The biographer of the Martins tells us more about this remarkable married couple ...
As the first canonized couple in the history of the Church, Louis and Zelie Martin lived the adventure of holiness, were witnesses to the Gospel in their daily life, and experienced immense joys and sorrows (four children died in infancy, Zelie suffered breast cancer and died prematurely, orphaned children, the father’s widowhood and then his dementia). Despite a century that separates them from today’s couples and parents, they still show us the way to put God at the heart of our lives.
In this interview, Hélène Mongin, biographer of the Martin couple and author of the book Louis et Zelie Martin Les saints de l’ordinaire [Louis and Zelie Martin: ordinary saints](Ed. l’Emmanuel) answers questions about the holy couple.
How would you define the education Louis and Zelie Martin gave their children?
It was a loving, demanding and spiritual education. Loving: this is obvious when you read Zelie’s letters where she describes her daily life in the family. The love they have for their children … Louis and Zelie never stop saying and showing it in a thousand loving ways. Zelie is very set on giving her daughters what she did not have in her childhood: a climate of trust and tenderness. As for Louis, you have to read the beginning of The story of a soul (Histoire d’une âme): the autobiography of St. Thérèse of Lisieux to see how, as a father, he is extremely kind and attentive.
However, Louis and Zelie are not “buddy” parents; we often see them firmly scold their daughters. Zelie clearly described their goal: “To raise [our children] for Heaven.” Their priority is not that their daughters “succeed” or be “well-balanced”; their priority is to set them on the path to holiness.
Louis and Zelie Martin give the impression of being a modern couple: she, an active woman and a mother at the same time, he, very concerned about the education of his daughters. They don’t fit the typical image of the Catholic family at the time.
Yes, in fact, Zelie is in charge of the business, while Louis left his own profession to work for his wife. Asking your husband to do this, however modern it may seem … To tell the truth, they are less “modern” or “of their time” than prophetic. You might also think that their family was a pseudo-monastery, pushing the girls towards religious life. The parents of large families who read this will well know that five children hardly give a monastic atmosphere to a house. Moreover, Louis and Zelie, despite their high opinion of a holy life, never pushed their daughters in this direction. To discover this family in all its complexity and beauty, I strongly encourage you to read the Family Correspondence.
Leonie was the cause of much worry and anxiety. The Martins were not a perfect family, free of problems.
Louis and Zelie were not perfect parents. They each had their favorite daughter, and Zelie’s spicy letter, in which she confides to Pauline, still a teenager, how to “manipulate” her father, will make more than a few mothers see they are not alone in making mistakes! Like all parents they, too, had their share of inappropriate attitudes and hurtful words. But being a saint does not mean you are perfect, and for years they were faced with their shortcomings as parents with their daughter Leonie.
Ever since she was born, Leonie suffered from poor health, and was more intellectually limited than the other girls; she isolated herself and became a very difficult child. The housekeeper, Louise Marais, began mistreating her while Louis and Zelie were completely unaware, which explains why Leonie would flinch away when anyone came near. Zelie says it is one of the greatest sufferings of her life. Louis and Zelie responded with a two-sided trust. First of all trust in their child, whom they refused to label the “ugly duckling.” Every time Zelie mentions something that Leonie has done wrong (and her letters are full of examples!), she always adds: “but I know she is good, I believe she has a good heart.” And above all, trust in God, whom Louis and Zelie continually beseech with prayer for their child. And look at the result: the cause for Leonie’s beatification—quite moving itself because of all the difficulties in the process—began in 2015.
To what extent can this way of educating be an example for other parents to follow?
In practice, there is no “magic recipe” for educating your children. It is striking to see how Louis and Zelie give a different education to each of their daughters, according to their personality. For Pauline, who has a very assertive character, Zelie says that she never let her get away with anything, even if it hurt her heart to do so. For Therese, on the other hand, a very sensitive child who cried for the littlest things and then cried for having cried (!), Louis is nothing but gentleness and encouragement. One could multiply the examples: it is touching to see in the letters how Zelie carefully studied the character of each of her daughters to see what would suit each one best. There is no ready-made or perfect education, but what we can take from the Martins is their desire: to walk together, with our loved ones, with God—whom Louis and Zelie considered a member of their family—on the road to holiness. Holiness that they lived in their existence here on Earth as parents.
Interview by Antoine Pasquier