Next week a lot of us will be making turkey soup with leftovers from Thanksgiving. We don’t throw away good food after the feast, just find another way to use it. In a similar way, I am posting today a discarded portion of my book on St. Therese. I decided to go in a different direction with my chapter on childhood tragedies. But I had already written an account of Blessed Zelie Martin’s death, and I didn’t want to waste it. So you, gentle readers, get to eat my “leftovers.” Buon Appetito, as my father-in-law likes to say.
Diagnosed with a “fibrous tumor”
In 1876, Zelie’s sister Marie-Louise, now Visitation Sister Marie-Dosithee, was dying of tuberculosis. Her imminent death shook Zelie out of the inertia caused by lack of confidence in the medical doctors available to her. For years she had resisted consulting anyone over the lingering pain in her breast. Headaches, eye-strain, and digestive problems also troubled her ). Shortly before the end of the year, she consulted Dr. Prevost. He diagnosed a “fibrous tumor”—cancer—and told Zelie an operation would be useless. At the urging of her brother and sister-in-law, she sought a second opinion from prominent surgeon Dr. Alphonse-Henri Notta in Lisieux. His conclusion was the same. It was too late to save Zelie’s life. The best doctors could do was prolong it.
Zelie wrote to Louis from Lisieux, telling him the shocking news. They tried to hide it from their children, but Pauline overheard her parents talking and insisted on knowing what was happening. Eventually, all the girls but Celine and Therese would know the truth.
Zelie strove to go on as she had before—except for the fervent prayers she and her loved ones offered for her healing. She continued working at her lace. Family duties also kept her busy, although she gave Marie the care of much of the housework.
Zelie makes a pilgrimage to Lourdes
But when her sister died on February 24, Zelie appears to have lost hope. Her health rapidly declined.
Lent came. Zelie fasted and abstained with the Church, despite her illness.
In June, Zelie, Marie, Pauline, and Leonie went on a pilgrimage to Lourdes. Before leaving, Zelie threw out the prescription Dr. Prevost had given her. She was praying for a miracle, knowing that no prescription could save her. The trip brought one trial after another. They missed a train, Leonie had swollen feet, Marie was tormented by dust in her eye, and both Pauline and Leonie had motion sickness. Marie lost her aunt’s rosary in Lourdes. Pauline lost her own, and her aunt’s medals. Zelie twisted her neck. On the way home, their bottles of Lourdes water leaked.
Never one to enjoy traveling, Zelie returned home in a worse condition than she had left. Nonetheless, she was glad she had gone. “[A]t least I have nothing to reproach myself with,” she wrote to her brother Isidore Guerin and his wife Celine. She had done all she could.
The final stages of her disease
Within days of returning home, Zelie experienced such pain at night that she could hardly sleep. Still, she rose early every morning to walk to 5:30 Mass, as she had done for years. Every few steps she had to stop and rest. The pain in her neck was excruciating.
Soon fever appeared.
Marie had been caring for Celine and Therese, the two youngest daughters. As Zelie entered the final stages of the disease, she sent them to spend their days with their cousin’s wife, Madame Leriche. Although no one had spoken to them about Zelie’s failing health, they knew she was far from well.
Zelie had no fear for the futures of her two little ones. She also knew that Pauline, the daughter most like herself, would ultimately be fine. But she had some concern over Marie, who was not drawn to either marriage or religious life at this time. And “poor Leonie,” as the final Martin sister was known, caused her much anxiety. Leonie affectionately spent every moment she could with her mother, often covering her with kisses, as though that could cure her. But it was finally clear that nothing could keep Zelie in this life long. No miracle occurred.
Anointing and death
On August 26, a priest gave Zelie the last sacraments. “I can still see the place where I stood next to Celine,” St. Therese wrote nearly twenty years later. “All five of us were in line according to age, and poor Papa was there too, sobbing.”
The Guerins were present the next day when Zelie passed away about 12:30. Before dying, Zelie looked intently at her sister-in-law Celine. Celine Guerin took this as a plea to look after the Martin children. After Zelie was laid to rest, Celine Guerin urged Louis to move his family to Lisieux to be closer to their relatives. He eagerly followed this advice.
The above information is taken from Story of a Life by Bishop Guy Gaucher (1987: Harper & Row, New York), pp. 23-25; and A Short Life of Blessed Zelie Martin, Mother of St. Therese. J. Linus Ryan, O. Carm.