Blog: ‘Voyage excentrique aux Cordillères des Andes’ – Céline Martin, Saint Thérèse of Lisieux and a remarkable photograph album

The archives du Carmel de Lisieux have recently launched a new website, putting materials relating to the life and posthumous fame of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux online for the first time.  The convent was the saint’s home during the last nine years of her life and its archives have been the guardians of her legacy ever since.

Yesterday the Carmel made available a remarkable album of photographs. Taken in summer 1894, they show Céline Martin (seen in the middle, above) – Saint Thérèse’s sister and the creator of an iconography for the fledgling saint in the years immediately after her death – along with her cousins Jeanne and Marie, Jeanne’s husband Francis, and their seminarian friend Abbé Joseph de Cornière, staging a series of  tableaux vivants. Taking as inspiration de Cornière’s recent trip to Chile, they tramped across the 40 hectare estate of Céline’s wealthy uncle, and Jeanne and Marie’s father, Isidore Guérin, on a pretend ‘expedition’ to the Andes, taking a series of photographs with Céline’s box camera. The results are beautiful, amusing and highly camp. See them here.

These wonderful photographs offer a privileged insight into the leisure culture of the late nineteenth-century French petite bourgeoisie, and particularly that of well-off middle class women of the time. Céline even wrote to Thérèse, already a nun at the Carmel, about this outing, saying ‘we are busy doing photography.  We dress up and are making a whole story of travellers in tableaux vivants; it will be very amusing’, before expressing a boredom with her current lifestyle. This jolly hockey-sticks fun is tempered by frustration and ennui then. As well as the value of these photos as a source for social history, they have an incredibly cinematic quality and perhaps suggest ‘the first faltering steps towards cinema’, as the archives du Carmel have themselves remarked. Interestingly, the Lumières recorded the first moving images the year after these photos were taken.

But as well as their wider historical value, these photographs also provide a glimpse into the pre-convent life of Céline, who would spend six decades in the Carmel de Lisieux, and dedicated her life to giving her sister a public image as a saint. Céline’s  work as an amateur artist and photographer, and lead role in building both a public face and commercial cult for Saint Thérèse – battling with senior men of the Church, suing counterfeiters, and befriending popes along the way – was the topic of my PhD thesis, but Céline’s early biography is no less fascinating than her later life.

These photos were taken at a very difficult time for Céline, when she was nursing her father who had been chronically ill with dementia for five years. He died just two weeks after these photographs were taken, and Céline entered the Carmel de Lisieux just six weeks later, joining her three sisters who were already living there. In these photographs we have an insight into the early life of a remarkable woman who ended up rejecting the world of leisure and luxury that these photographs evoke for something very different, and who went on to play a key role in ‘creating’ perhaps the most popular saint of the modern Catholic Church. Her story is yet to be fully told, but a flavour of it is given in the extract below.

Céline had witnessed the entry of two of her sisters to the Carmel of Lisieux and one to the Poor Clares by the time she was seventeen. When Thérèse also entered the Carmel in April 1888, aged just fifteen, Céline was left bereft without the sibling to whom she was closest, in age, temperament and emotional bond. Left with her emotionally troubled sister Léonie (who had failed at the religious life twice by this point) and an ailing father (Louis Martin had suffered a mild stroke the previous year and, at sixty-four, was showing alarming signs of declining mental alertness), to follow her sisters into the cloister after her father’s clearly imminent death would have seemed the obvious path for Céline.

However, Céline had real alternatives to the Carmel made available to her, and over just a few weeks in the spring of 1888 she faced a number of decisions about her life’s path. First, she received a marriage proposal. She later wrote ‘just in case, I responded that I was not willing, that I wanted to be left in peace for the time being, and that no one should wait for me.’ Her cautious rejection was perhaps borne of the fact that until the age of twenty she was ‘perfectly ignorant of the things of nature. The Lord had thrown a veil over them that I did not seek to pull aside.’ Indeed, her attitude towards sex seems to have shaped her reaction when, in June 1888 Louis offered his daughter, seen as the artist of the family, the opportunity to go to Paris to pursue an artistic career. Céline later wrote that: ‘Without taking time to think about it… I confided to him that I wanted to be a nun, I did not seek the glory of the world, and that if God needed my works later on, he could very well make up for my ignorance. I added that I preferred my innocence to all other advantages and that I did not want to risk it in artists’ studios.’ With Céline not willing to ‘risk’ her chastity in what she saw as the bohemian and godless haunts of the Parisian art world, the Carmel was beckoning. However, she was not to enter for a further six years, as events overtook her again.

In early 1889, Louis Martin became a serious cause for concern. In a distressed and paranoid state, he brandished a revolver in front of his two daughters and had to be disarmed by his brother-in-law, Isidore Guérin, who made immediate arrangements for him to be placed in an asylum in Caen. Céline and Léonie moved in with their uncle, aunt (after whom Céline was named) and two cousins, Jeanne and Marie, in June 1889 and this period saw Céline forced to participate in the active social life of her wealthy relatives, becoming the focus of the unwelcome attentions of various admirers. She took private vow of chastity in December 1889, and this was an attitude well-supported by Thérèse who, on hearing that Céline was attending a wedding ball, tearfully entreated her not to ‘imitate the folly of the times and worship the idol by giving yourself over to dangerous pleasures’. When Céline was swept onto the dance floor by a young man, both found themselves completely unable to dance, and Thérèse saw this as a result of her fervent prayers to that effect. For nearly three years Céline filled her time with painting, reading, letter writing and enforced socialising.

However, this was punctuated by the appearance of one final alternative route in her life’s path. Père Pichon, a Norman Jesuit who had acted as Céline’s spiritual advisor since late 1887, wrote to her in June 1891 from his missionary post in Canada, making the suggestion that she come and join him working in a new foundation to prepare ‘morally neglected’ children for their first communion. A new option, a life as a missionary, was added to that of nun and was considered right up until her final decision to enter Carmel was made.

The return of Louis Martin from the Bon Sauveur asylum in May 1892 saw the beginning of a new period in Céline’s life. With the help of her uncle, she re-established the Martin household in a house backing on to the Guérin’s property. In June 1893, Léonie left for another try at the religious life, leaving Céline alone. After a further year as the head of her own household, Louis died, with Céline at his side. The ordeal of her father’s illness had been traumatic for Céline, and she devoted pages and pages to its twists and turns when she wrote her memoirs fifteen years later. Six weeks after his death, she entered the Carmel of Lisieux, and later she would see herself as having had a lucky escape from a sinful life, wanting to call her unpublished memoir Histoire d’un tison arraché du feu (‘Story of a brand snatched from the fire’). Just four years after her entry, Thérèse was dead and Céline was completing her first portrait of her – her life’s work had begun.

Sophia L. Deboick, ‘Image, Authenticity and the Cult of
Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, 1897-1959’,  unpublished PhD thesis, University of Liverpool, 2011.

Photo: Archives du Carmel de Lisieux