The Little Flower was neither soft nor saccharine. She regarded herself as warrior ready to die in the service of Jesus. “I would die in a battlefield,” she once said, “arms in hand.”
She was born into a pious family in Alençon in 1873. Doctors did not expect Marie-Françoise-Thérèse Martin to live. She was diagnosed with enteritis, which had already taken the lives of four of her siblings, and sent to live with her wet nurse, Rose Taillé, who helped her to survive.
When Thérèse was four, her mother died. “When mummy died,” she later wrote, “my happy disposition changed. I had been so lively and open; now I became diffident and oversensitive.” But she felt great dreams stirring within her. “I was enchanted with the deeds of Joan of Arc,” she recalled, “I felt in my heart a desire and courage to imitate them.”
Her battlefield was the Carmel of Lisieux, which she entered in 1888, months after a pilgrimage to Rome during which she begged Pope Leo XIII to allow her to join the Carmelites at 15 (Swiss Guards had to carry her out of the audience after she refused to leave him).
She recounts her struggle in The Story of a Soul, a spiritual memoir written under obedience. She describes how, when she realised she was unlikely to die a heroic death in the mission field, she discovered what she called the “little way”. “Great deeds are forbidden me,” she wrote. “The only way I can prove my love is by scattering flowers, and these flowers are every little sacrifice, every glance and word, and the doing of the least actions for love.”
On Holy Saturday in 1896 she coughed up blood. She was diagnosed with tuberculosis and spent the next year in great suffering. On September 30 1897, she uttered the words “My God, I love you!” and died, aged just 24.
Her Cause was opened in 1914 and many French soldiers prayed for her intercession during the Great War. She was canonised on May 17 1925, named patroness of missions in 1927 and declared co-patroness of France, beside St Joan of Arc, in 1944.