She spent most of her life in an area of France less than 50 miles big. She lived in cloister, devoting her time to simple service and prayer. She died when she was only 24. Yet Therese of Lisieux and her “Little Way” have served as an inspiration to countless numbers of people since her death.
Born as Marie Françoise-Thérèse Martin on Jan. 2, 1873 in Alençon, Normandy, France, she was the youngest of nine children. Only five of them survived to adulthood, all girls. Her father, Louis Martin was a jeweler and watchmaker; her mother, Marie Zelie, was a lacemaker. The Martins were devout Catholics, and raised their daughters with strong faith, including daily Mass and works of charity. They would later be named saints just like their daughter, the first married couple canonized together by Pope Francis in 2015.
When Therese was 4 years old, her 45-year old mother died of breast cancer. Her father later moved the family to Lisieux. Therese was a bright but sensitive child and took her mother’s death to heart. She was taught by the Benedictine nuns of the Abbey of Notre Dame du Pre and reportedly she hated school because she was bullied. At age nine, she developed nervous tremors. Therese said that she had a vision of the Virgin Mary at that age and it healed her: “Our Blessed Lady has come to me, she has smiled upon me. How happy I am.” At the time, no one believed the child. Even at that age, Therese felt the call to religious life and begged to join the Carmelites, but was refused because she was so young. Her older sisters Marie and Pauline had joined the Carmelites at Lisieux and she always longed to join them.
On Christmas Eve, 1886, after she attended Midnight Mass, she had a revelation; she felt a ‘complete conversion’ moment and felt she had recovered from the grief she had been feeling for years over the death of her mother. As she grew older, she began reading works such as “Imitation of Christ” and the writings of St. John of the Cross.
When she was 15, her father took Therese and Celine on a pilgrimage to Rome. They had an audience with Pope Leo XIII, and Therese reportedly threw herself at the Pope’s feet, begging to be allowed to enter Carmel. The Pope said: “Well, my child, do what the superiors decide…. You will enter if it is God’s Will.” Therese refused to leave after that, and had to be carried out of the chamber by guards. She and her sister continued the trip with their father through Europe, visiting Naples, Assisi and other sites. It was the only time in her life she was ever away from Normandy.
Therese was finally accepted into the Carmelites at age 15, where she joined her older sisters; sister Celine joined them later, which meant 4 out of 5 of the Martin girls were called to religious life.
She followed the austere rules of cloistered life such as limited meals, hard work, silence and solitude, very seriously. Therese struggled with scrupulosity, a form of OCD that involves having guilt over religious or moral issues. Her spiritual director was Jesuit Father Pichon, who himself struggled with the disorder, and he was able to guide Therese and convince her she was leading a holy life.
During her novitiate, Therese began practicing devotion to the Holy Face, a contemplation of an image of Jesus face during the Passion. She was given the name “Therese of the Child Jesus” when she first entered the convent. When she took her religious name, she asked that “of the Holy Face” be added to her name.
When she was 17 and professing her vows as a novice, Therese wrote: “May creatures be nothing for me, and may I be nothing for them, but may You, Jesus, be everything! Let nobody be occupied with me, let me be looked upon as one to be trampled underfoot. May Your will be done in me perfectly. Jesus, allow me to save very many souls; let no soul be lost today; let all the souls in purgatory be saved.”
Therese led a life of deep prayer, and occasionally struggled with the mundane aspects of cloistered life, Realizing that life in cloister would mean that she would never do great things, she focused on the small things, theorizing that no act was too small if it was carried out with great love.
Much of her prayer time was spent praying for priests. She was asked to give spiritual support to two mission priests in formation, never meeting them but corresponding with them. Today, seminarians have great devotion to Therese and she is also considered a patron of the missions because of her support of the young priests.
On Good Friday, 1896, Therese woke up coughing up blood. She had developed tuberculosis, but instead of complaining, viewed it as part of her spiritual journey. Among her last words, she said “I have reached the point of not being able to suffer any more, because all suffering is sweet to me.” She died on Sept. 30, 1897. She was only 24 years of age.
Her “Story of a Soul” was compiled by her sister, Pauline, after her death, and includes her thoughts on her “Little Way” of serving God.
Her relics have been on tour around the world since 1994.
St. Therese’ feast day is October 1.
She is the patron saint of aviators, florists and the missions.
St. Therese was declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope John Paul II on Oct. 19, 1997. She is one of only four women to hold this title.
Read her biography at Franciscan Media here:
St. Luke Productions produced a movie about here life: “Therese”. Find out more about it here: https://store.stlukeproductions.com/products/therese-movie-dvd
There was also an art-house film made about her life. See the IMDB listing here: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0092090/
Societies dedicated to promoting St. Therese can be found here:
The famous Novena Rose Prayer to The Little Flower can be found here: