Last Years of Monsieur Louis Martin
Marian T. Horvat, Ph.D.
In May 1892 Monsieur Martin, age 69, returned to Lisieux. He had been in the Bon Sauveur Asylum for three years. After suffering further strokes that had paralyzed his legs and left him almost unable to speak, there was no longer any fear he would wander away. Finally acceding to the pleas of the Martin sisters, their uncle M. Guerin agreed he should come home.
When his brother-in-law lifted him up to put him in the wheelchair, Louis Martin expressed his appreciation: “I’ll repay you in Heaven,” he said.
Two days after his return, Mr. Martin, accompanied by Celine and Leonie, went to the Carmelite Convent to see his three enclosed daughters. It was last time the family would be together. The patriarch, dignified throughout his great trial, could only say a few words, but, at the end of the visit as they bid him goodbye, he raised his eyes to the sky, pointed upwards and said with great effort, “In Heaven.”
Louis Martin surrounded by, left to right, Leonie, a servant, Celine, a servant, and Isidore Guerin (1892).
For the next two years he was under care of Celine and Leonie in a small rented house near the Guerin mansion on the rue Paul-Banaston. A married couple was employed as servants, and he spent much of the day in his wheelchair outdoors in the small garden. For a romantic mind, the picture can appear idyllic: the venerable old man in his wheelchair in the fresh air, his daughters at his side.
In fact, they were most difficult days. Although he had occasional clear intervals, Mr. Martin was severely disabled. He spoke very little, and at times broke into heavy weeping. Celine and Leonie saw themselves reduced to living in a small cottage, dependent on relatives.
Then, after one year, Leonie made a retreat at the Visitation Convent in Caen and decided to remain there to try to fulfill her vocation. It was her second attempt, nor would it be the last; she would only find the grace to remain in 1899, two years after Therese’s death.
Although Celine was happy for her sister, she felt her new isolation keenly. She wrote to Therese, “I could not stop thinking of Leonie, my companion in misfortune, who was abandoning me. Now I have nobody left in the world. There is only emptiness all around me. The thought of myself as the last broken fragment of our family filled me with a dizzying grief. Life seems so sad, so terribly sad. … I feel a great bitterness in my soul.”
To encourage Celine during this difficult period, Therese was allowed to write to her each week. The Carmelite assured her of Our Lord’s great tenderness for the one who remained in the world “to be the crown and reward of the saintly old man who has enraptured Heaven by his fidelity.”
“How could one dare to say that you have been overlooked, less loved than the others?” She continues, “I tell you that you have been chosen out as a privilege for your mission to be the visible angel of our dearest father.”
“Papa is in Heaven”
In 1894, M. Martin suffered several more heart attacks. Celine hardly left him except to assist at daily Mass at nearby St. Peter’s Cathedral. She wrote to her Carmelite sisters, “Papa had become my little child… Every evening when I leave him after having said good night, I bless him without him realizing it, and afterwards the night always goes very well. It is as if I have become his mother.”
Toward the end of July, the state of the invalid grew worse and Extreme Unction was administered to him. On July 29, 1894, at age 71, Louis Martin died peacefully. At his side was Celine, who was praying the invocations to Jesus, Mary and Joseph for a happy death. (1) Suddenly he opened his eyes and looked at her with great tenderness, and then closed them, forever.
A sketch by Celine of her father in death
Celine sent a telegram to the Carmelite Convent: “Papa is in Heaven. I heard his last breath. I closed his eyes. His beautiful face took on an expression of bliss, of the deepest calm. Tranquility is painted on his features.”
One month later, Therese wrote to Celine, “Papa’s death does not feel like a death to me, but a real life.” It was at this time she wrote her poem, “Prayer of a Child of a Saint,” asking her father from Heaven to “keep guard” over his five children still on earth: Marie, “your diamond bright and fair”; Pauline, “your beautiful pure pearl”; Leonie, who struggled in “this gay world;” Celine, his “angel from the skies, her virtue tested by great sacrifice,” and finally, Therese, “your little queen.” She closed, rejoicing in “your bitter cross that won the crown upon your brow.”
Celine was now free to enter Carmel, but one of the Chapter Sisters strongly opposed the entrance of a fourth Martin sister into the Lisieux house. Thérèse asked God to move this sister’s heart to accept Celine as a sign that the sufferings her father had endured had been his purgatory and he had gone straight to Heaven. Her prayer was hardly formulated when that sister unexpectedly changed her mind and offered her full and warm assent. For Therese, it was her sign.
Devotion to the Holy Face
During his trial, Mr. Martin at times would cover his face with a handkerchief, as if he were ashamed at being seen so humiliated. When Therese heard this, the veil lifted to reveal the meaning of a mysterious vision she had experienced as a young girl.
Although her father had been far away on a business journey, she had seen a man in the garden dressed exactly like him, walking along in a stooped position and covering his face with a cloth. A supernatural fright entered her soul and the impression was engraved deeply on her mind. Now she understood the vision was a mysterious foreshadowing of the future sickness that God had sent him.
The holy card distributed in memory of Louis Martin
As a child, St. Therese said, she would study the features of her father to understand the countenance of God. Now, she realized that the imprint of the Holy Face of Christ in His Passion was to be found on her father’s humiliated and hidden face.
In her Autobiography, she wrote, “Just as the adorable Face of Jesus was veiled during His Passion, so the face of His faithful servant had to be veiled in the days of his sufferings in order that it might shine in the heavenly Fatherland near its Lord, the Eternal Word!”
A short time later Therese began to sign her letters “Thérèse of the Child Jesus of the Holy Face.” At the funeral of Mr. Martin, a holy card with an image of the Holy Face was given to family and friends as a memorial of the life of the beloved family patriarch.
We can see how Therese and her sisters understood the way to bear their bitter pain by viewing it under a supernatural light. Today, many Catholics have parents or relatives who suffer from different forms of senility or dementia. They can find not only a shining example in Mr. Louis Martin who bore his humiliation with dignity and resignation, but also inspiration from his daughters whose eyes saw higher than earth.
“We are not yet in the Homeland and trials are to purify us as gold in the crucible,” Therese wrote. It was Mr. Martin who taught his daughters how to suffer and not lose the merit of their trials. Following his example, they reaped the value of the suffering they received from God as a gift.
1. Jesus, Mary, Joseph, I give you my heart, my soul, and my life. Jesus, Mary Joseph, assist me in my last agony. Jesus, Mary, Joseph, may I breathe forth my soul in peace with you.”
The Martin sisters, Carmelites at the Lisieux Convent, except for Leonie, a Visitation sister
Posted October 1, 2010
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