Louis and Zélie each came from prosperous bourgeois families. Before marrying, both earned their livelihoods as masters of delicate crafts. Louis became a watchmaker; Zélie a maker of point d’Alençon, the specialty lace of her home region. After they married, both businesses continued at their home in Alençon. For such luxury goods, household production endured amid the rise of industrialization. But the liberalizing economy left fewer safeguards against pursuing profit alone, without regard for the common good. Louis resisted these temptations by, for example, absolutely refusing to open the shop on Sunday, despite the contrary prevailing norm. Zélie’s trade was based on a “putting-out” system, and she bore constant solicitude for her workers. She took it upon herself to visit them when they were ill, and she helped arrange their hire by other lace makers when she lacked in orders. The Martins’ labors brought to the family financial stability, all while they gave generous alms and saved for emergencies, dowries, and retirement. As the new economic world reduced men and women to contractual obligations, these two succeeded without relinquishing timeless principles.
The Martin family’s devotional practices were nourished both by the long tradition of Catholic spirituality and the newer fruits of the Catholic revival. Early morning daily mass was standard, as were prayers in the intimacy of the home. The famed statue of “Our Lady of the Smile” was surrounded with flowers and greenery during the month of May. Family spiritual reading included The Imitation of Christ, biographies of great French saints like St. Jane Frances de Chantal, Chateaubriand’s The Genius of Christianity, and Dom Prosper Guéranger’s The Liturgical Year. The father was accustomed to making local pilgrimages on foot, and the mother made the great pilgrimage to Lourdes by train as she suffered from breast cancer.
Devotion did not make the Martin household a gloomy place. Zélie had herself experienced piously-intentioned puritanism in her childhood upbringing, and she did not want to inflict that upon her own. The family enjoyed themselves at home and in the community. The mother’s letters show her sense of humor at childhood antics and her tenderness with them. We find her, especially with the youngest, taking care with the children’s dress: “With little blue shoes, a blue sash, and a pretty white cloak, [Thérèse] will be charming.” Both mother and father were playful sorts with their girls. The mother could set aside her lace to spend two hours on a dolls’ dinner party, and the father could honestly declare, “I am a big child with my children.”
Louis and Zélie Martin both had held youthful hopes for the religious vocation, and they closely cooperated with religious throughout their lives. Before marrying, Zelie sought to enter consecrated life at a local Hotei-Dieu, but was discouraged by the prioress. Louis pursued priestly service at another hospital, but was turned down outright because he knew no Latin. After they met, and married later the same year, the Martins intended to live “as brother and sister” in a state of permanent continence, fortunately changing their plans after about a year. Fortunately because, of course, they raised not just one saint, but certainly several more who will remain uncanonized. Fortunately also, because they were able to become exemplars of holiness who lived the conjugal life in its fullness.
The Church’s focus on lay sanctity has been more explicit since the Second Vatican Council, which identified the lay vocation as follows: “They live in the world, that is, in each and in all of the secular professions and occupations. They live in the ordinary circumstances of family and social life, from which the very web of their existence is woven. They are called there by God that by exercising their proper function and led by the spirit of the Gospel they may work for the sanctification of the world from within as a leaven.” Bl. Louis and Zélie Martin, in the “ordinary circumstances” of family life, of labor, of prayer, and of play, fulfilled this description to the letter.