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Everything smiled upon on this earth.
The Last Little One (2 January 1873)
At the beginning of the year 1873 Zélie Martin announced to her brother and sister-in-law the happy arrival of her ninth child:
My little girl was born, yesterday, Thursday, at half-past eleven in the evening. She is very strong and healthy. I am told she weighs eight pounds, let us put it at six, that is not bad. She seems quite pretty. I am very happy. However at first I was surprised. I had been expecting a boy because, for the last two months, the baby had felt much strongerthan my other children. I was in labour for only half an hour and what I suffered beforehand is not to be counted.
In the afternoon of 4 January the Abbé Dumaine baptised Marie-Françoise-Thérèse Martin in Our Lady's church. The child was held over the baptismal font by her thirteen-year-old godmother Marie, her eldest sister, and by her godfather of the same age, Paul-Albert Boul.
This baby was to take her place in a family descended from peasants and soldiers, a family which had a rather unusual beginning.
Louis Martin, born in Bordeaux on 22 August 1823, grew up in military barracks wherever his father happened to be stationed, and chose to become a watchmaker. When he was about twenty-two he thought of entering religious life at the great St Bernard Monastery, which was situated in remote solitude and provided help for travellerslost on the mountain. He was refused admittance because he did not know Latin but on his return began to study the language. He lived for three years in Paris. To a young country bachelor the capital seemed like a 'modern Babylon'. Then in 1850 he settled in Alençon with his parents who had a jewellery shop at 15 rue du Pont-Neuf. For eight years quiet meditative Louis lived a life of work, interrupted only by long fishing trips his favourite pastime a few hunting parties, and evenings spent with the young people of the Catholic Circle, which had been started by his friend Vital Romet.
He abandoned his Latin studies but his faith remained alive and active. He never opened his shop on a Sunday, and this must have caused him to lose good business. Weekday masses, nightly adoration, pilgrimages, this man was not ashamed to live as a Christian. His bearing, expression and agreeable manners did not pass unnoticed by some young girls of Alençon, but he did not seem to notice them. The purchase of a bizarre building, a hexagonal tower with two stories surrounded by a garden the Pavillon, rue des Lavoirs isolated him even more. Among the flowers he put a statue of the Virgin which a pious young lady had given him.
Mme Martin was worried that he was still unmarried at thirty-four. While attending a course on the making of Alençon lace she noticed a bright attractive, very Christian young girl who was extremely gifted in this art, which had made Alençon famous throughout Europe. Would she not be the perfect wife for Louis?
Marie AZélie Guerin, born on 23 December 1831 in Gandelain (Orne), was in her mid twenties. Her father, Isidore, was a former soldier of Wagram who after travelling through Spain and Portugal with Masséna and Soult became a constable at Saint-Denis, and in 1828 married Louise-Jeanne Macé, a somewhat unlettered peasant. Zélie had not known a happy childhood and would one day write to her younger brother: 'My childhood, my youth were as sad as a shroud, for if my mother spoilt you she was, as you know, too strict with me. Although she was so good herself she did not understand me and I suffered from this very much.'
Intelligent, with a flair for writing, Zélie worked hard while retaining from her austere upbringing a certain anxiety, a tendency towards scrupulosity, which was not helped by the spirituality of her time. Her Visitandine sister would often reproach her with being 'ingenious at tormenting herself'. But her sound common sense quickly enabled her to overcome this difficulty. 'I want to be a saint. It will not be easy, for there is much wood to be pruned and it is as hard as flint.'
She too had thought of becoming a religious, but the superior of the Hotel-Dieu had firmly discouraged the prospective postulant. Disappointed, she threw herself into making Alençon lace. She mastered the art of this very fine work so rapidly that in 1853 when she was twenty-two she set up her own business at 36 rue Saint-Blaise, working at first with her elder sister Marie-Louise. But soon after, her sister left her to enter the Visitation convent at Le Mans. Their correspondence would end only with the death of the Visitandine who was always her faithful counsellor.
Hardly three months elapsed between her first meeting with Louis and their marriage. On 13 July 1858 at midnight, as was the custom of the time, the lacemaker and the watchmaker exchanged vows in Our Lady's church. Their married life began in a surprising way: Louis proposed to his wife that they live together as brother and sister. Docile, and not knowing what to do, Zélie agreed. After ten months of this monastic life a confessor made them change their life style radically. They had nine children: seven girls and two boys.
From 1860 to 1870 births and deaths followed in rapid succession. Infant mortality was a scourge in the second half of the nineteenth century. In three and a half years the Martins lost three children in infancy, and Helene, a lovable child of five and a half.
Between 1859 and 1868 Mine Martin also lost her parents and her father-in-law. We can then readily understand her writing after the birth of her last daughter: 'I have already suffered so much in my life.'Story of a Life. Copyright © by Guy Gaucher. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.