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Blessed Zélie Martin is an extraordinary role model for young Catholic women

The relics of Blessed Louis and Zélie Martin at the Cathedral Church of St Mary and St Boniface in Plymouth (Mazur/catholicnews.org.uk)

Bishop Mark O’Toole has had the foresight to invite the precious relics of St Thérèse of Lisieux’s parents to the Diocese of Plymouth which is kick-starting their tour of southern England. Pope Francis is expected to canonise the parents of the Little Flower during the October Synod. This is a new chapter for the Catholic Church because it is the first time that a married couple will be canonised together. Bishop O’Toole has written eloquently in the Catholic Herald that he hopes the visit of the relics will “enkindle a real celebration of Christian marriage”.

The presence of the saintly remains of Blessed Zélie should ignite discussion of her choices, which made her marriage such a successful and happy one. I doubt that many from the feminist establishment will rush to agree with me, but young Catholic women have much to learn from mother of nine, Blessed Zélie.

Zélie was the second child of French middle-class parents, couched between an older sister who became a nun and a younger brother who was the pet of the family. Her mother indulged the youngest, but was very harsh with her middle child. Zélie described her childhood as “sad as a shroud”, but she didn’t let her mother’s severity crush her personality.

Zélie tried to enter religious life, but was rejected, and so became a lace-maker, specialising in the famous Point d’Alençon. In her early twenties, she set up her own business, which relied on outworkers. She was always very fair with her staff, helping them to get work with other lacemakers when she didn’t have enough orders and visiting them when they were sick.

Zélie married her husband, a watchmaker, for love. In one of her letters to Louis, she writes, “your wife who loves you more than her life”. Zélie continued to work as a lacemaker after their marriage. When they first married, they decided to practice continual continence, but abandoned this plan, and Zélie would bear nine children, and the five girls who survived childhood would all enter religious life. Zélie, in contrast to her own mother, was very loving to her daughters, and combined her roles in a busy routine of homemaker, businesswoman and tender mother. Then tragedy struck and breast cancer claimed her life when she was in her 40s.

She may have perished young, but Zélie Martin’s example for young women today is very much that of “yes you can”. You can develop your talents to become a master of your trade, you can raise five children and maintain your business at the same time. Perhaps most strikingly is that Zélie did not allow commerce to harden her heart, and she was considerate to her staff as well as prioritising her children over her lace-making. This article by Christopher J Lane deftly describes that Zélie, “could set aside her lace to spend two hours on a dolls’ dinner party”.

Zélie Martin is unlikely to be held up as a feminist role model any time soon. Feminism likes to take too much credit for female empowerment, while pushing the limited idea that women are ‘free’ when they are able to ‘control’ their fertility, reduce their family sizes and put a career first, if they wish, while delegating child-rearing to other people. But here we have a 19th Century French mother who took great delight in bringing up children.

It may seem obvious to point out that Zélie Martin lived before there was freely available contraception. But even for her time Zélie was very determined to be open to life. She must have found it heartbreaking to have buried four infants. Had Zélie not persevered in being so open to life, then she may not have had a fifth living daughter, St Thérèse of Lisieux, a dearly beloved saint who is a great intercessor in heaven for people on this earth. When we give thanks for St Thérèse of Lisieux, the youngest of a family that would nowadays be considered very big, we must not neglect to remember her mother’s openness to life that made St Thérèse’s life on this earth possible.