corroboration, and instruct them in the meaning of her little way.”6
In a letter from Thérèse to Fr. Roulland she wrote: “Reverend Father… I feel very unworthy to be associated in a special way with one of the missionaries of our adorable Jesus, but since obedience entrusts me with this sweet task, I am assured my heavenly Spouse will make up for my feeble merits (upon which I in no way rely), and that He will listen to the desires of my soul by rendering fruitful your apostolate. I shall be truly happy to work with you for the salvation of souls. It is for this purpose I became a Carmelite nun; being unable to be an active missionary, I wanted to be one through love and penance just like Saint Teresa, my seraphic Mother….I beg you, Reverend Father, ask for me from Jesus, on the day He deigns for the first time to descend from heaven at your voice, ask Him to set me on fire with His Love so that I may enkindle it in hearts. For a long time I wanted to know an Apostle who would pronounce my name at the holy altar on the day of his first Mass….I wanted to prepare for him the sacred linens and the white host destined to veil the King of heaven…The God of Goodness has willed to realize my dream and to show me once again how pleased He is to grant the desires of souls who love Him alone.”7
The year 1897 was defined by Thérèse’s successive physical decline from tuberculosis as well as a personal joy expressed in her conversation and poems. It was on the feast day of St. Joseph, March 19, 1897, during a personal novena to St. Francis Xavier (1506-1552), that Thérèse asked St. Joseph to obtain from God the favor of “spending her heaven doing good on earth.” She also asked St. Francis Xavier for the same intercession.8
By April 1897 she was gravely ill and in May was relieved of all work duties and community prayer. She continued to write in her journal but left it unfinished, too weak to write. In August her suffering was so great she admitted to the temptation of suicide. After August 19 she was simply too physically weak to even any longer ingest the communion wafer and, on September 30, 1897, died in the convent infirmary. Thérèse was 24 years old. In her last hours she said: “Oh! It is pure suffering because there are no consolations. No, not one! O my God…Good Blessed Virgin, come to my aid! My God…have pity on me! I can’t take it anymore! I can’t take it anymore!…I am reduced…No, I would never have believed one could suffer so much…never! never!…I no longer believe in death for me…I believe in suffering…O I love Him. My God I love you…”9 These last words of the dying nun were reported by more than one witness.
At the centenary of her death in 1997, St. Pope John Paul II (1920-2005) made Thérèse a “Doctor of the Church,” one of only thirty-three such species. By elevating Thérèse’s simple example of love, the Polish pope, himself called out from behind an Iron Curtain and who lived to see it fall, clarified what may constitute a Church Doctor’s character and purpose. St. Thérèse of Lisieux was beatified on April 29, 1923 and canonized on May 17, 1925 and is co-patron saint of church missions with St. Francis Xavier and co-patron saint of France with St. Jeanne d’Arc (1412-1431). She is also patron saint of AIDS sufferers, pilots, florists, bodily ills (especially tuberculosis), and loss of parents.
Saint Thérèse of Lisieux’s obituary was printed in “Le Normand.” An English translation of it reads: “It is with a spirited feeling of sadness that we learned Thursday evening of the death at the Monastery of Our Lady of Mount Carmel of a young person who gave the most beautiful years of youth to a life of prayer and sacrifice. Miss Marie-Francoise-Thérèse Martin, renounced the world at fifteen years of age and consecrated herself to God as Sister Thérèse of the Child Jesus. She departed after ten years of angelic life in the shadow of the cloister, and we have sweet confidence that death which put an end to long and cruel sufferings has come to take this youth in her bloom and already placed on her head the immortal crown, the goal of all our earthly aspirations. The funeral will be celebrated Monday morning at 9 o’clock in the Carmel chapel. Le Normand offers to the family of Sister Thérèse of the Child Jesus and to the Prioress and all the Carmelite sisters the tribute of its respectful condolences.”
- St. Thérèse of Lisieux: her last conversations, translated by John Clarke O.C.D., ICS Publications, Institute of Carmelite Studies, Washington, D.C., 1977, pp. 18-19. Her complete obituary printed in Le Normand reads: “It is with a spirited feeling of sadness that we learned Thursday evening of the death at the Monastery of Our Lady of Mount Carmel of a young person who gave the most beautiful years of youth to a life of prayer and sacrifice. Miss Marie-Francoise-Thérèse Martin, renounced the world at fifteen years of age and consecrated herself to God as Sister Thérèse of the Child Jesus. She departed after ten years of angelic life in the shadow of the cloister, and we have sweet confidence that death which put an end to long and cruel sufferings has come to take this youth in her bloom and already placed on her head the immortal crown, the goal of all our earthly aspirations. The funeral will be celebrated Monday morning at 9 o’clock in the Carmel chapel. Le Normand offers to the family of Sister Thérèse of the Child Jesus and to the Prioress and all the Carmelite sisters the tribute of its respectful condolences.”
- see Story of a Soul: the Autobiography of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, translated by John Clarke O.C.D., ICS Publications, Institute of Carmelite Studies, Washington, D.C., 1996, pp. 51-67.
- The Hidden Face: A Study of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Ida Friederike Görres, London, 2003, p. 83.
- Letter from Thérèse to Father Roulland, LT 226, dated May 9, 1897, Letters of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Volume II, translated by John Clarke O.C.D., ICS Publications, Institute of Carmelite Studies, Washington, D.C., 1974, p. 1094.
- Story of a Soul, p. 196. For this paragraph’s chronology see Letters of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Volume II, 1297-1329.
- Görres, p.189.
- Letter from Thérèse to Father Roulland, LT 189, dated June 23, 1896, Letters of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Volume II, translated by John Clarke O.C.D., ICS Publications, Institute of Carmelite Studies, Washington, D.C., 1974, pp. 956-957.
- see footnote 11 in Letters of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Volume II, p. 1074.
- Last conversations, pp. 204-205; 230; 243.
Story of a Soul: the Autobiography of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, translated by John Clarke O.C.D., ICS Publications, Institute of Carmelite Studies, Washington, D.C., 1996;
Light of the Night: The Last Eighteen Months in the Life of Thérèse of Lisieux, Jean-François Six, University of Notre Dame Press, South Bend, Indiana, 1996;
St. Thérèse of Lisieux: her last conversations, translated by John Clarke O.C.D., ICS Publications, Institute of Carmelite Studies, Washington, D.C., 1977;
Letters of St. Thérèse of Lisieux,Volumes I and II, translated by John Clarke O.C.D., ICS Publications, Institute of Carmelite Studies, Washington, D.C., 1974;
The Hidden Face: A Study of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Ida Friederike Görres, London, 2003;