Marie-Françoise Thérèse Martin was born on January 2, 1873 in the town of Alençon in French Normandy. Her parents were Louis Martin, a watch maker, and Zélie Guerin, both beatified by the Church. Called Thérèse, she was the last of nine children, five of which survived to adulthood.
Growing up in a deeply Catholic family, Thérèse’s life was filled with love, consideration and kindness. A pretty, blond and blue-eyed girl, hers was a precocious mind, and passionate, willful, sensitive nature, a nature made yet more sensitive by her mother’s death of breast cancer when Thérèse was four.
After his wife’s death, M. Martin moved his family to the town of Lisieux, and rented a charming home, “Les Buissonnets”, where he raised his five girls in bourgeois comfort. Thérèse was his “Benjamin” for whom he had a special affection and whom he called “my little queen”.
For her mothering needs, the little girl turned to her favorite sister, Pauline, who took the rearing of her “child” seriously looking after her needs of body, mind and soul.
When Pauline decided to enter Carmel in 1882, the shock made Thérèse seriously ill. As the illness progressed, and as her family prepared for the worst, on May 13, the sick girl appealed to a statue of Our Lady by her bed. “Suddenly,” Thérèse writes, “Mary’s face radiated kindness and love…” and she was healed. To the family the statue became “The Virgin of the Smile”.
On Christmas Eve in 1886 at the age of fourteen Thérèse received a great grace. In one moment, she was cured of her hyper-sensitivity, and went through what she calls “her conversion”. From then on she decided to live no longer to please herself but for love. She felt her heart burn with the wish to help Jesus save souls.
Hearing of a murderer, Henri Pranzini, who had been condemned to death, but remained unrepentant, she set out to pray and offer small sacrifices for his conversion, and trusted that God would hear her against all appearances. She was elated when she read that though refusing a priest to the last, at the scaffold Pranzini suddenly turned and, snatching a crucifix from the attending priest’s hands, kissed it repeatedly. Thereafter, Thérèse always called Pranzini her “first son”– her course was set.
She entered Carmel at age sixteen, and though only living as a Carmelite for nine years, she rose to the heights of sanctity through her “little way” of serving God and others in everyday life, and doing everything, even the smallest things, with great love and child-like trust in her God’s paternal love, and mercy. At the request of her sister Pauline who glimpsed her sanctity, she penned her autobiography, The Story of a Soul.
Struck with tuberculosis, Thérèse suffered greatly. Knowing she was dying she promised, “I shall spend my heaven doing good on earth … I shall let fall a shower of roses”. Thérèse died on September 30, 1897, after a brief ecstasy. Her last gasping words were, “My God! ... I love Thee!”
She was canonized by Pius XI in 1925 and devotion to her quickly spread throughout the world. For her doctrine of “The Little Way” Thérèse was declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope John Paul II in 1997.