Louis (1823–1894) and Zélie (1831–1877) were canonised on Mission Sunday, October 19th 2015 and were the first married couple ever to be canonised together. They had been beatified on October 19th 2008 at the Basilica in Lisieux dedicated to their youngest daughter, St. Thérèse.
Although Louis’ family were from Normandy he was born in Bordeaux as his father, who was a captain in the army, was garrisoned there, though he was away on the Spanish Campaign when Louis was born on August 22nd 1823. Soon afterwards the family moved to Avignon and then in 1882 to Strasburg. In 1830 Louis’ father retired from the army and the family moved back to Normandy where they settled in Alençon. Louis began his apprenticeship as a watchmaker in 1884 when he spent some time with his father’s cousin in Rennes to learn the trade, the next year he returned to Strasburg to continue his apprenticeship. It was on the way to Strasburg that Louis made his first visit to the Monastery of the Great St. Bernard, high on the Swiss Alps. He would have liked to enter there, and he returned at the end of his stay in Strasburg hoping to be accepted but he did not have sufficient knowledge of Latin. He went back to Alençon, hoping to learn enough Latin to enter the monastery but after a time he decided to go to Paris to finish his apprenticeship and he returned to Alençon as a master watchmaker in 1850 and established a shop there, taking his parents to live with him. He worked hard and his business thrived, even though he refused to open his shop on Sundays, unlike the other traders in the town.
Zélie Guérin was born in the parish of St. Denis sur Sarthon, about 12 miles from Alençon, on December 23rd 1831. The family moved to Alençon when she was thirteen. Later she tried to enter the Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, but she was not accepted, probably due to her poor health as she suffered from severe headaches as well as respiratory problems in her childhood.
With religious life closed to her Zélie decided that she would marry and have many children who she would consecrate to God. She turned to Our Lady asking how she should earn her dowry, and heard an interior voice telling her to ‘Make Alençon point lace’. Zélie enrolled at the lace school to learn her craft and very soon she was proficient enough to start her own business.
One day when she was crossing the Bridge of St. Leonard, Zélie noticed a man passing by and she heard that interior voice again saying, ‘This is he whom I have prepared for you’. The man was Louis Martin, whose mother had noticed Zélie at the lacemaking school. The couple were married on July 13th 1858 in the Church of Our Lady. They lived behind Louis’ shop and the house was large enough for Louis’ parents to have a separate apartment upstairs. As Louis and Zélie had both desired to enter religious life they chose to express their dedication to God through chastity after their marriage. It was ten months later, when a confessor suggested they should consider the vocation of parenthood, that their ideas changed. They were both delighted when their first daughter, Marie Louise was born on February 22nd 1860.
Eight more children followed in the next thirteen years. Louis and Zélie rejoiced at each birth and grieved when three of them died as small babies, but the greatest sorrow, especially for Louis, was the death of Hélène at the age of five, on February 22nd 1870, her eldest sister’s tenth birthday. That same year Louis sold his business to his nephew so that he could help Zélie with hers. He had already taken over the book-keeping and was now free to travel to obtain orders. Zélie had fifteen women working for her in their own homes and every Thursday they brought her the work they had done and received the cotton and their instructions for the next week. Zélie assembled the pieces that they brought to her. She often worked late into the night as she always gave time to her children when they needed it and she wrote many letters especially to her two eldest daughters when they were in boarding school.
In 1871 the family moved into Zélie’s old home and their last child, Thérèse, was born there on January 2nd 1873. Louis and Zélie went to the 5.30 a.m. Mass every day and they both received Holy Communion several times each week, which was unusually frequent in those days. They were both great workers for the poor and devoted parents to their children.
Sadly, Zélie, who had been suffering from breast cancer for several years, died in the early hours of August 28th 1877. A few months later Louis moved to Lisieux with his five daughters ranging in age from four to seventeen, this enabled them to have the company and support of Zélie’s brother, Isidore Guérin, and his family who had a pharmacy in the town.
Louis saw his daughters entering religious life one by one, and rejoiced that God had called them, their mother had prayed that all her daughters would be nuns and her prayer was answered, though Céline cared for her father in his old age and only entered Carmel after his death.
By February 1889 Louis’ memory was failing and several times he wandered away from home, so for three years he was cared for in the Bon Sauveur hospital in Caen. By May 1892 he had suffered several strokes and was no longer mobile so he was able to return to Lisieux. In the summer of 1893 he went with Céline to join the Guérin family at La Musse, a large property near Evreux. He showed great delight at the beautiful views which could be seen from this high setting. Céline and her cousin Marie wheeled him through the extensive woodland where he was enchanted by the song of the nightingale at twilight. In the evenings he loved to listen to his niece Marie singing and playing the piano. They returned to Lisieux in August and throughout the winter Louis’ health remained stable, but in May 1894 he suffered a serious stroke which paralysed his left arm. In June he had a heart attack and seemed completely exhausted but by July 5th he was well enough to make the journey to La Musse. He suffered another serious heart attack on July 28th and received the last sacraments. At a quarter past eight the next morning, July 29th 1894, he died with Céline at his bedside. She wrote to her sisters in Carmel ‘Papa is in heaven’.
The Feast of Saints Louis and Zélie Martin is celebrated on 12th July which was their wedding day.
The photograph above left was taken soon after Louis returned from Caen. Céline is bending over him, her sister Léonie is beside her, she entered the Visitation Convent in Caen shortly afterwards. Their cousin Marie Guérin is on the left of the photo and Zélie’s brother and his wife are on the right. The two people at the back were servants. The dog is Therese’s spaniel, Tom.
The Photograph on the right shows Louis at rue L’abbey, Céline, rented this house, which was opposite the back gate of the Guérins’ home, pictured left. It was here that she cared for her father in his last years, with the help of Léonie (right) before she entered the Visitation, and the two servants (standing behind).