“Look to the saints!” We hear this advice often whenever we meet difficulties in day to day living. And there are innumerable difficulties, trials, crises we encounter and must go through as parents and as family members.
One of the indisputable facts today is the large number of single parents coping with their “singlehood.” Unheard of a few decades ago, not because there were no cases of single parents but also because if this happened to one’s family, the tendency was to keep the fact within the confines of family and relatives. It was not something we could be proud of. Times have changed. Today being a single parent is no longer something to be unsaid.
With 11.5 million migrant domestic workers worldwide as of January 2021 we can safely assume that there are millions of fathers or mothers, partners of these workers left behind to tend to the family. Lucky is the family of an OFW worker who has a parent, sibling or close relative who can fill in his or her place to care for the young children and help the partner left at home.
So how are good and devoted fathers — who are single parents — able to cope? How may they be better today than yesterday and better still tomorrow than today as fathers who have no partners to help them?
“Look to the saints.” We repeat this quite often.
One saint who stands out to us who could be the model of single fathers is St. Louis Martin. Louis could be someone from whom young fathers can learn a tip or two about single fatherhood.
Louis Joseph Aloys Stanislaus Martin was a French watchmaker born on August 22, 1823. Although he had four siblings, all died before they reached the age of 30. He desired to be a monk and intended to enter the Augustinian Great St. Bernard Monastery but he was not admitted because he failed in learning Latin.
His wife, Zélie wanted to dedicate her life as a nun but she abandoned this dream when she was not accepted by the Sisters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul due to health problems. Deciding to learn Alencon Lace making, Zélie worked hard to perfect her craft and since she could not be a nun, she decided she was to be a mother, have many children and consecrate all her children to God. This dream became a reality when “she noticed a man crossing the Bridge of St. Leonard and heard a voice say in the silence of her heart, ‘This is he whom I have prepared for you.’” This was, quite literally, a match made in Heaven. The man was the watchmaker Louis Martin, who, like Zélie, believed his life would be spent serving God in a cloistered monastery. Their connection was immediate, and they were married three months after their first meeting.
The unique story of the couple started with a strange yet grace-filled beginning. In the first ten months of marriage they agreed to live a life of sexual abstinence. Later upon the guidance of a spiritual director they were encouraged to have children of their own. Louis and Zélie had nine children in the 13 years they were together although four of them died in their childhood. The five daughters — Pauline, Marie, Celine, Leonie and Thérèse — would all later enter religious life. Pauline, Marie, Celine, and Therese became Carmelite nuns while Leonie became a Visitandine nun. Thérèse, their youngest, now more known as Thérèse of Lisieux, or “The Little Flower,” was canonized as a saint of the Catholic Church in 1925 and Leonie Martin was declared “Servant of God” in 2015.
Louis and Zélie were canonized saints on October 18, 2015, by Pope Francis, becoming the first spouses in the Church’s history to be canonized as saints.
When they started having children, the Martins devoted their time to creating a rich foundation for the children. Zélie once said “When we had our children, our ideas changed somewhat. Thenceforward we lived only for them; they made all our happiness and we would never have found it save in them. In fact, nothing any longer cost us anything; the world was no longer a burden to us. As for me, my children were my great compensation, so that I wished to have many in order to bring them up for Heaven.”
The Martins were loving and firm parents, determined to make their children saints and bring them all to heaven.
The couple provided for their family with Louie as a watchmaker and Zélie as a lace maker. Mastering the art of Alencon lace making, Zélie’s business became so successful that, in 1870, Louis sold his watchmaking business to go into partnership with her. Thus their world as a couple was so intertwined with each other’s activities: parenting, child rearing, livelihood, faith activities. Unfortunately, Zélie died of breast cancer in 1877 leaving her husband and five children, the youngest of which was only four years old.
Confronted with not only grief, but the responsibility of single parenthood five daughters, Louie had to make major changes. After Zélie’s death, Louie, sold the lace business in Alencon and moved to Lisieux where he had relatives who could provide support.
As a father, Louie influenced his children, especially Thérèse, in his love for nature. Thérèse had a deep passion for flowers and meadows. He made pilgrimages to Chartres, Lourdes, Rome, Constantinople, Germany and Austria, taking along some of his daughters. Therese relates how she pleaded with the pope for him to allow her to enter the Carmelite monastery at the age of 15 in one of such pilgrimages to Rome.
Dividing his day into worship, garden, work, and relaxation, his discipline to follow and organize his day must have set a beautiful example of a way of life for his daughters. Tending towards silence and withdrawal, Louie arranged a small den in the attic into a prayer room, not unlike a monastic cell, where he spent much time to pray, read and meditate. His daughters were allowed to enter only if they wished “spiritual converse and self-examination.” It is easy to surmise that the decision of the four daughters to enter the Carmelite congregation, a contemplative order, must have been somehow nurtured by Louis’ disposition towards prayer.
Considering his children as his precious gems, his affection for them can be seen in the pet names he gave them, Marie was his “diamond,” Pauline his “noble pearl,” Celine “the bold and fearless one,” Leonie “the guardian angel,” and Therese his “little queen, to whom all treasures belonged.”
There are so many single fathers in the world today. It is never easy to fulfill all the roles of being a provider, a protector, a disciplinarian, a nurturer, a teacher, etc. How St. Louis Martin coped as a father could teach us a few lessons.
Edita Burgos is a doctor of education and a member of the Secular Order of Discalced Carmelites. Gunmen — believed to be soldiers — abducted her son Jonas Burgos in Manila in April 2007. He is still missing.