Léonie Martin: The sister in the shadow

Cause of Our Joy l Katie Faley

April is National Autism Awareness Month. While there’s technically an official patron saint of those with autism (St. Thorlak), there’s a lesser-known patron hiding in the shadow of her very famous sister.

Léonie Martin was the older sister of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. There wasn’t much known about autism spectrum disorder in the late 1800s when Léonie lived. But, based on the Martin family letters and what we know of Léonie’s life, it’s now believed that she likely had a form of autism.

As the middle of five daughters, Léonie was often compared harshly against her sisters. While they were witty, smart, well-read, and could easily navigate social situations, Léonie struggled to understand academic concepts, had a hard time relating to her peers, and preferred to spend time in the safety of her own mind. Léonie’s accomplishments were often overshadowed by her high-achieving sisters. She had overwhelming emotions that were hard to control. She was unruly, disruptive, and had extreme mood swings

She wanted nothing more than to be good. She didn’t want to cause her family stress, but she didn’t know how to cope.


Her behavior puzzled her mother, but she was determined to try to make sure Léonie had the same opportunities as her sisters. She was sent off to boarding school several times, just as her sisters. Each time, she lasted a few months before being asked to leave. She’d return home feeling like a failure and disappointment.

Despite her many setbacks in life, Léonie persevered. She always tried to give the best of herself to everyone, especially those closest to her. And, above all, she spent each day trying to please Jesus.

Being different from her sisters left her in a vulnerable position. One of the family’s maids took advantage of that to manipulate and physically abuse Léonie. She was threatened into silence. If she ever told her family about her secret pain, the abuse would only get worse. This led Léonie to isolate herself even further from her family.

Léonie’s mother began to suspect that something was wrong. She discovered the abuse and immediately fired the maid.

With the maid gone, the change in Léonie was drastic. She had always had a special bond with her mother and wanted to do anything to please her. After the abuse ended, she tried especially hard to be helpful and attentive. The bond with her mother and her family was finally restored. However, Léonie’s peace lasted only a few years. Her heartbreak returned when her mother died. Léonie was just 14.


Her aunt, a Visitation nun, invited Léonie to stay at the convent with her. She gave her private, one-on-one lessons and immersed her in the calm environment of the French convent. With her individual attention and personalized academic plan, Léonie flourished. She learned coping skills. She responded well to the gentle and loving care of her aunt. It’s no doubt that both Léonie and her aunt cultivated a lot of patience during that time, and it changed Léonie’s life.

Léonie always dreamed of being a nun, and life in the convent with her aunt encouraged that desire. As an adult, she attempted to enter the convent three times. She was asked to leave each time due to her struggle to adjust to the change. Each time was another heartbreak. At the age of 35, Léonie finally entered the Visitation convent for good.


Léonie lived out the rest of her life simply and peacefully from inside the convent walls. She made strong, beautiful friendships with the other sisters at the convent. They called her kind, serene, and happy.

Despite her many setbacks in life, Léonie persevered. She always tried to give the best of herself to everyone, especially those closest to her. And, above all, she spent each day trying to please Jesus. Her sister, Thérèse, even said it would be easy for Léonie to become a saint because she wanted nothing more than to please Jesus and be close to Him.

Léonie died in 1941 at the age of 78. In 2015, Léonie’s cause for sainthood was officially opened.

Many people ask for Léonie’s prayers for family and relationship healing, for hope through struggles, and for acceptance. Asking Léonie to pray for us is a simple and powerful way to celebrate this Autism Awareness Month.

KATIE FALEY is a member of St. Mark Parish in Peoria and a writing coordinator for OSF HealthCare. She has a master’s degree in theology and theological studies from the University of Notre Dame. Write to her at katiefaleywriter@gmail.com.

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