Saint Thérèse of Lisieux’s Parents and Vocational Discernment

Louis Martin, Thérèse’s father

I’ve finally gotten around to reading St. Thérèse of Lisieux’s autobiography, The Story of a Soul. It’s a great read, but one of the things that fascinated me was actually from the introduction, which gave some background on Thérèse’s family.

Thérèse’s parents were holy, and wanted to give their entire lives to God.  When they were younger, each of them had pursued the religious life, going so far as to apply to particular orders. Thérèse’s mother, Zélie Guérin, applied to the Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, while Thérèse’s father, Louis Martin, applied to the Augustinian Monastery of the Great St Bernard.  Both of them were rejected.

Zélie ended up becoming a lacemaker, while Louis became a watchmaker.  Externally, this would seem to be something of a failure — making lace and watches seems to have little to do with bringing glory to God, particularly in comparison with being a monk or a nun.  Eventually, in 1858, Zélie and Louis met, fell in love, and three months later, married.  At first, the two did not consummate the marriage – they wanted a spiritual marriage, living as brother and sister in a non-sexual relationship.  After nine months, at the insistence of their confessor, the marriage was finally consummated.

In all, Louis and Zélie gave birth to nine children.  Three of them died in infancy, and a fourth at the age of five.  This left five children, all daughters: Marie, Pauline, Léonie, Céline, and the baby of the family, Thérèse.  Prior to Thérèse’s fourth birthday, her mother, Zélie, died of breast cancer, leaving Louis to raise the four girls.  Each of them would go on to become nuns, and Thérèse, of course, went on to become the 33rd Doctor of the Church.

I think that the lives of Zélie and Louis help illustrate the mysterious way in which marriage and family are intertwined with celibacy and the religious life. The Catechism remarks on this in CCC 1620, which says:

St. Thérèse of Lisieux
Both the sacrament of Matrimony and virginity for the Kingdom of God come from the Lord himself. It is he who gives them meaning and grants them the grace which is indispensable for living them out in conformity with his will. (Cf. Mt 19:3-12.) Esteem of virginity for the sake of the kingdom (Cf. LG 42; PC 12; OT 10.) and the Christian understanding of marriage are inseparable, and they reinforce each other:

“Whoever denigrates marriage also diminishes the glory of virginity. Whoever praises it makes virginity more admirable and resplendent. What appears good only in comparison with evil would not be truly good. The most excellent good is something even better than what is admitted to be good.” (St. John Chrysostom, De virg. 10,1:PG 48,540; Cf. John Paul II, FC 16.)

Marriage is an amazing good, for the benefit of man, and for the glory of God. Celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom of God is an even superior good. But the greatest good is to do the will of God. For Louis and Zélie, this meant the married life.  And through marriage and family, they accomplished much more than they likely would have as a simple nun and monk: together, they gave the world one of the greatest Saints of all time.

In discussing vocations, it’s helpful to speak of the primary vocation and secondary vocation.  The primary vocation is simple.  You’re called to be a Saint.  Doesn’t matter who you are, what your strengths or weaknesses are, or what your state of life is.  God designed you to know, love, and serve Him, and to enjoy eternity with Him.  That’s what sanctity is.  The secondary vocation, whether you’re called to be a priest, monk, nun, father, mother, or a single man or woman, flows out of the first: it’s the way that you’re called to live out your primary vocation.  Louis and Zélie didn’t end up with the secondary vocations that either of them anticipated for themselves.  But by staying loyal to God throughout, they lived out inspiring and holy lives, and raised a saintly family.  The Church recognized this, not only in canonizing their daughter, and declaring her a Doctor of the Church, but in beatifying Louis and Zélie themselves.


  1. I recently finished a seminar (for lack of better explanation) at church on the female perspective on Theology of the Body.

    In it, the author of the book we used, Katrina Zeno, suggested that we all have a third vocation as well (and women in general a forth). The third vocation is our own personal chrism, ie what our duty is in life. And I suppose for Louis and Zelie it was to instill profound holiness and consecration in their children. The forth duty is motherhood and this applies to both spiritual mothers (nuns/sisters/single women/the infertile) and actual motherhood. I suppose this applies to men as well. You are called to spiritual fatherhood as you enter the seminary. Best of Luck on your vocations!

  2. Thank you for sharing. The Story of a Soul is sitting on my bookshelf, waiting to be read over the summer. Thanks again for the insights on vocations, married life etc. Peace. Agnes

  3. What edition of The Story of a Soul has this fine introduction and who wrote it?

    A procedural question: Is it okay to be asking questions about old posts on Shameless Popery or do you prefer that we stay with your current topic? If okay, should the question be posted on the old thread or the most current thread?

    1. The reflections are my own, but based on information I read in the introduction to Story of a Soul, Third Edition, which contains lengthy commentaries and questions for reflections between chapters (they’re much better than I anticipated that they would be).

      Brandon Vogt also recommends the twin biographies of Louis and Zélie Martin, saying: “I *highly* recommend them. Plus they have two great traits for modern readers: they’re cheap ($7.95) and short (just over 120 pages each).”  They’re written by Thérèse’s older sister Celine.

      As for your procedural question, you’re free to ask, but I’m generally not as prompt in responding on older posts.  Sometimes, though, it’s worth it, because someone else will notice it and respond.



  4. Did you hear that Louise and Zelie were helped by a priest? The first year of their marriage, Louise had them living celibate. He thought that was a higher form of prayerful marriage. Their priest heard about it and said “no, that is not the way of marriage.” At the baptismal font of his oldest daughter, Louise said famously “this is my first time here, but it will not be my last.” There youngest child was our delightful Saint the Little Flower.

    Don’t forget that when your a priest, your good advice to the laity about marriage is important. It bears figurative and literal (!) fruit!

    1. I did hear that — it’s certainly an instructive example, and really does show the way that the priesthood, married life, and religious life are beautifully intertwined.

  5. Marriage, and specifically who your marry, is the most important decision of your life. Marriage is the most important decision of your life. And just to make sure it sticks: Marriage is the most important decision of your life.

    Who you marry will determine if you are happy in your life, or if you realize that when you said “Till death do us part…” you were actually setting a goal…

    When you’re a priest you’re probably going to see both of those extremes…

  6. I agree that it should be affirmed that both virginity and marriage are good vocations. Also, it is indeed most important to choose the vocation to which God has called you. However, it must also be upheld that virginity for the sake of the kingdom is a superior vocation. This is because it is a self gift to God in an exclusive way. This exclusive love of God enables a person who faithfully lives a vocation to virginity to grow in sanctity more quickly than one who faithfully lives a marriage vocation.

    1. Louis’ Latin was very poor. I’m not sure about Zélie, but I’ve heard that she had a strong personality – it’s possible that the Superior just thought she wouldn’t prosper well.

    2. Some accounts give Zelie’s health as the reason, but she was young, devout, hard-working, and energetic. Others state that the superior of the Daughters of Charity simply told her that she had no vocation to the religious life. Was the superior inspired by God? Interesting that Zelie, before she had met her husband, decided to choose marriage and asked God to give her many children and let them all be consecrated to God.

  7. I highly recommend “The Story of a Family” by Stephane-Joseph Piat, which tells their story beautifully and also provides insight into the life of St Therese.

  8. Bishop Jacques Habert, bishop of the diocese of Seez, where Louis and Zelie spent their married life, presented a conference in French, “How Can Louis and Zelie Help Us Today In Our Prayer For Vocations?” at the diocesan day of prayer for vocations in Alencon on September 10, 2013. I’ve received permission to translate it into English and am looking for someone to undertake the translation. If you can help, let me know. You may read it in French at

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *