Like many, I first encountered St. Therese of Lisieux on a prayer card. I was a kid and felt fascinated by a saint who did not look much older than I. I read her words about wanting to shower roses from heaven and kept the prayer card tucked into the mirror on my bureau, peeking at it periodically.
So when I was older I eagerly picked up The Story of a Soul to further encounter the sweet-faced saint on the prayer card.
I confess I did not love the book as much as I had hoped. Perhaps I had grown a bit too jaded with age. For all her enduring wisdom, the writing at times felt more saccharine than sweet to me.
At one point in the book, there is a jarring moment where Therese rejects the desire of her sister Leonie to stay by her side when she is sick. She only wants her older sister Marie. Therese admits, “Leonie is so kind to me, doing her best to keep me amused. I sometimes hurt her feelings. She could tell that for me no one could replace Marie.”
It is one of the few moments in which Leonie appears in the book. She is in many ways the missing sister, rarely mentioned and usually only in the context of the Martin family’s worries about her. Her absence fascinated me as did glimpses of both sweetness and struggle in her personality whenever she briefly appeared. I needed to know more about her.
The more I learned, the more I grew to love her. Her childhood was difficult from the start. Unlike her sisters, she was physically unattractive and suffered developmental delays. “The poor child worries me; she has a very undisciplined nature, and mentally she is underdeveloped,” her mother wrote. Irritating eczema covered her skin throughout her life. At one point, Madame Martin privately wrote that the child “is the greatest suffering of my life.”
Leonie was socially awkward. When she tried to play with other children, her play was often disruptive and out-of-place. She acted unruly in traditional classrooms and had to be educated at home. She bonded with a little sister with whom she shared a room, but that girl died at the age of 5 (Leonie was 6 at the time). Seeing how different she was from her siblings, Leonie once expressed the fear that she had been exchanged at birth for another baby.
Then Leonie suffered more torment, trauma that remained hidden from the family for months. During her mother’s fight with breast cancer, the family left Leonie in the care of a maid. They later discovered that the maid viciously abused the poor girl. (Decades later in old age, the former maid sought and received Leonie’s forgiveness.)
The family struggled with her delays, sudden outbursts, and unusual behaviors, behaviors that would likely be diagnosed today as autistic. They decided to have Leonie spend time with her mother’s sister at the aunt’s Vistandine convent.
The time there became a gift to Leonie. The aunt wrote to her sister: “As you know, the poor child has plenty of faults… [At first,] I scolded her whenever she didn’t do well… I was making her unhappy… I wanted to be God’s Providence to her so I stopped scolding her and started to be very gentle with her, telling her that I saw she wanted to be good … and that I had faith in her. This had a magical effect – not just temporary, but lasting; now I find her a lovely, obedient child.”
Leonie’s aunt had come to recognize that punishment would never work with a girl like Leonie. She recognized that by trying to understand and work with Leonie as she was she would be able to get better results. The time with her aunt made a lasting impression upon this most awkward Martin. In adulthood, Leonie ultimately chose to enter a Vistandine convent while her sisters all entered the Carmelites.
At the age of thirteen Leonie wrote to her dying aunt at the convent, “My dear Aunt, when you get to heaven, ask God, please, let him do me the favor to convert me, and also give me the vocation to become a true religious, because I think about it every day.”
Of course, Leonie’s struggles would not end upon entering the Vistandines. She failed in her first three attempts to become a sister, often being asked to leave due to poor health. Yet she persevered and did not give in to despair. Despite her challenges, she did not waste her adulthood stewing in resentment or a sense of victimization. She transformed her suffering into holiness.
Yet after The Story of a Soul brought worldwide fame to the Martin family, Leonie’s name all but disappeared. When the bishop of Leonie’s own diocese celebrated St. Therese’s life in his homily he mentioned all of Therese’s sisters, except one: Leonie. For decades afterward, Leonie was routinely dismissed as the “difficult” sister.
The one book written about her in English, Leonie: A Difficult Life, while written with admiration, still tends to follow the narrative of Leonie as a difficult girl who finally learned to be good. With what we now know of neurobiology, it is more likely that she was a different child who slowly learned how to adapt to a difficult world.
That world is increasingly discovering Leonie’s holiness. While her name was largely absent in the early twentieth century as Therese’s fame spread, devotion to Leonie grew in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. In 1960, the Vistandine convent where she lived into old age received the first letter asking for her intercession. Such requests grew exponentially in the decades following. Parents struggling to raise their children or young people struggling to find their way in the world routinely show up at the convent year after year to visit her grave.
Her life has inspired a new lay order, the Leonie League for the Advancement of Autistic Persons, “open to both neurotypical and autistic vocations.” The league hopes to establish an order of sisters (and possibly brothers).
Leonie would be amused by the attention. Once, when a priest knocked at the door of her convent and inquired if he could meet the Martin sister who lived there, she quipped “But, Father, I can assure you that you will lose nothing by not seeing her; it’s hardly worth the trouble.”
And her cause for sainthood is moving forward, inching her ever closer to canonization.
How did this happen? Why did the Catholic world grow to recognize this forgotten sister? Is it because of increased recognition of special needs or simply that increased social fragmentation has led many to feel a bond with her as they try to find their place in the world?
Who knows? All Leonie’s fans know is they are elated that more of the faithful are finally discovering the unmentioned Martin.