Among the small daughters who enlivened the home, Hélène seemed marked with some mysterious sign. She was "enchanting," "fresh as a rose at morning," as affectionate as could be wished and her precocious intelligence gave her chatter a charm all her own. Her photograph shows refined, delicate features, with something in her countenance of a gentle gravity that makes one think of the world beyond. Almost unknown to her parents, a sort of languor was silently undermining her health; and on 22 February 1870, after scarcely a day's illness, and without the doctor having realized the gravity of the case, the dark wing of the angel of death touched her in her turn.
Her mother, who bitterly reproached herself for this unexpected end, draws a sad picture of the last hours.
"I was looking at her sadly. Her eyes were dull, there was no more life in her, and I began to cry. Then she put her little arms round me and did her best to comfort me. All day she kept saying, 'My poor little mother has been crying.' I sat up with her, and she had a very bad night. In the morning, I asked her if she would take her bouillon. She said yes, but could not swallow it. However, she made a last effort, saying to me, 'If I eat it, will you love me better?'
"Then she took it all but suffered dreadfully afterwards, and I did not know what was happening. She looked at a bottle of medicine which the doctor had ordered, and wanted to drink it, saying that when it was all drunk, she would be better. Then about a quarter-to-ten, she said to me, 'Yes, I shall soon be well again . . . yes, very soon . . .' and at that very moment her little head fell on my shoulder, her eyes closed, and five minutes later she was dead . . .
"I shall never forget the impression it has made upon me. Neither I nor my husband expected this sudden end. When he came in and saw his poor little daughter dead, he burst out sobbing, and crying,0 'My little Hélène, My little Hélène!' Then we offered her to God together . . . I spent the night beside the poor little darling. She was even lovelier in death than in life. I dressed her myself and laid her in her coffin. I thought I should die myself, but I did not want others to touch her."
"Sometimes I imagine myself slipping away very gently, like my little Hélène. I assure you I scarcely cling to life since I lost that child. I am aware of an ardent longing to see her again. However, those who remain need me, and for their sakes I pray God to leave me a few years longer on earth.
"I feel deeply the loss of my two little boys, but I have suffered still more at losing this child. I was beginning to rejoice in her. She was so good, so loving and so advanced for her age. There is not a moment of the day when I do not think of her. The Sister who taught her in school, told me -- and it was well said -- that children like her do not live. Well, she is in Heaven, far happier than here below, but for me it seems as though all happiness has flown."
However, she got the better of it. From the Visitation1 she received a message of hope which, looking back, sounds like an early foretelling of the glory of Thérèse: "Oh, my dear little sister! How glad I am to see your deep faith and your resignation! You will soon find again those you mourn. Yes, your crown will be beautiful -- very beautiful. Just now your heart is broken but by your acquiescence in all that God wills, there will come a fragrance which will delight the Heart of God!"
"One day your faith and trust that never flinch will have a magnificent reward. Be sure that God will bless you, and that the measure of your sorrows will be that of the consolations reserved for you. For after all, if God is pleased with you and wills to give you the great saint you have so desired for His glory, will you not be well repaid?"
In a large household there was not time to bury herself in her grief. The stream of life rose and surged ever forward. The gaps were gradually filled and the parents, while keeping before their eyes the beloved features of those who were gone, spent themselves upon those who remained, uniting in a magnificent solidarity the family on earth and the family beyond the tomb, the latter watching over the former.
On day, Mme. Martin had an intuition, even a physical impression of this communion with the world beyond. Recalling how a little white lie had once escaped Hélène's lips, she harshly reproached herself for not having thought to make her go to confession. The idea that by her involuntary negligence the child was perhaps undergoing the suffering of Purgatory was unbearable. To shake off this obsession she turned to the family statue of Our Lady, the fingers of which, having been broken with much kissing, had been more than once replaced. The answer of the Immaculate Mother came forthwith: "She is here with me," tenderly murmured a mysterious interior voice. At these words the mother's anguish vanished and an indescribably joy arose in her heart, making her conceive a redoubled esteem for her high calling.
Again tranquil, she turned with all her affection to the little Céline and brought her home.2 "It will console us a little to have her here," she writes. "Besides, I cannot settle down to seeing myself in the streets without a child beside me."3
M. Martin was delighted. The mite had a curious preference for him. "When he is there no one else may hold her. She cries to go to him with all her might, and when I want to take her again, I have to remove her forcibly from his arms."
Was it a far-off foreshadowing of that painful eventide of life when in his humiliation the father would find in Céline the guardian angel of his old age?
Mme. Martin fully shared this supernatural outlook. "Four of my children are already well provided for," she will write one day, "and the others, yes, the others will also enter into the heavenly kingdom, laden with more merits, since they will have fought longer." It was in a letter to her sister-in-law that she fully expressed her thought in respect to this. Mme. Guérin had just given birth to a son who died immediately. To console the sorrowing mother, Zélie writes in terms of incomparable tenderness and beauty.
"I am deeply grieved at the misfortune that has just struck you. Truly, you are sorely tried! It is one of your first troubles, my poor, dear sister. May our good Lord grant you resignation to His holy will. Your dear little child is with Him. He sees you, he loves you, and you will find him again one day. That is the great comfort I felt and still feel."4
"When I closed the eyes of my dear children and buried them, I felt the sorrow indeed, but it has always been resigned sorrow. I did not regret the pain and cares I had borne for them. Several people said to me, 'It would have been better if you had never had them,' but I could not endure this sort of language. I did not think that the sufferings and anxieties could be weighed in the same scale with the eternal happiness of my children. Then they were not lost forever; life is short and full of miseries, and we shall find them again up yonder.
"It was especially at the death of the first that I was most vividly aware of the happiness of having a child in Heaven. For God showed me in a sensible manner that He accepted my sacrifice. Through my first little angel, I obtained a very extraordinary grace."
Here she relates the cure,...of little Hélène,5 by the intercession of her brother who had recently died. The conclusion follows as a matter of course: "You see, dear sister, it is a great advantage to have little angels in Heaven, but it is not less painful to nature to lose them. These are the great sorrows of our life."
Zélie Martin, Saint Thérèse's mother, along with her husband Louis Martin, were declared "Venerable" on 25 March 1994 by Pope John Paul II, the first step toward canonization.
1That is, from Sister. Marie Dosithée (Élise), Zélie Martin's sister, who was a Visitandine nun in the Convent of the Visitation in Mans.
2Céline, as well as Thérèse, had spent a period of their infancy at the home of a wet-nurse, since, because of breast cancer, Mme. Martin could not herself nurse her children.
3Her three older daughters, Marie, Pauline and Léonie would have been in boarding school.
4Zélie Martin had lost four of her nine children, who had died either in infancy or early childhood.
5Hélène was an elder sister of Saint Thérèse's whom the saint never met on earth, since she died at age 5 before Thérèse was born.
from by Father Stéphane-Joseph, O.F.M., 1948, reprint edition, Rockford, Illinois: TAN Books & Publishers, 1994, page 89-92, 97-98