Léonie Martin: the first disciple of the Little Way
Updated: Sep 9, 2020
This article was originally written for JOY IN TRUTH, and can be read HERE.
Thérèse of Lisieux may be one of the most popular saints of our time, but what of her sister, the ‘lame duck’ Léonie Martin? While less known than her saintly sister, Léonie (later Sister Françoise-Thérèse) illustrates that each and every single one of us is called to sainthood. Born on the 3rd of June, 1863 the future Visitation sister was a great worry for her family, particularly her mother. A sickly child with a great temper, and later abused by the housemaid, her mother Zélie Martin writes that she ‘struggled a great deal from the child’s inexplicable behaviour’, and describes her in one letter as ‘insubordinate; never obeying unless she was forced to; doing the opposite of everything I wanted her to do, out of sheer contrariness’. Her sisters, in comparison, were delights. While we may not have suffered from the same emotional disturbances as the young Léonie, how many of us have felt like the odd one out in the family, the troubled one, who simply cannot compare to those around them?
Despite all of her struggles, Léonie’s biggest desire was ‘ultimately to become a saint’. Despite, or perhaps due to the experiences of her childhood, a deep generosity developed with in her soul. “Sister, ask me anything you like, I am ready to help you,” she is known to have said. Suffering abuse as a child did not lead her to become bitter and angry towards those around her. Instead, she saw the absolute necessity for love in our dealings with others. While it must not have been easy to claim to be ready to do whatever her sisters in the convent needed, she made the sacrifice and became a mirror of the mercy and love of Jesus.
Not only this, but Léonie felt a profound homesickness for heaven. With this came a critical view of the world around her. This was not uncommon in 19th century Catholic France. The response of Catholics to the increasingly secular and unroyalist Third Republic was to withdraw into an ‘unreal romantic counter world’ with a ‘kitschy imitation of past times’ and ‘sentimental piety’. While we should be wary of this attitude to earthly life (God created it!), Léonie’s centring of her life on heaven is admirable. This longing for our heavenly home is something that we should all aspire to, and let it impact our everyday life in all of the little things that we do.
One charming story of Léonie is how a priest drawn to the area due to the growing fame of Thérèse wished to see Léonie. Unknowingly, he encountered Léonie herself, and upon making his request known was told that it wouldn’t be possible, and that he wouldn’t be missing anything: “it isn’t worth the trouble!”  This amiable trick gave the priest great delight when he found out that he had indeed been speaking the woman he so wished to see. Another very human side of Léonie is how she and her sisters communicated by letter about how best to pluck their chin hairs!
It was during a period of great change that I began to read about Léonie’s life. She made three unsuccessful endeavours to enter the religious life before she finally joined the Visitation Order for good in 1899. The previous attempts were rendered unsuccessful as a result of her poor health. Although she was besieged by her physical ailments, she continued to trust in the goodness of the Lord. This spoke very deeply to me, as I’d made multiple efforts to fulfil my childhood dream at various acting schools, only having to leave because of my health and emotional disposition. It is a great source of comfort to find saints that you can deeply relate to, and see that they still found their vocation and path to God.
We may know Léonie Martin as ‘the sister of St. Thérèse of Lisieux’, and although she was certainly the first disciple of Thérèse’s Little Way, she deserves to be known for herself. For those of us who feel broken, out-of-place, and struggle to accept ourselves, Léonie can provide guidance and hope. One thing is clear: our past experiences must and do not hinder us on the path to sainthood. The cause for Léonie’s beatification and canonisation was opened on July 2 2015. Let us learn from the example of Léonie Martin, and ask her to guide us on the way to the love and compassion of Our Lord.
 Marie Baudouin-Croix, Léonie Martin: A Difficult Life, trans. Mary Frances Mooney (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2017), 38.  Ibid. 39  “The Life of Léonie Martin (Sister Françoise-Thérèse) written by the Monastery of the Visitation at Caen,” Léonie Martin, accessed June 17, 2020 http://leoniemartin.org/life-of-leonie-from-the-visita  Léonie Martin, 113.  Steffen Lösel, “Prayer, pain, and priestly privilege: Claude Langlois's new perspective on Thérèse of Lisieux,” The Journal of Religion 88 (2008): 282.  Léonie Martin , 146-147.