The Promotion of the Cults of Louis and Zélie Martin by the Carmel of Lisieux, 1897-1959

Sophia L Deboick. Journal of Religious History. Volume 42, Issue 4. December 2018.

This article examines the promotion of the cults of the parents of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux by their daughters, nuns of the Carmel of Lisieux, from the time of Thérèse’s death in 1897 until the late 1950s. Louis and Zélie Martin were made saints in the first joint canonisation of spouses in the history of the church in 2015—this article traces the laying of the foundations for their official recognition well over half a century before. It examines in particular the work of Céline Martin (1869-1959), the chief promoter of Saint Thérèse’s own cult and author of her popular image, in developing a public face for the Martin parents, situating this history within the interest of celebrity studies in the industrial production of celebrity. It goes on to analyse the modes in which the Martins were represented in both key images and texts—principally Céline’s portraits of them and the biographies she wrote in the 1950s. It is shown that she ultimately wrote them into two devotional themes—that of sacrificial victimhood and abandonment to God’s will—and in doing so cast them as precursors to Thérèse’s own spiritual insights.

When Thérèse Martin (Sœur Thérèse de l’Enfant‐Jésus) was canonised in 1925, her three sisters, Marie (Sœur Marie du Sacré‐Cœur), Pauline (Mère Agnès de Jésus), and Céline Martin (Sœur Geneviève de la Sainte Face), all Carmelites from the same community as their younger sister, witnessed the fruition of almost thirty years of promotional work, living to see her become Saint Thérèse of Lisieux—”the greatest saint of modern times,” according to Pius X. Through popular publications, images, and merchandise, Thérèse had been marketed to the faithful from the Carmel of Lisieux, gaining popular acclaim and rallying the powerful men of the church to her Cause, seeing her canonised in a record‐breaking twenty‐seven years. Today this nun from Normandy, dead from tuberculosis at just 24, enjoys an unrivalled suite of honours as Patroness of France and the Missions and a Doctor of the church, her spiritual philosophy of the “little way” being known to millions. This article takes the position that the theresian success was not the end of the Martin sisters’ saint‐making. While they had indeed “actively constructed a religious image of their youngest sister in a way that sustained their family mythology,” heavily editing her writings, fashioning sentimentalised portraits, and reworking photographs, this article shows how Céline, having taken the lead in campaigning for Thérèse, later turned her full attention to this “family mythology,” carrying out a similar process of public image‐making for the Martin parents, Louis and Zélie Martin. They were canonised in October 2015 in the first joint canonisation of spouses in the history of the church. If the Martin family have made sainthood a family business, Céline—the sister closest in age to Thérèse and by the late 1950s the last remaining member of the family—was the entrepreneur behind that business, laying the foundations for her parents’ official recognition by reshaping their public image over half a century ago, both through portraits she, a keen amateur artist, painted or drew herself, and popular biographies.

This article examines the ways in which Zélie and Louis Martin were represented in works Céline produced from the time of Thérèse’s death in 1897 until the end of her own life, doing so through the lens of the concept of the saint as celebrity—a popular icon with an ever‐shifting popular representation. The first public textual representation of the Martin parents had in fact been in Thérèse’s autobiography, Histoire d’une âme, published in 1898, and the images of them produced by Céline around the turn of the century were initially intended as illustrations for successive editions of the book. Half a century later, then in her seventies, Céline became preoccupied with securing her parents’ legacy, and the last two decades of her life, a period commencing with the Second World War, saw her dedicate herself to writing and research on them, including writing their biographies. This article analyses these publications as texts but also as material religious products, part of a devotional industry, and shows that the images selected to illustrate the books were significant in augmenting the portrayal given in the text. It identifies the key modes in which the parents were represented, showing that while today the Martins are figured as ideal Catholic parents according to modern values, Céline cast them in the light of a devotional culture where martyrdom, suffering and complete acceptance of the will of God were valourised, and supernatural signs taken as proof of sanctity. In associating her parents with these devotional tropes, Céline figured them as key precursors to Thérèse’s own spiritual achievements.

The Martin Parents —Their Lives and Afterlives

Louis‐Joseph‐Aloys‐Stanislas Martin (1823-1894) and Azélie‐Marie Guérin (1831-1877) had both tried to enter religious orders in their youth but instead ended up as successful business people, as a watchmaker and lacemaker respectively, in Alençon, Normandy. Their first meeting has been cast in hagiographical tones, since Zélie heard an inner voice say “That is he whom I have prepared for you,” and they married in July 1858. They lived celibately for ten months, but were later persuaded by a priest that marriage made the bearing of children a duty, and nine were born between 1860 and 1873. Only five survived infancy—all girls, and all eventually became nuns. In an atmosphere of abiding Jansenist influence, the Martins were, according to Ruth Harris, “a tightly woven, tormented family in which a self‐conscious, sometimes morbid religious belief permeated every aspect of life.” Indeed, the four dead children were regarded as saints and were the cornerstone of what has been called the “Martin family romance,” and the daughters were set almost unobtainable ideals of piety. However, the parents were warm and affectionate, and took a joyful pleasure in their children’s care. In August 1877, when Thérèse was just four, Zélie died of breast cancer and Louis moved the family to be near his brother‐in‐law’s family in Lisieux. Living an insular life symptomatic of many monarchist, ultramontanist Catholics under the anti‐clerical Third Republic, the daughters treated their widower father with extreme reverence and were highly emotionally interdependent. By 1888 all the Martin girls except Céline had entered religious orders, it seeming the only refuge from a corrupting world. Shortly after Thérèse’s departure for Carmel at the age of just 15, Louis, suffering from a neurological condition, went missing from home and was later confined to an institution in Caen for three years. He returned home when his physical incapacity meant he was no longer a danger to himself and was diligently nursed by Céline. Two years later, in July 1894, he died with her at his side.

The Martin sisters all spoke with one voice on the matter of their parents. Two months before her death, Thérèse wrote, “The good God gave me a father and mother more worthy of Heaven than of Earth,” and in her autobiography, characteristically referring to herself as a flower, she portrayed the fecund Martin household as somehow chaste—it was “holy soil, impregnated with a virginal perfume.” Her poems Le Cantique de Céline and Prière de l’enfant d’un Saint recalled their family life in the most exalted tones, and around 1890 she painted a chasuble showing the Holy Face surrounded by four unopened lilies (the dead Martin children), five lily blooms (the five sisters), and two white roses (the Martin parents). The “wedding” invitation she wrote for her reception of the veil in September 1890 was issued by “Monsieur Louis Martin, Proprietor and Master of the Domains of Suffering and Humiliation and Madame Martin, Princess and Lady of Honour of the Heavenly Court”—this was indeed a family cult. Her father’s “little Queen,” while she called him the “King of France and Navarre,” she wrote that she had “only to look at him to see how saints pray.” Yet there was an overall impression here of Louis as a dreamy and distant man, and this would later be exploited by critical biographers. Zélie, meanwhile, dimly remembered by Thérèse, is a remote figure in the autobiography. When Pauline, Marie, and Céline testified at the diocesan tribunal for Thérèse’s Process in 1910-11, they described their parents as extremely observant (attending 5.30 a.m. Mass daily, for example), and focussed on the world beyond. Pauline said of her parents that “Their only concern, one might say, was our spiritual welfare.” Marie concurred that they “very often reminded us of eternity,” while Céline stated that they practised a “detachment from all the things of the world… Eternal life was the dominant preoccupation of my parents.” It was these austerely holy parents that Céline later sought to present to the world.

At the time of these testimonies, Céline had already begun her work on her parents’ posthumous promotion. A complex personality who had suffered considerable personal strife, before entering the Carmel still in a state of indecision about her life’s path, the often irascible Céline applied the same determination to her promotion of her parents as she had to that of Thérèse. She completed portraits of her father and mother very early in the life of the cult of Thérèse, in 1898 and 1902 respectively, and these appeared in books produced by the Carmel, as well on other devotional merchandise, first sold by the Carmel itself and, from 1917, by the Office Central de Lisieux, the convent’s business arm. However, it was twenty years after the canonisation of Saint Thérèse that Céline began her work on her parents’ public image in earnest. With the success of Thérèse’s cult had come criticism, and many authors of rehabilitative biographical studies of this new saint published in the 1920s and 1930s sought a tougher, less sentimental Thérèse, attacking the Martin family as deeply dysfunctional in the process. In an article of 1926, one Père Ubald criticised Thérèse’s “wild” behaviour on a pilgrimage to Rome in 1887 and revealed new details of Louis’ mental decline—this was later reprinted in full in novelist Lucie Delarue‐Mardrus’s second biography of Thérèse, published in 1937. In the same year the surrealist Pierre Mabille published a short work that described Thérèse as a sadomasochistic schizophrenic, asserting that the many diseases and premature deaths in the Martin family, including Louis’ illness, were caused by congenital syphilis, and accusing the family of being psychologically fixated on death. A popular image of Louis as apathetic, weak, and at the mercy of his strident daughters’ whims formed, and while the Carmel and its allies issued several rebuttals of these ouvrages de controverse, the rumours endured.

There was already talk of canonisation of the Martin parents when the 1945 book Histoire d’une famille, authored by Père Stéphane‐Joseph Piat in collaboration with the Carmel, appeared, and it was a sustained response to the anti‐Martin attacks. In 1953 and 1954 Céline’s biographies of her parents were published and the introduction of the Cause for their beatification occurred in 1957, in time for the elderly Céline to testify at their Process. In 1958 she participated in the exhumation and sorting of her parents’ remains, and she oversaw the publication of her mother’s letters as Correspondance familiale the same year. Céline died, aged nearly 90, the following February, but institutional support for the canonisation of the Martin parents had already been well established during her lifetime, with Cardinal Vico, Prefect of the Sacred Congregation of Rites, allegedly saying at the time of Thérèse’s canonisation “Now it is time to take care of Papa!,” while at the celebration for Céline’s fifty years of religious profession, Bishop Picaud of Bayeux expressed his wish that they would be canonised. Following the diocesan processes for each of the Martin spouses and the approval of their writings in 1964, in 1971 Pope Paul VI exceptionally united the two Causes. In 1994 Pope John Paul II declared their heroic virtues and in 2003 the beatification miracle was examined—the healing in June the previous year, following a novena to the couple, of Pietro Schilirò, who had suffered life‐threatening pulmonary problems after his birth near Milan. The Vatican recognised the miracle in mid‐2008 and the Martins were beatified on 19 October. Four days before the beatification, Carmen Perez Pons had been born in Valencia and suffered a brain haemorrhage. She recovered the following month after prayers to the Martins and Pope Francis recognised this as a miracle in March 2015. Louis and Zélie were canonised in October that year.

The church’s representation of Louis and Zélie today emphasises their central role in raising children in the faith. In his homily at their canonisation mass, Pope Francis emphasised that the Martins “practised Christian service in the family, creating day by day an environment of faith and love.” On the occasion of their beatification, on 82nd World Mission Day, Cardinal José Saraiva Martins spoke of their “exemplary testimony of conjugal love, which is likely to stimulate Christian homes in the full practice of Christian virtues,” emphasising their support for the missions and role in bringing their daughters and, through them, other people, to God. But there is also an effort today to show them as thoroughly “modern.” The Sanctuaire d’Alençon website emphasises that the Martin spouses’ “late marriage, torment for the survival and future of their children, [struggles with their troubled daughter] Léonie—a difficult child, economic and professional problems, concerns due to political uncertainties in the country, Zélie’s breast cancer, disease causing severe mental disorders to Louis in his old age” all speak to modern concerns. While the works issued by the Carmel examined in this article are still relevant—in 2016 Histoire d’une famille was republished as A Family of Saints and Céline’s two biographies of her parents were parcelled up into Mes saints parents—they have been considerably repackaged as devotional products, with the former containing a foreword reflecting on what the Martin spouses can say to modern Catholic families. As this article will show, Céline’s representation of her parents diverged from this emphasis on ordinariness as she attempted to make them rarefied, sanctified figures by writing them into key devotional tropes.

The Saint as Celebrity and the Devotional Context

In approaching Céline Martin’s representations of her parents, this article looks to celebrity studies for theoretical direction, and it also analyses Céline’s shaping of her parents’ public image in the context of key devotional trends of late‐nineteenth‐century Catholicism. Celebrity studies is an area still in its infancy. Richard Dyer’s foundational work, using Barthean semiotics to analyse film stars, is useful in highlighting that the popular icon has a public image that becomes malleable in popular culture, and is reshaped and owned by many different constituencies, while Chris Rojek’s sustained theorisation of celebrity make his book of 2000 a key work (although, notably, Rojek looks at celebrity in terms of religion, not the other way round). Su Holmes and Sean Redmond have pointed to the slow emergence of historical work on celebrity, while Graeme Turner has suggested that celebrity studies needs to turn to more empirical study of “the industrial production” of celebrity, rather than just looking at it as “a category of media text,” advocating for analysis of celebrity as “a commodity” and “a cultural formation that has a social function.” In accordance with this, this article takes the position that understanding the modern saint as celebrity can be an enlightening approach for two reasons: it allows us to fully recognise the construction of the modern saint through an industrial process and it permits an understanding of the modern saint as an icon who has many potential cultural and social uses within a popular culture that has porous boundaries between the sacred and the secular.

The study of commercial religion is another emergent area of study, although Suzanne Kaufman’s work on Lourdes may be especially mentioned in this respect, and it may be noted that in indicating the usefulness of the concept of “celebrity” for the historian, Simon Morgan signalled in particular how it may allow understanding of “the development of consumer society and the expansion of the public sphere,” and the role of “images, print culture and other commodities” in mediating the relationship between the icon and their public. Indeed, Gëzim Alpion has stated that “like any famous person, religious personalities often employ the press and every other medium of mass communication with dexterity and, at times, unscrupulously, to reach out to their intended audiences.” While Aviad Kleinberg has argued that industrialisation and mass media are not essential contexts for celebrity, indicating the existence of celebrity culture back to the twelfth century, this risks the concept losing all meaning, and in fact, as Lenard R. Berlanstein states, “Celebrities do not seem to have been a society‐wide preoccupation before World War I.” Industry and celebrity are inextricably linked, and the concept of celebrity is most relevant for modern saints, subject to industrialised forms of promotion—celebrity, industry, and sanctity form an intriguing triptych. Using the lens of celebrity studies allows the history of the work of the Carmel of Lisieux on the Martin saints (all three of them) to be understood as significant not just for religious history but for our understanding of celebrity as industry and saint as celebrity in the twentieth century, with these personalities reshaped and promoted through multi‐media material products. While the “fabrication” of saints has been examined as a range of different processes—centralised, Vatican‐led, top‐down; local or religious order‐led; bottom‐up through the transformative consumption of “fans,” or a combination of these—this has only been done incompletely, and this article’s examination of the representation and promotion of the Martin parents in text and image attempts to make a contribution to this area.

Understanding saints as celebrities allows us to begin to understand the full reach of their social and cultural function. Rojek asserts “celebrity = impact on public consciousness” and it may be argued that seeing modern saints as celebrities opens up that they are general icons, as well as saints in the rigidly‐defined, officially sanctioned sense, with an influence on historical memory, national and individual identity, and wider cultural life. There has been a clear overlap in the cultural uses of religious saints and secular icons in the twentieth century—both saints and celebrities are ultimately valourised people and in both cases the dissemination, re‐use, and re‐imagining of the image of icons as they become subject to the changing nature of the cultural worlds they belong to is at issue. Icons forged in the crucible of formative historical events gain a key stake in their social and cultural worlds—indeed, in his study of the renewal of the cult of Saint Jude in twentieth‐century America, Robert Orsi states that “The American Jude obviously resembled other Depression‐era popular heroes, real and imaginary… Jude came suddenly on the scene… just when he was most needed—like… Superman [or] the Lone Ranger.” Indeed, Thérèse herself, gaining traction during the First World War, has been identified as a kind of transcultural trenches pin‐up, and it is notable that comparative studies exist of her and both Édith Piaf and Madame Bovary. Understanding modern saints as celebrities allows us to begin to appreciate the extent of their cultural impact across the false academic boundaries between religious and “mainstream” cultures.

The devotional trends of Céline’s milieu are essential context for her work on her parents’ image. Late‐nineteenth‐century Catholic Europe is often seen as having embraced a “feminised” piety where the Virgin was central, devotion to her revived by several Marian visions and the development of accompanying pilgrimages, not least that of Lourdes, along with a growth in devotion to female saints and an explosion in the number of women entering the cloister or becoming third order members of religious communities. This period also saw the crystallisation of several pre‐existing devotions into new forms and new iconographical modes. The Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary became central motifs, their visual representation in the “kitsch” Saint‐Sulpician style, along with the androgynous portrayal of Jesus that typified this ephemeral and sentimental brand of devotional art, being a key part of the alleged “feminisation” of Catholic popular piety. In this context, “heaven became ‘domesticated’,” with a renewed focus on the Holy Family. Crucially, it was also women who tended to invest in the doctrine of “vicarious suffering,” where a “victim soul” sought suffering for the redemption of others, a devotional trope that has been examined in detail by Paula Kane. This had a particular relevance for modern France, where “the suffering body of Christ, the martyred body of the King, the wounded French nation… the humiliated body of the Church and of its earthly Father, the pope, all became equivalents of each other,” and this was a world view fully embraced by the Martin family.

This was the devotional world that Céline had been brought up in. The emphasis on the Holy Family was an ideal environment for the Martin family romance to thrive, and Saint Joseph was a key figure in their household—both Martin boys took his name and Zélie attributed Thérèse’s sudden cure from a potentially fatal illness as a small baby to her prayers to him. Marian devotion was central to the family’s faith—Céline wrote evocatively of the family statue known as The Virgin of the Smile, as it smiled upon Thérèse in a miraculous vision she had when suffering from a hysterical illness as a child, “we used to kiss it so often that its fingers were all broken and it was necessary to have, in reserve, several pairs of hands!”—and the Martin daughters’ identification of the absent Zélie with the Holy Mother and vice versa has been popularly speculated upon. Thérèse’s sainthood had been built in the context of this devotional culture at the turn of the century. She was ideal for the times—”made to order for her century” according to novelist Gilbert Cesbron—but by the time Céline was writing her parents’ biographies this culture was on the eve of the seismic changes heralded by Vatican II. Living in the rarefied world of a Carmelite cloister, Céline’s tastes remained unchanged over a period of fifty years, however, and she would continue to use standards of sainthood in her texts and a Saint‐Sulpician style in her images which originated in the nineteenth century.

A Portrait of a Family—Images of the Martin Parents

During her lifetime Céline produced over twenty portraits of Thérèse, creating an iconographical foundation for her cult. Through a small number of portraits and other pictures she would seek to fix her parents’ image in the same way, later augmenting this with her textual representations. The first time she depicted them, however, it was ostensibly not an image of them at all. The year after Thérèse’s death, Céline completed a large oil painting showing the Holy Family which bore the hallmarks of the Saint‐Sulpician style. Two plump‐limbed angels offer a lily and rose petals to the Holy Family, one beckoning the viewer, while winged putti emerge from clouds. In a notebook about her artworks she began in the early 1940s, Céline explained that the beckoning angel represented Thérèse as a child, while she had tried to make the putti look like the dead Martin children “without success… However one can recognise little Hélène and little Marie‐Joseph‐Louis a little.” Indeed, they are clearly recognisable from photographs; however, crucially, Joseph and Mary also bear strong resemblances to the Martin parents. Despite being intended for solely private use in the choir of the Carmel, this depiction of the Martins as a literally holy family appeared as a plate in Histoire d’une âme from the fifth edition of 1902 onwards and was also printed on prayer cards. By representing the parents in this way, Céline was very clearly, if not very deftly, lifting these ordinary members of late‐nineteenth‐century France’s petite bourgeoisie out of their prosaic historical lives and placing them in a timeless and sacred context. The use of the likenesses of the parents in this way was not made widely known, but it shows Céline’s keenness to promote the family mythology of the saintly parents and four children in heaven from the very beginning of the life of the cult of Thérèse.

Céline’s first full portrait of one of her parents was Thérèse et son Père, a large charcoal drawing intended for the first edition of Histoire d’une âme but that did not appear until the second edition of 1899. Thérèse, aged perhaps ten with ringleted hair and an aureole, stands in front of her white‐haired, distinguished‐looking father in three‐quarters view. In her private memoirs Céline asserted that this rather naïve image was nothing less than miraculous. She wrote of her struggles over the portrait, saying “If Thérèse was fine, papa had no resemblance at all and there was no hope,” blaming this on demonic sabotage. However, she goes on: Sœur Marie du Sacré‐Cœur, in a surge of faith, left the cell and prostrated herself at the feet of the statue of Mary in the oratory next door. Mère Agnès de Jésus and I soon followed her. When all three of us came back in we stood facing [the portrait]. O surprise! Suddenly we saw the portrait change gradually by itself. It was like a person was standing behind it and one could see through the paper. I cannot define this, it was extraordinary. We watched each other without a word, all seized with a supernatural feeling… the portrait was perfect.

Evoking a Veronica‐like image, this miracle account was not intended for public consumption, but the alleged circumstances of the portrait’s production clearly sanctified Louis Martin and it became like an icon, “both the reproduction of and equivalent to the model.” That she felt a miracle had also occurred when completing her painting of the Holy Face (1904)—the suffering face of Jesus during the Passion—links these two images. The Martin sisters all related the Holy Face to their father during his illness—Thérèse wrote of his habit of covering his face during his mental disturbances: “Just as the adorable Face of Jesus was veiled during his Passion, so the face of his faithful servant had to be veiled in the days of his sufferings”—and it was an important devotion for both her and Céline, as both appended it to their names in religion. Céline reported demonic attacks during her production of her Holy Face and had invoked the Virgin to help her complete it, the result being “a certain little light… but it was not me alone who rendered this on my canvas, it is something that I cannot explain.” That this painting appeared on the same plate as a photograph of Louis Martin on his deathbed in the first edition of Histoire d’une famille  further shows the connection she felt between her father and this image—both typified the face of suffering. While Céline’s portrait of her father initially seems a simple one, the way in which she viewed it shows how, well before Thérèse’s official recognition, she saw him as associated with supernatural favours and Christ‐like in his martyrdom. In her biography of him over fifty years later she would revisit and expand upon these themes.

In 1902 Céline produced the portrait Thérèse et sa Mère—the young Thérèse now about four years old—which first appeared in the fifth edition of Thérèse’s autobiography. It is notable that Céline completed a portrait of her father first, and indeed for the very first edition of the autobiography, as it is indicative of her greater enthusiasm for his Cause, and she says very little about this portrait in her personal notebooks, stating simply that Zélie was “a little young as I used her daguerreotype portrait taken when she was 25. I tried to age it without succeeding perfectly.” The two portraits of the parents with Thérèse appeared for sale as standalone images from the earliest days of the Office Central de Lisieux, with the 1918 commercial catalogue listing large heliogravures of them at three francs fifty centimes each. Céline also made use of the extant photographs of her parents in the Carmel’s devotional products, retouching them to make them more acceptable to her. Other images were produced under her direction by professional artists. Pierre Annould, the artistic director at Saint‐Sulpician publishers Boumard, produced two key images during the First World War. La veillée à Alençon shows the five daughters and both parents in a well‐appointed sitting room. Thérèse and Céline kneel in prayer before their mother, suggesting they are being schooled in piety, while in the background the Virgin of the Smile and photographs of the four dead Martin children on the wall evoke elements of the family mythology. La veillée aux Buissonnets recreated a similar scene, but with the widowed Louis clasping Thérèse and Céline to him, all three looking directly at the viewer, while a portrait of Zélie and very large crucifix look down on them. In her notebooks Céline claimed authorship of these two images, since they “needed significant retouching,” and the representation was undoubtedly hers. The Martin parents also featured in La Vie en images de la Bienheureuse Thérèse de l’Enfant Jésus, a biography in sixty‐eight tableaux, first published in 1923 and reissued in several editions until 1955. Some of these images were transposed into other forms, showing how Céline’s iconography of her parents was adopted more widely. The image showing Louis giving Thérèse his blessing on the day she took the habit later appeared as a scene at the Diorama Sainte Thérèse waxwork museum, opened in Lisieux in 1929, while a version of the image of Thérèse asking her father’s permission to enter Carmel was placed on the façade of St Peter’s for Thérèse’s canonisation—Céline wrote that Thérèse “was thus enveloping him in her own aureole of glory.” Indeed, it could be said that this saintliness by association was the overarching aim of Céline’s visual representations of her parents, but crucially the evocation of the Passion in the back story to Louis’ portrait would be returned to decades later.

Louis Martin—Martyr and Sacrificial Victim

Over four decades separated the first of Céline’s images of her parents and her turning her attention to them again, this time in print. This took place in a very different context, as Thérèse’s status as a superstar saint had been confirmed, and Céline was able to put forward a more robustly saintly depiction of her parents. Céline gathered the source materials for Histoire d’une famille as an ailing septuagenarian in the midst of wartime Normandy when, during heavy Allied bombing of Lisieux, the whole community of the Carmel had been forced to take refuge in the crypt of the basilica erected for Thérèse. The book was written by Père Piat, often used by the Carmel as a ghost‐writer, but Céline said the work “may be considered as having been completely inspired by us. It is authentic.” This hagiography on a grand scale delineated the Martins as the ideal Catholic family, laying out all the elements of their internal mythology in full. Thomas Nevin has emphasised that “This book was written in the Vichy years; the urge for atonement of Third Republican sins may have been strong within Catholic France, and the model of rectitude provided by the Martin family must have been irresistible.” Indeed, the conclusion of the book was an excoriating critique of modernity and defence of the Martins against accusations of a pathological asceticism. While Céline perhaps felt these years were her last chance to defend her parents from the slurs of the sensational biographies of Thérèse of the 1920s and 1930s, and clearly approved the book’s contents, it does not speak directly with her voice, and the works that came from her own pen are focussed on here.

By the early 1950s, the vociferous apologetic of Histoire d’une famille had not sufficed to rehabilitate the Martins, and Céline wrote her parents’ biographies as a final stand against half a century of innuendo aimed against them. That Pauline had died in 1951, leaving her as the last witness to her parents’ characters, made the task all the more pressing, and so, as her death circular later stated, “One could find her, at eighty‐four years of age, toiling among a whole heap of papers with a magnifying glass, drafting these two pamphlets.” In the foreword to Le père de Sainte Thérèse she wrote of the abiding rumours: “These erroneous remarks pass by word of mouth and finally cover up the truth totally, just as the successive layers of sediment conceal the sea shell and the beauty of its mother of pearl.” It was this “fine pearl,” as she once referred to her father, that she sought to expose in the book. Heavily reliant on the authority of Thérèse’s autobiography, as well as the sisters’ Process testimony and correspondence, the “moral portrait” of Monsieur Martin given in the first section was peppered with quotes and family anecdotes, while the account of his illness and death, a period seared into Céline’s memory, was a more unique narrative. To some extent we find two Monsieur Martins in Céline’s account—the fastidiously self‐denying mystical hermit, and the fearless, active, social Catholic, with a whimsical side and all‐embracing affection for his daughters. This second Louis, the “true son of an army officer,” who carried out several daring rescues of people from fire or drowning, and who displayed an outward‐looking missionary zeal, was not necessarily a confection, but it seems likely Céline was trying to counter the apathetic Louis of the ouvrages de controverse with these examples of her father’s courage—the saintly Louis is more sustained throughout the book. While Céline certainly evoked a holy family in the book, Louis’ character as a husband and a father is surprisingly sidelined and the emphasis is far more on him as an individual soul on his journey towards God—Céline was clearly focused on promoting her father’s spiritual achievements.

In her private memoirs, Céline stated “this was no ordinary filial love I had for my Father, I believe it was worship,” and indeed in Le père de Sainte Thérèse Louis is likened to a whole host of religious figures: Saint Francis de Sales; the desert fathers; Saint Joseph; Saint Louis; Job; King David; the apostles; and Jesus. However, a principal characterisation dominates—Louis as a sacrificial martyr. His sacrifice is outlined as twofold—that of his daughters to the religious life, and that of his illness and death—and the two become conflated, his physical martyrdom following soon after Thérèse’s departure for the cloister, which Céline says saw him “sacrifice the last shred of his poor heart.” For Céline, primary witness to the ravages of her father’s illness, so traumatic at the time that it drove her to thoughts of suicide, the idea of her father as martyr and victim was particularly significant. In the biography she quotes Thérèse’s recounting of confiding her vocation to Louis: “Papa seemed to be rejoicing with that tranquil joy of a sacrifice already made. He spoke to me just like a saint.” However, this martyr characterisation is taken further, as Céline emphasises that Louis actively offered himself as a victim, recalling how he told God “I wish to suffer something for you, and I offer myself.” She goes on to quote Thérèse saying, “Papa had just made a donation to God of an altar, and it was he who was chosen as victim to be offered with the spotless Lamb,” adding of her clothing day “I compare it to the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem on the day of palms. Like that of our Divine Master, Papa’s glory of a day was followed by a painful passion.” Here was the cult of vicarious suffering writ large. Cast as a sacrificial martyr, the watchmaker from Alençon who died at 70 a broken man became sanctified and lifted above the quotidian. Céline’s relating of supernatural signs to him, as she had done in the case of his portrait, completed that process.

In Le père de Sainte Thérèse, Céline emphasises that both she and Thérèse received mysterious signs indicating that their father had gone straight to heaven. Céline interpreted the “luminous globe” she saw in the sky the night after his death as such a sign, while Thérèse told Jesus that if the member of the community that was blocking Céline’s entry to the Carmel changed her mind, she would take that as a sign of the instant glorification of her father’s soul. While such supernatural signs clearly cast Louis in tones of sanctity, they were also used to specifically suggest that his status as a sacrificial victim had been predestined. Céline quotes Thérèse saying that Pope Leo XIII had set a “mysterious seal” upon Louis when he placed his hand on his head at an audience the three of them had attended in 1887, but she also emphasises a childhood vision Thérèse had, again referencing her father’s covering of his head during his illness: “She saw in the distance our Father in his great distress, weighed down by trials like the holy king David, who went over the brook Cedron, climbing up the Mount of Olives weeping and with his HEAD COVERED.” Louis’ victimhood was figured as part of a larger, divine scheme, proven by it being indicated to his holy daughter years before it occurred and suggested by a gesture of the Pope himself. Louis’ identity as sacrifice was thus reinforced and the images used in the book would reinforce this further.

Céline made use of two further photographs of her father in Le père de Sainte Thérèse—his deathbed photo and one of him with Céline, sitting in a wheelchair at her uncle’s chateau of La Musse—both of these images emphasised Louis’ suffering and death. The latter was in fact a composite photo typical of Céline’s reworking of images, the figures having been cut out from a photograph of the pair with Léonie and two servants at home in Lisieux and superimposed over a new background. That La Musse was the location of Louis’ death further underscored that this image presented him as a martyr—the book as a devotional, visual product, where text and image interacted, promoted a coherent message. Céline was the greatest disciple of Thérèse’s “little way,” publishing her own painstaking exploration of this way of “spiritual childhood” (becoming like a child in one’s simple faith, abandonment to the will of God, and small, everyday acts of piety) in 1922, having learnt it at the knee of Thérèse as her novice mistress, and she saw Louis’ hand in this most important of Thérèse’s spiritual insights. She wrote in the biography: “in giving her an incomparable Father, whose goodness was a first image of the Goodness of Our Father in Heaven, the Lord was preparing her to penetrate better than anyone else the divine Paternity, giving that filial piety towards God upon which her ‘little way of Spiritual Childhood’ entirely revolves.” However, with the sacrificial victim trope she highlighted Louis’ personal saintliness, not just one by reflection by virtue of being the father of a saint, and in fact may be said to have gone even further, showing him as directly anticipating a key element of Thérèse’s thought. Thérèse’s engagement with the cult of vicarious suffering had become famous by the time Céline was writing. Innovatively rejecting its association with divine punishment, she had instead connected it with love, offering herself as a “victim of holocaust to the merciful love of the good God” in what has been described as “the climax of her journey.” She would view her premature death as the result of making this offering, and indeed, she had long thirsted after martyrdom, calling it “the dream of my youth and this dream has grown within me within Carmel’s cloisters.” Thus, in emphasising Louis’ victim role, Céline was figuring her father as foreshadowing this element of Thérèse’s thought, attributing to him the great spiritual achievements fitting of a saint.

Zélie Martin—Confidence and Abandon

While Céline had created a clear saintly persona for her father, her representation of her mother in her biography La mère de Sainte Thérèse was far more factual in tone. Céline admitted “it was our venerable father who I knew better,” having been only eight when her mother died, and she noted: “I have myself often regretted that I had not been able to appreciate my mother for a longer time… In Carmel Mère Agnès de Jésus and Sœur Marie du Sacré‐Cœur recalled her memory with emotion,” and indeed they had been their mother’s surprisingly close confidantes as teenagers. However, both had died by the mid‐1950s and Céline was forced to heavily base her mother’s biography on her voluminous correspondence—217 surviving letters in all. The result is far more immediacy and a much better sense of historical context than is found in Le père de Sainte Thérèse—quotes from Zélie’s letters about the Franco‐Prussian War, the Marian visions at Pontmain, the Paris Commune, and the status of the Pope as “the prisoner in the Vatican” all give the account a greater rootedness in reality. While the biography of Louis had an ahistorical quality which aided an impression of him having the timeless qualities of holiness, Zélie is encountered as a flesh and blood working woman of late‐nineteenth‐century France, her energy, intelligence, concern for her workers, and general distain for social injustice making her a sympathetic figure. There is far less remodelling into the modes of sainthood here, but that is not to say her presentation does not bear the hallmarks of Céline’s purposes. Suffering features strongly in the book—the details of Zélie’s horrible death are not spared the reader—but this is not posited as the basis of her saintly virtue in its own right, nor shown to be the result of her offering herself as a victim. Where Céline had underlined her father’s role as a sacrificial martyr, for her mother she emphasised her complete confidence in and abandonment to the will of God.

Zélie Martin lived her life with a clear focus on the hereafter. In her biography, Céline writes that her mother “felt exiled here below,” and quotes a letter to her brother: “If I did not have children to bring up, I should welcome death with joy, as we welcome the sweet, pure dawn of a beautiful day.” Céline reports that her mother would pray after the birth of each of her children “that nothing may tarnish the purity of its soul. If ever it should be lost, I prefer that you should take it without delay,” also saying “I desired to have many of them in order to present them to Heaven.” Céline recalled how, nearing death, her mother evoked the Virgin’s promise to Saint Bernadette of Lourdes: “I shall not make you happy in this world, but in the next.” This may be termed a kind of religious nihilism, and it was largely this attitude that had brought so much criticism down on the Martins in the previous decades. However, in Céline’s account this rejection of the earthly was informed by a heroic confidence in God. In the book she quotes her mother as saying “Whenever a real misfortune happens, I am completely resigned, and I await with confidence the help of God” and Céline states she had an “invincible, even daring, confidence, towards our Father in Heaven, that sustained her in her many trials.” Céline emphasises “she was hostile to certain ‘dévotionnettes‘ who, by their complications went against the spirit of the Gospel”—hers was a searingly pure faith where confidence in God alone was everything.

Céline describes a number of divine and diabolical interventions in Zélie’s life, as she had in the case of her father. She asserts that in her many trials her mother was sustained by “a force from on‐high,” and quotes from her mother’s letter describing how, without anyone having touched it, the cloister bell was heard ringing at the Visitation of Angers where prayers were being offered for her cure from cancer just as she returned from a pilgrimage to Lourdes—the nuns interpreted this as a sign a miracle had occurred. This was not the case, but Céline added “For us who know the end of the story, was it not a sign that, despite appearances to the contrary, Mary was tenderly watching over the dear patient and her family?” Céline reports that towards the end of her illness, Zélie respectfully kissed Pauline’s hand as she sat by her bedside one day, and Céline states “Was this not like a prophecy of the mission which [Pauline] was to fulfil later on, of being fifty years prioress of her Carmel and of three of her sisters?” The idea was clear—this saintly mother was a favoured soul, and while Céline did not directly link this to her extraordinary confidence in God, it aided an impression that Zélie was a spiritual athlete with a privileged connection to the divine.

As with Louis’ biography, the images chosen to illustrate La mère de Sainte Thérèse were significant, and its message was enhanced through the interaction of images and text. Along with several images of Zélie, photos of the first of the Martin children to die—Joseph‐Louis and Hélène (whose death at age five was so painful for the family)—were included. This served to underscore Zélie’s acceptance of God’s will and indeed it is perhaps in her mother’s willing acceptance of the loss of her children that Céline makes the ultimate case for her confidence in God being her primary saintly quality. Céline writes of Joseph Jean‐Baptiste, born the year after Joseph‐Louis, and dead at eight months old: “I often heard it said that my mother placed a crown of white roses on his head and she kept close to his tiny coffin until the last moment. ‘My God,’ she would sigh now and then, ‘must we put him into the grave? But, since you will it, may your will be done.'” However, just as Louis’ status as sacrificial victim foreshadowed Thérèse’s offering of herself as a victim of merciful love, Céline went further and Zélie’s confidence was perhaps suggested as foreshadowing Thérèse’s “little way” of confidence, trust, and absolute surrender itself. As such, Zélie’s individual spiritual achievements were underscored, showing her value went far beyond a holiness by association. Thomas Nevin agrees that Zélie “anticipated much of Thérèse’s own spirituality,” saying in particular that “terminal illness… determined the character of their abandon.” However, it can be seen that in Céline’s account, Zélie’s confidence was central to her whole life, not just her death. The concept of abandonment had long been dear to Céline and dated back to Thérèse’s lifetime. For Christmas 1887, she had made Thérèse a boat named “Abandon” in reference to their shared devotional fancies, and later the cover of one of the many booklets on Thérèse’s life produced under her direction carried an image of the saint sailing in such a boat. In La mère de Sainte Thérèse, Zélie is set up as her daughter’s precursor in her embrace of confidence and abandon, sanctifying her in the process.

In 1958, Céline’s biography of her mother was superseded with the publication of all of her letters, covering a period from when she was expecting her third child to twelve days before her death, as Correspondance familiale—at last Zélie spoke for herself. In the preface, written by Piat, it was emphasised that the book was “a human document” with “nothing romantic” and “no autobiographical show”—”It is a wife, a mother, weighed down with work, crushed by responsibilities, later undermined by physical sufferings.” Indeed, the realism of her often touching, lively letters saw her emerge from the shadows and take precedence over Louis, who had been so clearly privileged in the Carmel’s output in the first half of the twentieth century. While absent from the lives of her daughters, Zélie was very much present in the documentation she left behind her, and while the historical immediacy of these documents made their mark on La mère de Sainte Thérèse, Céline still put forward an idea of her mother that was informed by hindsight—Zélie as the precursor to the “little way” in her heroic confidence.


Through her biographies of her parents, Céline wrote them into the two themes of theresian devotion that she held most dear—sacrificial victimhood, via the Holy Face devotion, the shattering experience of her father’s illness and Thérèse’s own offering of herself as a victim of love, and confidence and “abandon,” concepts central to the “little way”—attributing supernatural signs of divine providence to them for good measure. It was made clear that they were not holy simply because they had produced a saint, but that they had foreshadowed key elements of their saintly daughter’s doctrine and thus a reciprocal reinforcement of holy credentials took place. Kenneth Woodward has shown that many constituencies influence canonisation processes, and it would be simplistic to say that Céline’s representation of her parents in this way was responsible for their official recognition. Whether the association of them with these devotional tropes was agreeable to the influential forces of the church is beyond the scope of this article, but certainly generally bathing the Martin parents in the light of sanctity and setting them up as prefiguring some of Thérèse’s most important insights cannot have been deleterious to their Cause. Céline’s motivations in doing this, however, were informed by more than just ambition. The tragedies the family had suffered had marked her deeply, and shortly after Thérèse’s canonisation, she wrote that the raising of her sister to the altars had been nothing less than the “reckoning” for “the humiliations that had been our lot and those of our dear father.” Even at this transcendent moment everything came back to the family mythology and their sufferings, and this seems to have guided much of Céline’s life’s work.

While the Martins have very different identifications within popular Catholicism today, Céline’s textual and visual representations of them were vital, not just in setting the stage for their canonisation half a century later, but in ensuring they were well‐known enough for their intercession to be invoked and the beatification and canonisation miracles to be reported. While Céline lived to see her sister’s official recognition, in the case of her parents, in setting them off on the path of sanctity, she has continued saint‐making from beyond the grave. The Martins now serve the purpose of models of parenthood and traditional marriage for the contemporary church, and their official recognition may be an example of the “strategic canonisation” described by Oliver Bennett, but what they might mean for wider understandings of parenthood and marriage provokes reflection on the social and cultural function of the saint, mentioned earlier. While the lens of celebrity studies allows us to fully appreciate the malleability of the Martin saints as popular icons, key for understanding the process of Céline’s refashioning and construction of a public image for her parents, as well as suggesting the importance of icon‐making as industry, it also highlights that the cultural reach of Zélie and Louis should be considered as going beyond a strictly Catholic context. First under Céline’s pen and paintbrush, and later as they evolved in the period after her death, they have been a force in modern European culture, and while Céline followed Thérèse’s lead in figuring them as “more worthy of Heaven than of Earth,” they in fact spoke to some very earthly concerns and their changing representation may well tell us something about our understanding of human achievement, love, sacrifice, and loss.