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Therese Frere, or Saint Therese de Lisieux, was a French Roman Catholic Discalced Carmelite nun known as “The Little Flower,” or “The Little Flower of Jesus.” She is one of the most popular Catholic saints and remains an influential model of Catholic sanctity with her simple and practical approach to spirituality. Sainte Therese Frere's brief life within the Catholic church made a lasting impact and her many spiritual contemplations are recorded by Bishop Buy Gaucher in his A l'Ecole de Therese de Lisieux: Maitresse de la Vie Spirituelle.

Youth and Family

Françoise Marie Therese Martin was born on January 2, 1873, to parents Saint Louis Martin and Saint Maria-Azélie Guérin, known as Zélie. Her father worked as a watchmaker and jeweler and her mother worked as a lacemaker.

Both of Saint Therese de Lisieux’s parents were devoted Catholics, and her older sisters all entered the convent, so it’s no wonder she devoted her short life to the Catholic Church.

Martin's parents met in 1858 and married only a few months later on July 13, 1858, in the Basilica Notre Dame de Alençon. They first lived as brother and sister until a local priest informed them to end their celibacy and they began to produce children. [1] Louis and Zélie Martin bore nine children from 1860 to 1873, two boys and seven girls, but only five daughters survived past childhood.

Saint Thérese was born last of her siblings with Marie-Louise (1860), Marie-Pauline (1861), Marie-Leonie (1863), Marie-Hélène (1864-1870), Marie-Joseph (1866-1867), Maria-Joseph-Jean-Baptiste (1867-1868), Marie-Céline (1869), and Melanie Marie-Therese (1870-1870), all born before her.[2] At age four, her mother died of breast cancer and her older sister Pauline, age 16, took care of her until five years later, when Pauline entered the Carmelite convent.[3]

Religious Conversion

Therese Martin contracted a severe fever a few months later and her family believed her to be dying. She watched her sisters pray to a statue of the Virgin Mary in her room as she lay in her sickbed and she prayed them. She claimed to see the statue of Mary smile at her and then she was suddenly cured. At first, Sainte Therese did not acknowledge the divine help and when people found out and she refused to answer their questions, they believed she made the whole thing up.

Marie and Leonie left to join the Carmelites and the Poor Clare convents, respectively, and left Therese with Céline and their father. She was a temperamental child prone to ignoring housework and bursting out in emotional fits. She wanted to join the Carmelite convent with her two sisters, but her emotional outbursts revealed her inability to handle herself. This all changed on Christmas 1886 when Therese overheard her father make a negative remark about her outgrowing the Christmas tradition of having your shoes filled with presents. Normally she would cry, but she accepted the situation and never admitted to her father that she heard what he said. She referred to this as her official “conversion” to a religious life.[4]

Rome and Convent Life

Therese Martin first tried to enter the Carmelite convent in 1887, but the priest-superior denied her due to her age. In November that year, Louis took Therese and Céliene on a religious pilgrimage to Rome for Pope Leo XIII’s jubilee. After meeting the pope on November 20, she had to be physically removed from his feet after he told her she must abide by the priest-superior’s order. They family traveled to Naples, Pompeii, Assisi, Pisa, and Genoa, where Sainte Thérese learned much about the world and Catholicism.

The Bishop of Bayeux allowed her to become a Carmelite postulate on April 9, 1888. On January 10, 1889, Therese took the habit and she was given the title “of the Child of Jesus” as promised by Mother Marie de Gonzague when Therese was nine-years-old. She contemplated an image of Jesus’s holy face during her novitiate position and had the name “of the Holy Face” added along with the first title. She continued to struggle internally with her strong personality and her religious devotion over the next three years.[5]

Mother Agnes and Sainte Thérese’s Sacrifice

St. Thérèse of Lisieux did not know that her sacrifice would still result in her canonization due to her prolific and insightful writings.

On October 20, 1893, Therese’s sister Pauline was elected the prioress of Carmel convent and became Mother Agnes. She made her sister the assistant to the novice mistress. When their father died on July 29, 1894, Céline joined her three sisters in the same convent and their cousin entered the following year. [6]

Pauline asked her sister to make the ultimate sacrifice and remain a novice to calm the fears of the rest of the convent that Martin sisters were not trying to overtake control. Therese could never become a full nun and would require permission to anything for the rest of her life, but she wanted to be a saint, not just be a nun. After fighting herself at first, Therese gave into the situation and continued to lead the other novices. [7]

Illness, Death, and Canonization

The final years of St. Thérèse of Lisieux involved a rapid decline in health that she bore stoically and with no complaints. In 1896, at only 24-years-old, she woke up the following morning coughing blood, a very obvious sign of tuberculosis. She was forced to turn down a Carmelite mission to French Indochina due to her severe illness. She continued to suffer in silence until the very last hours when she finally admitted, “I would never have believed it was possible to suffer so much, never, never!”[8]

Sainte Thérese suffered a trial of faith during these last months, but continued to write her spiritual manuscripts labeled A, B, and C, covering her internal turmoils and spiritual maturation. She was moved to the infirmary on July 8, 1896, and her convent sisters continued to write her sayings while she deteriorated.

On September 30, 1897, Sainte Therese died crying, “My God, I love you!” at the age of 24 from tuberculosis. Pope Pius Xi canonized Sainte Therese de Lisieux on May 17, 1925. He also proclaimed her the Universal Patron of the Missions along with Saint Francis Xavier on December 14, 1927. Then, after prompting from the religious community, Pope John Paul II proclaimed her Sainte Therese of the Child of Jesus and of the Holy Face, Doctor of the Universal Church on World Mission.[9]

References

Bibliography

Catholic Online. (2016). St. Therese of Lisieux. Catholic Online: Saints & Angels. [3]

Gaucher, G. (1993). The Story of a Life: St. Thérèse of Lisieux. (A l'Ecole de Therese de Lisieux: Maitresse de la vie Spirituelle) San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco.

Johnson, V. (2002). Thérèse of Lisieux. London: Catholic Truth Society.

The Vatican. Saint Thérèse of Lisieux. The Vatican: Liturgy: Saints.[4]

Footnotes

  1. Sanctuaire d’Alençon. (2016). The Story of Françoise Marie Thérèse Martin. Sanctuaire d’Alençon.[1]
  2. Sanctuaire d’Alençon. (2016). Children of Louis and Zélie Martin. Sanctuaire d’Alençon[2]
  3. Catholic Online, 2016
  4. Catholic Online, 2016
  5. Gaucher, 1993
  6. Gaucher, 1993
  7. Catholic Online, 2016
  8. Johnson, 2002
  9. The Vatican, n.d.

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