Between 18-22 June 1877, Zélie Martin, the mother of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the “Little Flower”, made a pilgrimage to Lourdes seeking a miraculous cure from the metastasizing breast cancer that was rapidly killing her. (Zélie and her husband Louis are themselves now canonized saints of the Church: they were canonized by Pope Francis in 2015. Their feast-day is July 12th, for the anniversary of their marriage. They were married in a church at midnight on the night of July 12th-13th, 1858.)
As strong Catholics the Martin were believers in the Apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary at Lourdes, which had received the approbation of the Church. Louis Martin had been part of the first national pilgrimage in 1873, for the spiritual regeneration of France, and again in 1875. Given her deteriorating condition Zélie Martin went in haste to Lourdes on the first organized pilgrimage she could find. She went without her husband, accompanied only by her three oldest daughters Marie, Pauline and Léonie.
She went with the conviction of faith that she would be miraculously healed, if God willed it for her through Mary. As she wrote in a letter to her sister-in-law: “I do not count on anything by the help of the Good Mother. If she wishes it, she can cure me, she has cured many other sick people.”
The pilgrimage, however, filled with mishaps and personal misfortunes, did not result in a miraculous cure. Madame Martin died on August 28th, 1878, at the age of 46. Her youngest daughter Thérèse was only four years old.
It was a struggle for Zélie to come to terms with her impending death, but she accepted it, as we know now from her letters to family members at the time. Just before the pilgrimage to Lourdes she had confided to her brother how she was praying that if the Blessed Virgin would not obtain a cure for her, then that she would cure her daughter Léonie, who had what we would identify today as severe developmental problems. After the pilgrimage she was inspired to meditate deeply on the words of Our Lady to Bernadette, “I do not promise to make you happy in this life, but in the next,” and their application to her in her situation.
And in a letter to her daughter Pauline the mother counseled against disappointment:
I wish to know in what spiritual dispositions you find yourself in and if you’re still angry against the Blessed Virgin? Don’t expect a lot of joys on this earth, you will have a great many disappointments. Courage and confidence [“courage et confiance”] Pray with faith to the Mother of Mercies, she will come to your aid with the goodness and the sweetness of the most tender of Mothers.