Saint Therese of Lisieux was the ninth child of saintly parents, Louis and Zélie Martin, both of whom had wished to consecrate their lives to God in the cloister. The vocation denied them was given to their children, five of whom became religious, one to the Visitation Order and four in the Carmelite Convent of Lisieux. Brought up in an atmosphere of faith where every virtue and aspiration were carefully nurtured and developed, her vocation manifested itself when she was still only a child.
Tragedy and loss came quickly to Therese when her mother died of breast cancer when she was four and a half years old. Her sixteen year old sister Pauline became her second mother — which made the second loss even worse when Pauline entered the Carmelite convent five years later. A few months later, Therese became so ill with a fever that people thought she was dying. When Therese saw her sisters praying by a statue of Mary in her room, Therese also prayed. She saw Mary smile at her and suddenly she was cured.
Educated by the Benedictines, when she was fifteen she applied for permission to enter the Carmelite Convent, and being refused by the superior, went to Rome with her father, as eager to give her to God as she was to give herself, to seek the consent of the Holy Father, Leo XIII, then celebrating his jubilee. He preferred to leave the decision in the hands of the superior, who finally consented and on 9 April, 1888, at the unusual age of fifteen, Thérèse Martin entered the convent of Lisieux where two of her sisters had preceded her.
In 1896, Thérèse requested to become a missionary and was selected to join a convent in Hanoi, Vietnam. But before leaving for her new duties, she was told by Jesus Christ, her “Bridegroom”, that she would soon be joining Him. That same year, she contracted tuberculosis. She kept working without telling anyone until she became so sick a year later everyone knew it. Her pain was so great that she said that if she had not had faith she would have taken her own life without hesitation. But she tried to remain smiling and cheerful — and succeeded so well that some thought she was only pretending to be ill. Her one dream was the work she would do after her death, helping those on earth. “I will return,” she said. “My heaven will be spent on earth.” She died on September 30, 1897 at the age of 24 years old.
The account of the eleven years of her religious life, marked by signal graces and constant growth in holiness, is given by St. Thérèse in her autobiography, written in obedience to her superior and published two years after her death. In 1901 it was translated into English, and in 1912 another translation, the first complete edition of the life of the Servant of God, containing the autobiography, “Letters and Spiritual Counsels”, was published. Its success was immediate and it has passed into many editions, spreading far and wide the devotion to this “little” saint of simplicity, and abandonment in God’s service, of the perfect accomplishment of small duties.
The fame of her sanctity and the many miracles performed through her intercession caused the introduction of her cause of canonization only seventeen years after her death, 10 Jun, 1914. On October 19, 1997, Pope John Paul II declared her a Doctor of the Church because of the impact that her spirituality has had on the lives of so many of God’s children.
St. Therese of Lisieux is one of the patron saints of the missions, not because she ever went anywhere, but because of her special love of the missions, and the prayers and letters she gave in support of missionaries. This is reminder to all of us who feel we can do nothing, that it is the little things that keep God’s kingdom growing. She is also the patroness of aviators and florists.