Leonie and her family or the grace of the last place

Conference given by Dr Anne-Marie Pelletier


Professor in College des Bernardins of Paris and the first woman to win the Ratzinger Prize  (2014)

Thursday, September 30th 1999, in the Symposium Lisieux 1999: Therese and her family, Therese and family today. 


Trying to conjure up a picture of Leonie, Sr Frances-Therese of the Visitation, the forgotten one, the least known of the Martin sisters, has its dangers. For how can one speak of Leonie without offending her, without going against her firm determination to remain hidden, unknown, since merely by speaking of her, even if only to show how self-effacing she was, still means drawing attention to her. The only possible excuse for doing so is that by trying to remember what she was like we are, in the final analysis, seeing God at work there. Let us be clear then that it is to tell of the wonderful works of God that we are now taking a look at Leonie. We are here doing something about which she herself would not have objected to, for amid all the excitement when depositions for her sister’s Cause were being made, she exclaimed “This is all for God’s glory. That’s what matters.”This also gives us a good opportunity to remind ourselves that everything we marvel at in the lives of saints only has meaning and value if we don’t stop there but move on to the source of holiness, if we are moved to make acts of thanksgiving. Otherwise we are just celebrating our own humanity in the persons of some individuals more gifted or more generous than others. However, holiness is not about human talents. It is about the power of God at work in the lives of men and women who really do want to be open to Him, who, by accepting their poverty, are able to welcome Him into their lives. A few biographical details and then we will concentrate on how Leonie, the first disciple of her sister Therese, lived the “little way” with a radicality embracing all the very real poverty which, in various ways, was at the root of her very existence. Then taking another look at the family all together, we shall find – with Leonie as a good witness – so much consonance of faith and charity in the Martin family, that it would be impossible not to see God at work there.  Leonie-solo



Leonie, who is she?

She was born in Alencon on the 3rd of June 1863, the third of the Martin daughters, coming after Marie (l860) and Pauline (1861). Later there is Helene, only five when she dies, then two boys, Joseph and Jean-Baptiste, who also die in infancy, then Celine born in 1869, with little Melanie-Therese in 1870 living only 2 months, and finally in 1873 Therese. So when Madame Martin dies in 1877, Leonie, the third of three girls, finds herself in the unenviable position between the two big ones Marie and Pauline and the two little ones Celine and Therese. When the latter two are “adopted” by the two elder sisters, Leonie is marginalized.

We know quite a lot about Leonie’s childhood and teenage years from Madame Martin’s letters, especially as the third of the Martin daughters is for many years a great worry mainly to her mother, but actually to both her parents.(cf. March 14th 1875 “...this child is one of my great worries”). She is never strong. When she is still only a few months old Monsieur Martin goes on a pilgrimage to Sees to pray for his little daughter’s recovery. But there is still cause for concern; “Little Leonie isn’t getting strong,” (Jan.5th 1864), “Little Leonie isn’t growing well; she doesn’t seem to want to start walking. She is as tiny and skinny as can be even though there is nothing particularly wrong with her; she is just very weak and very small”. She has one illness after another (measles with the convulsions mentioned in a letter of May 16th 1864; purulent eczema, for which Zelie seeks help from her brother the pharmacist, on March 5th 1865; this is something from which Leonie will suffer all her life; eye problems from the age of two). At her wit's end, Zelie asks her sister, Marie-Dosithee, a Visitation nun in Le Mans, to make a novena for the child. Leonie’s physical and intellectual development is going to be slow. In October 1869, when the child is six, Zelie writes to her sister-in-law, “She is rather slow to take things in, but she has always been delicate and I hope she will develop later on.”

Even apart from these health problems she has, according to the family, an unstable and irritable character. At home there are difficulties when “poor Leonie”, as they call her, will not do as she is told, flies into a rage, is disobedient. This becomes more evident when Leonie is sent, like her sisters, to boarding school at Mans. She is admitted several times and several times sent away; the nuns find her behaviour and intellectual slowness hard to cope with. Sister Marie-Dosithee, her aunt, speaks of being left with “ this terrible child..” Zelie writes in despair to her sister-in-law: “My only hope was that my sister would be able to handle this child… soon as she is with others she loses all control and gets completely out of hand”(CF 117).  In July 1872 she writes again to her brother: “I don’t know what to make of her; I doubt whether anyone could no matter how clever they were; still I hope that there is good seed which will bear fruit one day” (CF 81). Then a letter of July 1873 says; “When asked what she wants to do when she is grown up, Leonie says: “I’m going to be a nun at the Visitation, with my auntie.” Leonie was at that time just ten years old. We learn from other letters that “Leonie is good hearted.” July 11th 1875)

In a letter of September 7th 1875 she is said to have “a will of iron, when she has set her mind on something nothing can stop her.” Zelie continues: “It is true that she isn’t very pious and only says her prayers when she can’t get out of it”. But then she adds that Leonie will say to her: “Mamma, talk to me about Jesus.” Underneath the little rebel is not really so bad.”

However it is not only Leonie’s childhood that is “difficult” (the heading of the first chapter of Father Piat’s book). She is no different in later life, so that the word “difficult”recurs in the sub-title of the biography by Marie Baudouin-Croix (Leonie Martin: A Difficult Life).

Leonie’s story includes also the years when she keeps trying to enter religious life; she desperately wants this and yet she just cannot make it. In July 1886 she enters the Poor Clares at Alencon, leaving in December of the same year. In July 1887 she enters the convent of the Visitation at Caen leaving in January 1888. Then in June 1893 she makes a further attempt at the Visitation convent in Caen, receives the habit in April 1894 and leaves in January 1895. It is only in 1899, long after Zelie’s agonizing death in 1877 and two years after the death of Therese, that she enters again, this time for good.

Leonie, a disappointment

There is no getting away from the fact that for her mother Leonie is difficult, discouraging, a disappointment. Zelie says as much in her simple, passionate letters, those of a woman living of the end of the 19th century, incredibly busy, combining professional activities, which take up so much of her time - her lace making business - with all the concerns of family life, always one or other of them being ill, added to which she has to endure a succession of bereavements. All these years, Zelie devotes herself to her children for they give her both strength and joy. But problems with Leonie, always in one way or another retarded, cause her a lot of suffering.Zelie can’t help making comparisons. So for example, Leonie is much slower to start walking than were her elder sisters. (March 11th 1864: “…little Leonie is more than 9 months old and can hardly take her weight on her legs as well as Marie did at 3 months”. Or again, “she isn’t as attractive as little Helene: she is “not so pretty but I love her just as much as the others, but she won’t be as much of a credit to me.” That Leonie is a slow learner is all the more noticeable as her sisters are brilliant. (“Marie is an excellent pupil; Pauline can learn whatever she wants and and works very hard” Jan. 6, 1872).

It is true that like her sister, Zelie will never give up on her daughter. “The more I find her difficult, the more convinced I am that God will not leave her so. I shall pray so hard that He will have to give in”, she writes on June 1st 1874. Or again, “As for Leonie, only the Lord can change her and I am convinced that He will.”(Dec. 17th 1876).

As a matter of fact Sr Marie Dosithee had very early on, expressed her confidence in Leonie:

“ sister told me she was convinced that Leonie would be a saint” writes Zelie to her sister-in-law, July 24th 1874. But Zelie is only forty-six when she dies and Leonie only fourteen.Her great sorrow was to leave behind this daughter who still needed her so much. Speaking of the cure for which she had prayed so hard, she writes on June 25th 1877: “It isn’t that I ask Him to take my illness completely away, but just to give me a few more years to have time to bring up my children, especially poor Leonie who really does need me; I am so sorry for her.” As a child, Leonie was then, in the eyes of her family, very difficult. That is how, as a young girl, Leonie will be remembered in the family, and that means by the Guerins as well.

A Life of Humiliations

But suppose we now try to see things from Leonie’s point of view? For a start it is clear that she has taken on, has deeply interiorised their harsh judgement of her, confirming by her attitude what is said of her. No doubt her childhood and adolescent behaviour did make her unbearable. Modern psychology is well aware of that scenario. We know that teenage rebellion is often the expression of suffering, a way of compensating for distress. We understand the vicious circle; a child will make itself unbearable just to attract attention when feeling neglected; and his aggression makes those to whom he is looking for love all the more exasperated with him. There is no doubt at all that Leonie’s childhood was sad and full of humiliations, very much so. There are various reasons for this, sometimes it just happens and even on other occasions it is certainly not done intentionally.At fourteen she has to cope with the death of her mother. It has to be said that the way things turn out she is left in isolation between her two elder sisters and the two younger ones. Visitors to les Buissonets are struck by the way the rooms are allotted: Leonie's room is in a narrow passage between two rooms, Marie and Pauline’s on one side and Celine and Therese’s on the other.

Here we see something of Leonie’s isolation which isn’t just one of space. Before her mother’s death there had been the case of a young maid called Louise who, unbeknown to Madame Martin, had bossed and bullied Leonie. There had been her failures too at the boarding school at Mans. She lives under this unceasing look of pity, given in a more or less reproving manner. “Poor Leonie” is how she is generally referred to. Such remarks are hard to bear even if they are not meant to be hurtful. Later on when her sisters and her cousin Marie Guerin enter Lisieux Carmel, Leonie is left longing for religious life but unable to persevere. It is hard for us to imagine what she must have felt like at that time. Religious life is not for her, just when Therese, Celine and Marie Guerin are making their profession. She, who surprised her sister Marie by stating that she wanted to be “a true religious”, and that on a day when, as Zelie relates, “she couldn’t have been behaving more badly” – she comes up against her limitations and sometimes the scepticism of those around her. How is this fragile girl going to gain sufficient confidence to be able to get rid of her rebellious attitudes? Zelie assures us that she is very strong-willed. The fact that she keeps entering and leaving religion -which is not unrelated to the very harsh observances there and her health problems – makes it look as if she has no staying power, is indecisive.

Again Leonie has to face humiliations, later on too and all through her life. It is not that the Visitation sisters set out to humiliate her. It is just that she is slow, clumsily meticulous, as for example when she keeps putting things away at the wrong time if they make the place look untidy.. She is never put in charge of an office, but is always just an assistant. We get a glimpse of what all this means to her and the suffering she undergoes in these humiliations, which are brought about by circumstances rather than from ill-will or dislike. So speaking of her first communion she has this to say: “It was not the finest day of my life, because my childhood and teenage years were ones of suffering and bitter trials.”In the same way, during the years she spends at la Musse, with the Guerins, caught up in the worldly social life she hates, while her sisters are in Carmel, she speaks of her sadness: ……I was always so sad in the depths of my being, something which has still not completely left me. Even though I feel that I am for the time being where God wants me to be, my suffering is deep, my exile seems long. Jesus alone knows what it costs me. This small admission gives us a glimpse into the abyss. Later on she will confide: “ I felt my isolation in my heart, in everything. I always have the same difficulties, boredom, weariness with everything, but I feel that all these anguishes are a purification, that God fortunately is at work and I thank Him for everything.”

So it is that her whole life long she will be hampered by these weaknesses, not living up to what is expected of her, with the blunders others make in her regard. One of the most pathetic of these is certainly when his Excellency Pican, bishop of Bayeux and Lisieux, in his homily at the blessing of the basilica in 1937, after speaking highly of Therese, brings in her three Carmelite sisters but completely forgets to mention Leonie, the Visitation sister whom he had actually met in Caen. It is as if she does not exist.

It so happens that for the occasion the Visitation sisters have been lent a radio. Leonie hears the homily.It is only a small matter and yet very significant. Even though she has got used to being in the last place, has even chosen to remain there, here it is a question of having no place at all. But Leonie’s only reaction is “ Mother Agnes will be more upset than I am.”

Nevertheless an invaluable Witness

A word of explanation is needed before we can show how Leonie manages to live, in God’s presence, this disgraced, humiliated condition.

Leonie is a disappointment for the Martin family, “a cuckoo in the nest” as Pauline put it one day. Yet we must insist that she did not spoil the family portrait. On the contrary she brings to it something really essential, a credibility, without which the Martin family, even Therese’s sanctity, would perhaps not have been so remarkable. For there is a danger that we might think of the Martin family as just a wonderful family where persons gifted for the Christian life, drawn together and, in a somewhat rarefied atmosphere, are living a holiness which takes no account of the weaknesses of ordinary Christians. But Christian life is not an athletic performance! Genuine Christian life is always about a radical poverty offered up to God and transfigured by Him. So it is well to recognize in the Martins the experience of family life which always carries with it, in one form or another, the experience of disappointment. The other person is a disappointment perhaps simply for being as he is and not as we would like him to be. Zelie’s correspondence gives us an astonishing avowal of this. When Sister Marie-Dosithee is dying Zelie gives her requests for the Virgin Mary. She tells her sister-in-law about them. “Here are the errands I gave my sister to do in Heaven. I said to her: As soon as you are in paradise go find Our Lady and say to her: “My dear Mother, you played quite a trick on my sister when you sent her poor Leonie. That wasn’t the kind of child she asked you for; you must put it right.”(8-1-1877)

That isn’t the kind of child she asked you for….It is not a bad thing that we see, in this family, love of God and neighbour up against such disappointments, which are all part of life itself. It is good too to see holiness attained through weakness, our weakness, and not coming simply with no problems out of an exceptional background. Hans Urs von Balthasar has underlined the indiscretion of Pere Pichon, Therese’s confessor, when he assured her that before she entered Carmel, she had never committed a mortal sin. He thinks that such words brought Therese to the brink of dangerous illusions. In the same way how can we forget that the sure guarantee of credibility in Therese’s experience is her final conflict with despair, when she knows what it is to be tempted by the thought of annihilation and suicide, when she thus shares, body and soul, in the spiritual combat of quite a few of her contemporaries. Likewise we can believe that the ‘little way’ of Therese is verified, first of all, very precisely, when lived by Leonie, Therese’s sister, who is engulfed in the very real poverty we have just been looking at. This fundamental poverty in a way, is all the more compelling when Leonie writes: ”O my God, you haven’t put much in my life to boast about”.


THE “ LITTLE WAY” - tested by Leonie’s weakness


The snare of jealousy foiled

We cannot help acknowledging that Leonie’s life is mainly characterised as that of someone who fails just where others succeed, even in the spiritual life. There is in effect a kind of fundamental inequality between Leonie and her sisters, all the more noticeable as the latter are lively, gifted, precocious (as for example Therese being made at the age of twenty, novice mistress, in all but name, in her monastery). Now experience tells us that there is potentially in this sort of disparity, inequality, a source of violence which can poison family life. In the Bible for example, we see how the rivalry between brothers is described there as one of the consequences of original sin. Just think of the story of how Cain kills Abel in Chapter 4 of Genesis. A very strange story with much left out . That is why, when reading it, we make an effort to fill it in somewhat, to add some details which render the drama described there less puzzling. Far from these subterfuges, E. Danielou asserts the contrary: Abel is not chosen because he is just. He is just because he is chosen. Therein lies the very mystery of grace. The election of Abel does not mean that Cain is rejected……. Right from the beginning, the egalitarian principle is the great obstacle, impeding love in all its liberality coming into the world.”

   So when sinful man comes across the inequality of talents, the Bible warns us, he feels unable to quell feelings of resentment, of hatred rising in his heart, hate, which as the text tells us dramatically, carries in itself the seed of manslaughter. Now we dare to say there is everything in Leonie’s life, (“lame duck” in the midst of her gifted sisters, as we read somewhere,) that could make her rebellious, jealous, or simply just sadly resigned and resentfully turned in on herself. Yet Leonie isn’t like that. Against all odds that is not how she is. Never do we find in her letters the least sign of any jealousy, not even in the letters during the years 88-93 where she writes to Therese who is now in Carmel while she herself has just left the Visitation for the second time. There we can surely see a clear sign of the power of God at work in the Martin family. There we find presence of God not allowing these hurts to become poisonous or mortally wounding. He cures the wounds in the hearts of this family. With Therese we can express all this positively; this cure in Leonie is bound up with her practice of the “little way”. God’s cure for Leonie’s wounds is to engage her in the way of humility and love. He gives her a burning desire and taste for the “little way”. He makes Leonie’s life an outstanding illustration of this “little way”.

Different from Therese

Before looking at how Leonie sets out on this road, let us begin by emphasizing that Therese and Leonie set out from completely different standpoints. On the one hand we read that Therese writes to Mother Marie Gonzague “..the Almighty has done great things in the soul of the child of his holy Mother, and the greatest is to have shown her her littleness, her powerlessness.( Ms C4} For we must not forget that Therese has to struggle not to succumb to all the admiration which is forever extolling all her virtues (cf.”I told her that she must have had to work hard to reach the degree of perfection we saw in her. She replied in a vague kind of way: “Oh its not that.You are very little; remember that and when one is very little, one doesn’t have beautiful." thoughts.  Last conversations with Celine 3-8-1897.

Leonie, on the other hand, straightway is very aware of her wretchedness. She meets it in her life’s journey, the awareness of her littleness, of her “nothingness” as she openly admits, and in a way which is moreover psychologically dangerous. She meets it in a most concrete manner, with the double conviction that she is a disgrace physically and has an impossible temperament: “..the poor thing even as a child feels inferior to you all in every way “ wrote Zelie to one of her daughters. Leonie lives with an overwhelming consciousness of her poverty, to such a degree that she has a poor self-image to the end of her life, justifying the remonstrances of her sisters who, to the very end of her life, have to keep telling her that she is not the “little ass” of Jesus but “His beloved spouse”, or to encourage her as Pauline does;” Be a saint, but not, I beg you, a timid saint. Go to Jesus in trust and love ; don’t weep over the imperfections you will have all your life, that doesn’t do any good at all, it is just a waste of time”. (M.B.C. p.163)

Now self –contempt is not evangelical poverty. We are reminded of this in Bernanos’ ‘Diary of a country priest.’ “Self-hatred is easier than we think. But if all pride had died in us, the grace of all graces would be to have a humble love of oneself, as being just one of the suffering members of Christ.” So Leonie has to avoid the psychological snare of this self-hatred, not to be crushed by this negative image, not to become closed in on herself and worrying herself sick for being as she is. Another temptation to be avoided is that of putting all her strength into acquiring the virtues she lacks, as perhaps at first she thinks she will. At her clothing, in a letter to Celine, she refers to her obstinacy and pig-headedness and adds “I’ll get there in the end I hope”. Finally she has to let her inner wretchedness be converted so that her poverty emerges strengthened, and she arrives at the spiritual truth telling her that her strength can only be the strength of God at work in her, (“Without me you can do nothing”) and she consents to offer to God whatever He asks of her. Leonie’s story is, as Father Piat puts it, “ progress from self-contempt to self-forgetfulness”.

Thanks to the “little way”

What makes this conversion possible is certainly her precocious and tenacious desire for sanctity. Very early on, during the years when she is really unbearable, little Leonie declares she wants to be a saint. At ten she wants to be a Visitation sister like her aunt. (Zelie’s letter 29-11-1873). At fourteen she announces peremptorily to Marie that she wants to be “a true religious” (Zelie 21-1-1877). 

In no time she decides to be not just a Visitation sister but “a holy Visitation sister”. In the summer of l887, at the time of her first entering theVisitation, she writes to Therese and tells her, “ I’m going to confide to you one of my soul’s greatest desires ; I want to be intimately united with Jesus, for whoever has Jesus has everything, for he is the treasure of all treasures” (July 20, 1887).

It is for this – even though she knows that she has neither the talent nor the temperament for it – that she embarks on the “little way” of her sister Therese, which means that she accepts her weakness, her fragility, her wretchedness. In a very theresian way she reaches the understanding that all she lacks, everything she is reproached for not having, is no hindrance to the fulfilment of her inner desire, but is the very means by which God is drawing her to Himself. We recall that in Manuscript B, folio 5v°, we find “Jesus, I am too little to do great things and yet in my folly I dare to hope that your love will accept me as its victim”. Leonie’s journey is governed by this discovery (for psychologically we resist this way of thinking and all the spirituality of the time goes contrary to it), that God’s power is at work in the human heart in proportion to the poverty it is willing to offer Him. “It is my extreme wretchedness that gives me confidence” (M.B.C. p.168), we find in one of her last letters written in 1941. This definitive word at the end of her life, simply reaffirms in fact, forty years on, what is already in her mind when she makes her profession ; “O God, I trust you all the more just because I feel so small and wretched” (M.B.C. p.148).

For if Leonie’s journey is one of growing into maturity, this happens because of her faithfulness to intuitions she has from the start, which she holds on to in spite of all else.We must not forget that living in Therese’s company, then reading the Story of a Soul, both have a decided influence on Leonie’s journey, by strengthening, putting into words, deepening spiritual intuitions which she already has very early on in her heart. Just think for example of how she writes to Therese in 1896: “You darling, you are ready to go and meet the good Lord! You will surely get a fine welcome . But me, alas I shall arrive empty-handed, and yet, you know, I’m not afraid; do you understand me?  (July 1st, 1896).

Here we see the role played by the will in Leonie. She is a woman who sets her sights on the goal and keeps them there. All her life she shows the strong will which Madame Martin already noticed in the child. In this sense Leonie’s life is not one of resignation, that of someone who accepts misfortune with a good grace or, having no claim to greatness, sublimates mediocrity as Nietzche would have it. Leonie’s journey is not a suspect justification of morbid failure. Her whole aim in life, let it be stressed, is to be “a great saint”. In one of her last letters to Leonie, (LT-257, 17-7-1897), Therese reminds her of this using Leonie’s own words. There is in her own way “ the mad desire” we find in Therese. S o she struggles to remain genuinely humble, knowing that God will be her holiness, will accomplish in her the holiness she aspires to, far beyond anything she could achieve of herself, either by success or failure. For this to happen she has to gradually accept her poverty, root herself in her littleness, to choose it in fact and not simply accept it. When she writes to her uncle at the time of her profession, she speaks clearly of a resolution, a project she has in mind; “I am and will be little, oh yes, for Eternity, a very little Visitation sister”.

Her life is a living out of this project which she formulates in 1899, writing to her sisters just after her final entry into the Visitation. “I want both to grow and at the same time stay little”. She struggles day after day to achieve this, as when she very naturally dreams of having more important tasks than those allotted her. For she does not enjoy the lowly duties handed out to her. She admits that she aspires to something better. But then “when at times I find myself wishing for something else, quickly I plunge into the Will of God.” And there we have the key to Leonie’s life: “ The Will of God.” There indeed is the expression of a pure heart seeking God. It is also the expression of humility, which as we know, is not a denigration of our human condition, a denigration which would be actually an insult to the God Who created us and loves us, but it expresses a rooting in God. Of course words can be ambiguous, deceptive, but all the same when Leonie declares “I want to humble myself, not despise myself,” we know that is what she means. Leonie’s life is this search for love and humility which Therese has told her about in her last letters (M.B.C. p.162). Amidst all these battles, her concern is to “please Jesus” words we find often in Therese. It is to find Christ, to be where He is, that she will go on humbling herself right to the end. “When the soul sees the Lord, sees how gentle and humble He is, as Silouane staretz would say, she will never cease to desire and seek this unfathomable, unforgettable humility.”

So when Leonie seeks the last place, it is, says Therese, out of love for Christ, for His sake, because He is “the one thing necessary”: “You never minded always being the last, not having a grand clothing ceremony. All you wanted was Jesus and for Him you were willing to do without any other consolations” writes Therese in a letter where she tells of a conversation between herself and Leonie. C.G. p.748. Very important, for looking for the last place could be a subtle kind of self-seeking. The only justification for it is that the last place is the one Jesus chose for Himself, Jesus Whom Leonie yearns for, as we see in her correspondence which accords so well with the thoughts of Therese and the other Martin sisters. On July 1st 1896 she writes : “My dearest little sister, if only you knew how I’m always thinking of you and what sweet memories I have of you; they bring me closer to God and I can well understand your desire to go soon to see Him and to lose yourself in Him forever; I feel like you do.” C.G. p863 Let us make no mistake about it; it is not contempt for the present life which turns their hearts towards the life to come, but rather an intuition so full of desire for the splendours of the face to face with God that it makes the goods of this world pale into insignificance.

Such is Leonie’s path unfolding at the end of a long life, in a peace, the peace of God, so evident in the last photos taken of her. In her poverty this woman has passed beyond fear, knowing that God “is all love and mercy”, as her little sister Therese wrote in her last letter, to Abbe Belliere, dated the 25th of August 1897.

Therese, Leonie…

So there is a similarity in the way they express themselves and one in their lives too in spite of their differences. For with one as with the other, it is the same way, the same love, the same final abandonment, the same power of God lifting up the lowly: “The Lord has done great things for me……. He exalts the lowly” (Luke 1:49….52). So Therese writes     “ I want to be a saint but I am aware of my powerlessness, and so I ask you, O my God, to be yourself my holiness”. (Offering of myself as Victim to the merciful Love of God, June 9th 1895. And Leonie: “My God, my trust in you is all the greater as I feel myself to be so small, wretchedness itself.”

Therese again: “I am unable to be afraid of a God who made Himself so small for my sake….I love Him…for He is all love and compassion” (Last letter, to Abbe Belliere, 25th August 1897. And Leonie: “I am too little to be damned; little children are not damned. I count on falling into the arms of Jesus Who is all Love and Compassion; I am not afraid of Him.” (Letter to her Carmelite sisters, April 19th 1941).

In spite of their different destinies—one canonized and a doctor of the Church, the other well hidden in the Visitation Convent in Caen – they both have the same understanding of the grace of the hidden life.Therese writes about it to Celine on August 2nd 1893:

“To find something which is hidden, one must hide oneself, so our life must be a mystery, we have to be like Jesus Whose face was hidden.” ( LT2, V111,1897). Leonie lives this mystery in a very concrete and very radical way, in a life in which God has not given her anything to boast about. We know how as the years pass, she wishes more and more to be in the last place. Marie Baudouin-Croix recounts the story of a priest who comes one day to the Visitation convent in the hope of meeting Leonie. He comes across a sister who explains to him that it will be difficult if not impossible… Speaking later about his bad luck, he learns that it was actually Leonie he had met on his way.

Leonie will stay hidden even when people all over the world, during the first decades of the 20th Century are celebrating Therese and showing an interest in the Martin family . Also it is her sister Therese who helps us to understand precisely that what we are seeing here in Leonie is not just a matter of behaviour or psychological development, which would have been more or less natural to her, but an example of someone becoming conformed to Christ, to Him who…”though He was divine, did not cling to His equality with God……….. but became as men are,” as we read in the Letter to the Philippians, or again in the prophecy of Isaiah (Is 52-53)on which Therese had meditated with such rapt attention.

Family Communion – a look forward

As we come to the end of this portrait of Leonie, let us take another look at the Martins as a family where, together, the members influencing (?)one another, they can be seen as an outstanding place of communion, a little domestic Church, as the Fathers used to say. We know the story of the Martin family, their mutual correspondence witnessing to the strong bond between parents and children, and also, after Zelie’s death, between uncle, aunt and children, then between the five Martin sisters. Nevertheless it is especially the bonds uniting Therese with Marie, Pauline and Celine that we hear about. Very often Leonie doesn’t figure there at all. Still there is a shared experience of Therese and Leonie who live closely together. Leonie did live with Therese and although the latter was ten years her junior, she was a real spiritual director for her, quite a novice mistress! Even after Therese’s death, we find in Leonie’s retreat notes of 1923, “Darling, I ask you to be my spiritual director; in me and with me, you must continue your religious life.” Before her death, and even afterwards, Therese is her teacher. What she seems to have taught her in particular was the patience of love.; so at a time when Leonie, having made a second attempt at religious life in the Visitation, is upset because her profession is being put off, Therese shows her, speaking from her own experience, how to draw profit from her suffering.

This is when we get the beautiful lesson of the wedding dress she prepares for herself in secret. (Letter of April 28th 1895,C.G. p865),she tells her to put her faith in the smallest acts done out of love for Jesus. In Leonie, Therese has, on the other hand, the sister who, because unhampered by any human talent, proves to be the perfect illustration of the ‘little way’ lived in complete poverty, austere,to use a monastic term, the kind of poverty one risks overlooking, not seeing that God is there in all His fulness. For, let us say it again, the ‘little way’ of Therese is not a cult of the mediocre, the mean, the too little.It is a road where the most humble partake of the greatness of God: “Which of the Thereses will be the most fervent? She who is the most humble, the most united to Jesus, the most faithful in doing all her actions out of love,” writes Therese to her sister on May 22nd 1894, C.G. p.760. (Leonie had at first taken Therese as her religious name.) Here we actually have the inauguration of the Communion of Saints, just as Therese speaks of it in the last days of her life: “…we shall see clearly that everything comes from God ; and any glory coming to me, will be a free gift which will not be for me alone…( ) Just as a mother is proud of her children, so shall we be proud of one another without the least suspicion of jealousy.” (Last conversations, July 11th 1897).

There is another consonance– this time between two families – which Leonie helps us to recognize: it is the one which links the Visitation to Carmel. We could delve deep into this, beginning with Zelie’s sister, Marie –Dosithee of the Mans Visitation convent, shedding light on the great and profound subterranean exchanges brought about in this family between Salesian spirituality and Carmelite spirituality.There is enough here to warrant a learned research into the sources or the history of spirituality. We have a strong indication of the unity to be lived in the Church, where the goods of one belong to all, where the grace given to one member enables for the other members of the body also to bear more fruit.By way of conclusion let us draw up a tableau re-arranging the traditional “Grande Finale of Carmel”. Around “poor Leonie” -Sister Frances-Therese of the Caen Visitation, - there would be Therese, the much loved sister, the Martin parents, all the Martin children, the brothers and sisters who died in infancy, Aunt Marie-Dosithee, Visitation sister of Mans, all those with ties of blood or faith, above whom there would be John of the Cross, the great Teresa, Francis de Sales, all alike fathers and mothers of this family, according to the divine genealogy of grace, ones to whom the Church, throughout her long history has given birth.

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