Saint Thérèse of Lisieux
Alençon, Normandy (France), January 2 1873.
Lisieux, Normandy (France), September 30, 1897.
She was beatified by Pope Pius XI on April 29, 1923.
She was canonized by the same Pope on May 17, 1925.
Patroness of the Missions
Pope Pius XI also proclaimed her as patroness of the missions on October 19, 1927.
Doctor of the Church
She was proclaimed doctor of the Church by Pope John Paul II on October 19, 1997.
Thérèse was born on January 2, 1873 in Alençon, a city in Normandy, France. She was the youngest of nine children. Her parents, Louis and Zélie Martin, had a very profound Christian faith and were exemplary spouses and parents. Four of Thérèse’s siblings died at a young age, making them five sisters: Marie, Pauline, Léonie, Céline and Thérèse.
When Thérèse was four years old, her mother died of cancer. This affected her deeply and altered her character. Thérèse, who until that moment had been joyful and upbeat, became shy, hypersensitive, and reclusive. Thérèse chose her sister Pauline as her new mother.
After Zélie’s death, the Martin family moved to Les Buissonnets, a country house in the outskirts of Lisieux. In 1882, Pauline entered as a Carmelite. This was heartbreaking for Thérèse because since the death of Mrs. Martin, Pauline had been like a mother to her. The following year, Thérèse contracted a strange nervous illness that put her life in danger. She was cured on May 13, 1882, thanks to an intervention of the Blessed Virgin Mary, whose smile had caused the healing. Healthy and well, a year later, on May 8, 1884, a moment that Thérèse had long been waiting for finally arrived: she received her First Holy Communion. She had an enormous desire to receive Jesus in the Eucharist.
The next event that marked Thérèse was what she calls “the grace of Christmas” or her “total conversion”. On Christmas Eve of 1886, she overcame her hypersensitivity through a grace from God.
“On that night when He made Himself subject to weakness and suffering for love of me, He made me strong and courageous, arming me with His weapons. […] The source of my tears was dried up and has since reopened rarely and with great difficulty. […] Thérèse had discovered once again the strength of soul that she had lost at the age of four and a half, and she was to preserve it forever! […] I felt charity enter into my soul and the need to forget myself and to please others; since then I’ve been happy!”
From the moment of her “conversion,” the heart of Thérèse was transformed and she began to seek the salvation of souls. In June of 1887, she heard the news of a murderer who was condemned to death, and prayed intensely for his conversion. A few days later, she read in the newspaper that the murderer had asked to kiss a crucifix a few moments before his execution. After that experience, she decided to offer her life definitively for the conversion of sinners.
She desired to enter the Carmel, but her young age made it impossible. In November of 1887, Thérèse went on a pilgrimage to Rome with her father and one of her sisters. She was determined to ask the Holy Father permission to enter as a religious sister. In the audience with Pope Leo XIII, Thérèse approached him and asked him to intervene and advise the superiors to let her enter the Carmel. The pontiff, looking at her in the eyes, said, “If God wants, you will enter.” She felt a little disappointed by the response. “In the bottom of my heart I felt a great peace, since I had done everything in my power to answer what God was asking of me. This peace, however, was in the depths only; bitterness filled my soul, for Jesus was silent. He seemed to be absent, nothing served to reveal His presence.”
However, earlier than she had expected, in 1888, she received the long awaited permission to enter the Carmel of Lisieux. On the day of her entrance, April 9, 1888, she was asked why she wanted to enter in a convent; her response was: “to save souls and to pray for priests.” They weren’t just words; it was a serious plan of self-offering for the souls, which she would fulfill until the last moment of her life.
On September 8, 1890, Sister Thérèse of the Child Jesus and of the Holy Face, the name she chose as a religious, professed her vows. Three years later, when she was 20 years old, she was chosen to be the assistant of the Mistress of Novices. She carried out her duties beautifully due to her extraordinary gifts as a former of souls.
Thérèse continued to discover her path, the spiritual itinerary the Lord laid out for her. She drank from the springs of the Holy Scripture, especially the Gospels, and the writings of St. John of the Cross. The first years after her profession were marked by profound experiences of God. The knowledge of the love of God brought her to a desire to surrender herself completely to Him in order to correspond to His love. She understood that her place in the Church is the same as the place that the heart occupies in the body, that is, she discovered that her vocation is love: “In the heart of the Church, I will be love.” She felt that she was in God’s hands, like a child in the arms of her father. She abandoned herself to Him with absolute docility and trust— this is the path of spiritual childhood. Her missionary spirit was not held back by the walls of the cloister; her desires were always as universal as the heart of God. Thérèse aspired to the salvation of every soul. She offered her sufferings and her works so that everyone might know God and love Him, which made her entire life her apostolate. With her prayer and the letters she wrote full of encouragement, she was a spiritual support for two missionary priests.
All of these experiences shaped the soul of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, elevating her to a complete surrender in God. On June 9, 1895, the feast day of the Holy Trinity, she did an act of oblation to “Merciful Love” for the salvation of sinners. She defines this act with these words: “I offer myself as a holocaust victim to the Merciful Love of God”.
The last period of St. Thérèse’s short life was marked by illness. The first symptoms of tuberculosis appeared during Holy Week in 1896. Her physical and spiritual calvary had begun. The young Carmelite identified herself with Jesus in His Passion more than ever. From her illness until her death she suffered the “night of the soul,” a concept developed by St. John of the Cross, and in her dark night she fought with heroic efforts, making acts of faith and charity: “I would like to be able to express what I feel but I believe it impossible. One would have to travel through this dark tunnel to understand its darkness. […] When I want to rest my heart fatigued by the darkness that surrounds it by the memory of the luminous country after which I aspire, my torment redoubles. […] I believe I have made more acts of faith in this past year than all through my whole life. […] The veil of the faith is no longer a veil for me, it is a wall which reaches right up to the heavens and covers the starry firmament.”
In June of 1897, the saint was moved to the infirmary of the convent, where she would remain until her death. She could no longer receive communion from August 6 onwards because she suffered from constant nausea. In the midst of her pain, the heart of Thérèse remained fixed on God and the souls. When she felt that the moment of her entrance into eternal life was drawing near, she expressed her desire to continue to surrender herself to others after her death, “I want to pass my heaven doing good on earth.”
She passed away on September 30, her gaze fixed on a crucifix she held in her hands, after having exclaimed, “My God, I love You!”
The autobiographical manuscripts she had written in obedience to her superiors were published a few years later with the title Story of a Soul. Her fame of sanctity was extended rapidly. Pope Pius XI beatified, canonized, and proclaimed her patroness of the missions during his pontificate. In October of 1997, Pope John Paul II declared her doctor of the Church.
On April 6, 2011, Pope Benedict referred to the profound devotion of St. Thérèse of Lisieux with the following words: “Inseparable from the Gospel, for Thérèse the Eucharist was the sacrament of Divine Love who stoops to the extreme to raise us to Him. In her last Letter, the Saint wrote these simple words upon an image that represents Jesus the Child in the consecrated Host: ‘I cannot fear a God who made himself so small for me! […] I love Him! In fact, He is nothing but Love and Mercy!’”
Since she was a little girl, she made frequent visits to Jesus in the Eucharist and she participated in the Holy Mass and in Eucharistic processions with great devotion. Her first Holy Communion was an immense grace for her. In her manuscripts, she wrote about that day: “Ah! How sweet was that first kiss of Jesus! It was a kiss of love; I felt that I was loved, and I said: ‘I love You, and I give myself to You forever!’ […] The beautiful dress Marie had bought me, all the gifts I had received did not satisfy my heart. Only Jesus could do this.”
As a Carmelite, her love of the Most Holy Sacrament grew. She especially enjoyed the time she spent as the sacristan, a duty she fulfilled with great love and exquisite delicacy. She considered herself privileged to be so close to the Tabernacle.
St. Thérèse’s Marian devotion was marked in her soul since she was very little and it would accompany her until her death. In her writings, she constantly refers to Mary with great trust and tenderness. She liked to invoke her as Queen of Heaven.
An experience with Our Lady had a deep impression in her life. After the death of her mother, the Martin family moved to Lisieux. Little after, on March 25, 1883, Thérèse fell gravely ill. On May 13, she was miraculously cured, and she attributes her healing to the smile of Our Lady. She explains the event in her writings:
“One day I saw Papa enter Marie’s room where I was in bed. He gave her several coins with an expression of great sadness and told her to write to Paris and have some Masses said at Our Lady of Victories so that she would cure his poor little girl […] A miracle was necessary and it was Our Lady of Victories who worked it. One Sunday during the Novena of Masses, Marie went into the garden, leaving me with Léonie who was reading near the window. After a few moments I began calling in a low tone: “Mama, Mama.” Léonie, accustomed to hearing me always call out like this, didn’t pay attention. This lasted a long time, and then I called her much louder. Marie finally returned. I saw her enter, but I cannot say I recognized her and continued to call her in a louder tone, “Mama.” I was suffering very much from this forced and inexplicable struggle and Marie was suffering perhaps even more than I. After some futile attempts to show me she was by my side, Marie knelt down near my bed with Léonie and Céline. Turning to the Blessed Virgin and praying with the fervor of a mother begging for the life of her child, Marie obtained what she wanted. Finding no help on earth, poor little Thérèse had also turned to the Mother of heaven, and prayed with all her heart that she take pity on her. All of a sudden the Blessed Virgin appeared beautiful to me, so beautiful that never had I seen anything so attractive; her face was suffused with an ineffable benevolence and tenderness, but what penetrated to the very depths of my soul was the ‘ravishing smile of the Blessed Virgin.’ At that instant, all my pain disappeared, and two large tears glistened on my eyelashes, and flowed down my cheeks silently, but they were tears of unmixed joy. Ah I thought, the Blessed Virgin smiled at me, how happy I am. […] Without any effort I lowered my eyes, and I saw Marie who was looking down at me lovingly; she seemed moved and appeared to surmise the favor the Blessed Virgin had given me. Ah! It was really to her, to her touching prayers that I owed the grace of the smile of the Queen of Heaven. Seeing my gaze fixed on the Blessed Virgin, she cried out: “Thérèse is cured!”
Alençon, Normandy (France)
St. Thérèse of Lisieux was born in Alençon. There are two important places to visit there: the house where she was born and the baptismal font in Our Lady’s Church where she was baptized.
Lisieux, Normandy (France)
After the death of Mrs. Martin, the family moved to a country house in the outskirts of Lisieux. This house, in which Thérèse lived for 11 years, is open for visits. The chimney of the kitchen has been conserved, where she received the great Christmas grace of 1886, along with the room where she was cured, the garden where she took walks with her father, her toys and more.
-St. Peter’s Cathedral
St. Thérèse went to Mass in this church every Sunday while she lived in Les Buissonnets; it was her parish.
-The Carmel of Lisieux
Thérèse Martin entered as a Carmelite in this convent. The church is conserved as it was while the saint lived, though a side chapel dedicated to St. Thérèse has been added. The chapel contains an urn in which the relics of St. Thérèse are conserved and a statue of the saint. The image of Our Lady of the Smile, through whom the saint was cured, can be found upon the urn of the relics..
-The Basilica of St. Thérèse
This basilica was built after her canonization. Pope Pius XI, after beatifying, canonizing, and proclaiming the saint patroness of the missions, expressed his desire that a basilica be built, that it should be “very big, very beautiful, and [it should be built] as soon as possible.” Cardinal Pacelli, future Pope Pius XII, gave the basilica his solemn blessing on June 11, 1937. In the crypt of the basilica, the relics of Blessed Louis and Blessed Zélie, St. Thérèse’s parents, can be venerated.
By the saint:
St. Thérèse wrote three manuscripts about her life in obedience to her superiors. They were published in a book titled Story of a Soul. On her deathbed, her sister Pauline (Mother Agnes of Jesus), wrote down her last words in Novissima Verba. Numerous letters, poems, and notes of St. Thérèse have also been conserved.
From the Popes:
-Apostolic Letter of Pope John Paul II Divini Amoris Scentia, October 19, 1997.
-Homily of Pope John Paul II when St. Thérèse of Lisieux is proclaimed Doctor of the Church, October 19, 1997.
-Catechesis of Pope Benedict XVI, April 6, 2011.
From other authors:
Many books about St. Thérèse have been written. Here are a few indications:
-The Spiritual Genius of Saint Theresa of Lisieux by Jean Guitton.
-My Vocation is Love: St. Therese’s Way to Total Trust by Jean Lafrance.