Each time I visit Lisieux and Alençon, as I did again on my summer holiday, I am struck by the mysterious workings of God’s providence and grace in the lives of the Martin family, who have already had three members raised to the altars and may, God willing, have others. Their heroic lives and witness come into their own more than ever in a world where the family is under threat and the Gospel thought to be too demanding.
On this occasion it was the middle sister who somehow became the focus of my attention, Léonie Martin. It seemed her fate to be the ‘‘ugly duckling’’ of the family: rather plain, backward educationally, suffering from ill-health and bad temper. She became the classic middle child, adrift between two gifted older siblings and two needy younger ones. In her mother Zélie’s letters she invariably has the epithet ‘‘poor’’ coupled with her name.
‘‘Poor Léonie’’ was born in 1863. Within four years her parents had had three more children, all of whom died within five years. It is not hard to imagine the rollercoaster of family emotions as these upheavals followed hard on one another, nor to speculate that even in the most devoted of families poor Léonie’s needs may have been marginalised.
Her own infancy was precarious. She contracted whooping cough at nine months, followed by measles, which gave her convulsions. Fearing the worst, her parents resorted to prayer. Her mother made a novena to St Margaret Mary and her father walked the 30 miles in pilgrimage to Notre-Dame de Sées. She survived but she was slow to walk and would be slow to learn. As she matured, Zélie wanted her to join her older siblings at the school of the Visitation Sisters in Le Mans, but her learning difficulties and temper twice earned her expulsion. A third attempt was tried through the good offices of Zélie’s blood sister Sister Dorothy, herself a member of that community. She took Léonie under her wing, tutoring her and trying to correct her moods, but even this did not last the prescribed three months and Léonie returned home to be privately tutored. It was a distressing pattern that was to repeat itself later.
When Sister Dorothy was diagnosed with tuberculosis, Léonie wrote to her asking her to use her intercession in heaven to obtain the grace for her to become a ‘‘true Religious’’. Quizzed as to what a ‘‘true’’ Religious was, Léonie replied: ‘‘A saint.’’
The death of the sympathetic aunt, who at least believed in Léonie’s essential goodness, coincided with the onset of her mother’s fatal illness and the discovery of the cause of some of Léonie’s strange moods and outbursts. Unbeknown to her parents, the family maid had been terrorising and physically abusing Léonie when she was left in her charge.
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