Pope Pius X called St. Therese of Lisieux, whose feast day is today, "The greatest saint of modern times.” And he was right.
So many grander saints filled the canon of the church calendar before her, but St. Therese knew her humility, her insignificance in comparison to them, and decided that she must find a new way to be a saint. This way was full of small steps and little virtues, because she did not believe that she had the ability to perform great ones.
As she wrote in her autobiography, The Story of a Soul:
I will seek out a means of getting to Heaven by a little way — very short and very straight little way that is wholly new. We live in an age of inventions; nowadays the rich need not trouble to climb the stairs, they have lifts instead. Well, I mean to try and find a lift by which I may be raised unto God, for I am too tiny to climb the steep stairway of perfection. […] Thine Arms, then, O Jesus, are the lift which must raise me up even unto Heaven. To get there I need not grow. On the contrary, I must remain little, I must become still less.
The Little Flower’s book became an international best-seller, and has been the instruction manual for many of us to forge our own path to heaven. But one of her first and most devoted followers was her lone sister outside of her Carmelite convent: Leonie Martin.
Poor Leonie. Whenever I’ve read anything about her, she has seemed to have a tough go of things. What would it be like to grow up in a family of certified saints, and be labeled the “difficult” child? She failed to thrive as an infant, was abused by a governess, kicked out of a school for being disruptive, posed a constant challenge to her saintly mother (as we know from family letters). Sometimes I wonder how this suffering soul would be classified today by a team of child development specialists and psychologists. Oppositional defiance disorder? Anxiety and depression? Learning disabilities? Pervasive developmental disorder?
She was the only Martin sister of the surviving five children to not enter the Carmel convent, where even a few of her cousins matriculated. It took her three attempts at religious life at various convents before she finally found a fit with the Visitation sisters at Caen. Talk about an “out-of-sync” kid.
Notably, she didn’t enter the Visitation convent until after her sister Therese had died — after Leonie had had time to discover, learn and implement her sister’s method of humble sanctity. Before her death at 24, St. Therese and Leonie exchanged letters about Therese’s newfound way of confidence and love that she was pioneering. At her final profession, Leonie took the religious name of "Françoise-Thérèse.”
Leonie wrote when she finally found her place at the Visitation convent: "I am very happy — as happy as it is possible to be on this earth. When I look back on my past, as far back as my earliest childhood, and compare that time with this, I am overwhelmed with gratitude to the Heart of Jesus, who has enveloped me in so much love, and who has placed me in this loveliest anteroom of heaven, where I shall live and die."
In 2015, the cause for Leonie’s sainthood was officially opened by the Church, and now she is considered a “Servant of God.”
The Lord has graciously given us St. Therese to be our guide in these modern times. And he has also given us Leonie, so we can see how even a child with challenges — a kid maybe a little bit like our own — can follow the Little Way all the way to heaven.
Annamarie Adkins has been many things: world-traveling college student, restaurant reviewer, Catholic journalist, Catechesis of the Good Shepherd catechist, and most recently, a substitute teacher. She and her husband live with their four children in Saint Paul, Minn.