Saint Therese of Lisieux: The Early Years
Saint Therese of Lisieux was born Marie Francois Therese Martin on January 2, 1873 in Alencon, France. She was the youngest of nine children, but only five girls survived into adulthood: Marie, Pauline, Leonie, Celine, and Therese. Her parents are Saints Louis and Zelie Martin.
Therese was spoiled, proud, sensitive, attention-seeking, and stubborn. One day, Leonie had a box of dress-making materials for dolls that she offered to Celine and Therese. Celine chose one ball of wool, but Therese took the whole box and said, “I choose all!” Eventually, she would learn to choose all not for her own sake but for love of God.
Zelie Martin died of breast cancer in 1877 bringing tragedy into the previously happy family. Four-year-old Therese adopted Pauline as her mother for the next six years.
In 1883, Pauline entered the Carmelite monastery in Lisieux. Shortly afterwards, Therese contracted a mysterious illness. She was miraculously cured by a smile from a statue of Our Lady of Victories. Shortly after Therese’s cure, Marie also entered the Carmelite monastery.
Little Therese had wished to become a nun since the age of three, and now, at the age of ten she begged to join the Carmelite monastery following in the footsteps of her two older sisters. However, the local bishop suggested she wait until she was older.
The Christmas Miracle
When Therese was thirteen she had what she calls her “Christmas conversion.” She says in her autobiography Story of a Soul, “In an instant I grew up.” It was at this moment that she stopped being self-centered and became determined to save the souls of great sinners. This Christmas miracle increased her desire to become a Carmelite nun and gave her back the joy she lost when her mother died ten years earlier. For the rest of her life she would be remembered for the joy she radiated.
A Hidden Life
At the age of fourteen, Therese sought permission to enter the Carmelite monastery in Lisieux as soon as possible. He asked her why she wished to enter when she was so young. She replied, “I wished it since the dawn of reason.” After the local bishop refused, she traveled to Rome with her father and Celine and appealed to Pope Leo XIII for permission to enter. He told her, “do what the superiors tell you.” Therese tried again saying “Oh, Holy Father, if you say yes, everybody will agree!” She wrote in Story of a Soul, “He gazed at me speaking these words and stressing each syllable: “Go – go – you will enter if God wills it.” The tearful Therese had to be carried out by Swiss Guards but this did not stop her determination.
On New Year’s Day 1888, permission was finally granted. On April 9, 1888, at the age of fifteen, Therese entered the Carmelite monastery in Lisieux – the desert of her dreams.
Therese received the habit at the age of sixteen, and made her religious profession at the age of seventeen, on September 8th, 1890, the birthday of the Blessed Mother. She took the religious name Sister Therese of the Child Jesus and of the Holy Face. During her time as a sister, she was known as an ordinary, good, reliable, and talented nun. She served as sacristan and mistress of novices, painted pictures, and wrote poems and short plays.
The Little Way
Therese is most known for her “Little Way.” She spoke not of doing great things, but of small things with great love. She saw herself as a child who lived in complete dependence on God. Therese acknowledged her littleness and believed this showed more clearly God’s greatness. She once said, “If all the lowly flowers wished to be roses, nature would lose its springtime beauty.” Therese saw herself as a tiny flower in the garden of God and believed His power shone more clearly through her weakness. She had a practice that helped her count her little deeds for God that is simple and perfect for children of all ages.
Therese had a string of beads, now known as Sacrifice Beads – or good deed beads. This is a simple string of beads with a medal on one end and a crucifix on the other. In between are ten beads. Children love carrying these in their pockets and often become very conscientious as they seek to make Jesus happy. Every time they make a sacrifice or do a good deed or say a kind word, they can pull a bead towards the cross. However, it is important for them to understand that Saint Therese considered even picking up a small piece of string to be an act of love. It is not the greatness of what we do that matters, but the love with which we do them.
If you would like to learn how to make and use Sacrifice Beads, this tutorial will help you. They are very child-friendly to make and use. Also, to help introduce Saint Therese of Lisieux to children, a magnet and a coloring page of Saint Therese are available. Saint Therese is also included in Fishing for Saints.
Leaving a Legacy
When Pauline became the prioress, Marie told her that Therese was “an angel who would not stay long on this earth.” Pauline then asked Therese to write what would become the first part of her autobiography – Manuscript A. In 1896, Therese requested to become a missionary and was about to leave for Vietnam when she contracted tuberculosis. She only told Pauline of her sickness in 1897. After Pauline’s term as prioress ended, the new prioress asked Therese to write about her convent life which became Manuscript B. Therese later added another section – Manuscript C and dedicated it to her sister, Marie.
Therese grew gradually weaker and weaker from the tuberculosis. The last few months of her life were shrouded in complete spiritual darkness in which she felt completely separated from God. However, the same perseverance that characterized her whole life stayed with her even in her final days. Surrounded by her blood sisters and the sisters in Carmel, Sr. Therese died on September 30, 1897 when she was only twenty-four years old. She gazed at her crucifix and said, “My God…I love you.”
Pope Pius XI canonized Saint Therese of Lisieux on May 17, 1925. If she was still alive she would have been only fifty-two years old.
After Therese’s death, Pauline edited manuscripts A, B, and C to create The Story of a Soul – the autobiography of St. Therese of Lisieux. On World Mission Sunday on October 19, 1997, Pope St. John Paul II proclaimed Saint Therese of Lisieux a Doctor of the Universal Church. In his own words, “Therese of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face is the youngest of all the “Doctors of the Church”, but her ardent spiritual journey shows such maturity, and the insights of faith expressed in her writings are so vast and profound that they deserve a place among the great spiritual masters.” She was the only Doctor of his pontificate.
A Family of Saints
Of all the Martin sisters, four entered the Carmelite monastery in Lisieux. Pauline, Marie, and Therese were the first. Celine entered in 1984 after the death of Louis Martin. Marie Guerin, one of the Martin’s cousins also entered the same monastery. Leonie was the only sister to not become a Carmelite. She entered the Visitation monastery in Caen after Therese died, and took the name Sr. Francois Therese, in memory of her sister. Leonie was the first follower of St. Thérèse and the first to put into practice Thérèse’s “Little Way.” She is now a Servant of God. In addition, Pope Francis canonized Louis and Zelie Martin on October 18, 2015.
“Believe that I shall be your true little sister for all eternity.”
Saint Therese of Lisieux has many names such as the little flower, the saint of the little way, and the greatest saint of modern times. Her message of simplicity and childlike trust in God, our merciful father is timeless and lives on in many hearts as a spirit of courage and hope. In 1927, Pope Pius XI declared her the universal co-patron of the missions with St. Francis Xavier. Her love for the missions and her power of intercession were so strong that she was a missionary in spirit even though she never physically left the monastery in Lisieux. In 1994, Pope St. John Paul II named her co-patroness of France with St. Joan of Arc.
Saint Therese is also the patroness of florists. She loved flowers and mentioned them often. “When I die, I will send forth a shower of roses from the heavens.” Throughout the years, she has proven faithful to her promise of intercession and will never forget those she loves.
“I will spend my heaven doing good upon earth.”
Saint Therese’s feast day is October 1, but her message reaches all people at all times. God wants to meet us wherever we are and He is accessible to all who seek Him. The little way is a way of forgiveness, confidence, trust, and love. It is selfless and simple. St. Therese of Lisieux is a great saint who arrived at holiness by a simple path we all can follow. She is with us and will help us.
A simple prayer to Saint Therese of Lisieux is:
O Saint Therese the little flower please pick me a rose from the heavenly garden and send it to me as a message of love. O Little Flower of Jesus, ask God to grant the favors I now place with confidence in your hands (Mention specific requests). Saint Therese, help me to always believe as you did in God’s great love for me, so that I might imitate your “Little Way” each day. Amen.
Saint Therese wants us to love God with the same simple trust with which she loved him.
St. Therese of Lisieux – Pray for us!