In Praise of Leonie Martin

In Praise of Leonie Martin October 1, 2021


Saint Therese is a wonderful saint, though she’s not someone I feel very close to.

I’m sure that her mother and father are wonderful saints, though they make me nervous sometimes. I’m sure all her talented and prayerful older sisters will be declared saints someday.  But do you know who I really love?

I love Therese’s despised, abused, misfit sister, the disappointment of the family, Leonie Martin.

Leonie was the middle child; she was known as the Lame Duck and the Bleating Sheep, names I’d like to use on myself. It pains me to know that her illustrious, saintly sisters called her names. Maybe they didn’t think they were hurtful. Leonie had whooping cough and measles as a baby, which might have affected her brain. She also suffered from severe eczema for more than a year. She was teased by the people around her for looking unattractive and for having a Provincial accent which the rest of her family didn’t share, and for not being able to read along with prayers in the Breviary. The other Martins were obedient and did well in school, but Leonie was a mess. She had meltdowns and tantrums that got her expelled several times. We probably would have said that she had an intellectual disability, if she’d lived today, but those weren’t recognized in the 1860s, so she was punished relentlessly.

Perhaps Leonie was on the autism spectrum as well. Autism isn’t a disability in the same way, but it’s a difference that can be disabling and can cause meltdowns like she experienced. And it’s a difference that can be deeply misunderstood and lead to punishments and expulsions instead of leading to caregivers listening and communicating better. Many disabled children and many autistic children have had academic careers like Leonie’s.

“The poor child has plenty of faults,” wrote her mother, which makes me ball my fist in rage. No, Saint Zelie, your daughter didn’t have “faults,” she was disabled and she was different. You couldn’t recognize that she was disabled and different, because you were ignorant and your other children were so prim. Like so many disabled children through the ages, Leonie was blamed and punished for her disability instead of getting help.

Of course, one of Leonie’s problems was probably post-traumatic stress disorder. It was eventually realized that one of the household servants at the Martin household had been beating Leonie behind Zelie’s back, and verbally abusing her as well. The maid mentally tortured the little girl so that Leonie would obey her, in an attempt to seem important to the gullible Saint Zelie who was dying by inches of breast cancer. Eventually, the maid got caught, but that’s not the kind of thing a disabled child can easily heal from. Many people with disabilities get preyed on by abusers in just this way. They suffer the wounds from this treatment their entire lives.

Saint Zelie started out by being harsh with her misfit child, perhaps because she was brought up herself and was probably made to think that she ought to be harsh. But when harshness didn’t work she tried gentleness, and that worked much better. Then she died, leaving Leonie motherless at the age of fourteen.

The younger Martin children chose the elder daughters, Marie and Pauline, for their special surrogate mothers. They didn’t choose Leonie.

The other Martins all ended up in the same Carmelite convent one by one, along with their cousin, but Leonie didn’t get in. Carmel didn’t want her. She and her sister Celine stayed home and cared for their father, Saint Louis Martin, as he wasted away from dementia. He was eventually locked up in a mental hospital, which were human rights nightmares at that time in history. Saint Louis’s abused and disabled daughter took the train to visit him in that terrible place every week until his death. Then Celine entered the Carmel, and Leonie was left completely alone.

It took several tries for Leonie to enter a convent; she was rejected time and again, for one reason or another. Nobody seemed to like her for a terribly long time. She wrote cordial letters to her sisters, but I wonder if part of her was relieved to not be near them anymore. I’ve had to find out for myself that estrangement from a family that won’t understand you and doesn’t like you can be a blessing in disguise.

Finally, she ended up in the convent of the Visitation, where she remained until her death in 1941.

In the convent, Leonie was often sickly. She still struggled with eczema on and off. But she was happy there, and patient and kind with her fellow sisters. She was one of the first people to follow Saint Therese’s advice from Story of a Soul. Truthfully, though, I wish Leonie had written a book herself. That’s something I would far rather read than Therese’s writings.  Leonie had nothing, was lonely and despised by everyone, and still found sanctity and peace.

I suppose the book we should all read with attention was her life: abused, humiliated, disliked, disabled, lonely, called names and treated harshly even by saints, rejected from convents, visiting her father in the mad house, somehow finding peace in it all, and Divine grace radiating everywhere in spite of and through the suffering.

Leonie’s cause for canonization was officially opened in 2015, eighteen years after her younger sister was made a Doctor of the Church and the same year her parents were canonized saints. I remember her as the patron saint of Autism, of disability, of people who are at odds with their families, of people whose parents couldn’t prevent their abuse.

Leonie is my favorite Martin sister, the only one I can hope to be like.

The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. By the Lord has this been done, and it is wonderful in our eyes.

Here’s to you, Leonie, bleating black sheep of the Martin family.

You were the best of all.


image via pixabay

Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.
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