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Almire Pichon, S.J., and Marie Martin, the sister of St. Therese of Lisieux: The Anniversary of a Friendship (April 17, 1882)

When St. Therese entered the Carmelite monastery at Lisieux on April 9, 1888, her two blood sisters were already there.  Pauline, the second daughter, had entered at age 21 on October 2, 1882, when Therese was nine years old.  On April 6, 1883, Pauline received the habit and the name Sister Agnes of Jesus.  Therese, who was then very ill, recovered just long enough for the ceremony.  Pauline made her profession on May 8, 1884, the same day Therese received her First Communion

Marie Martin as a young woman

Marie, the eldest daughter, is pictured at left.  She was a "free spirit" with little interest in social conventions.  In this photograph she wears a medallion on a velvet band around her neck.  Later she wrote to Pauline:  "If you remember, Mother, Papa gave each of us a beautiful gold locket.  It was still fashionable then to wear it around the neck on a black velvet ribbon.  Far from being drawn to vanity by it, I experienced a kind of shame.  It seemed to me that I looked like a little lapdog when I wore the famous velvet band around my neck."  (Souvenirs autobiographiques, 1909, copyright Archives of the Lisieux Carmel.  Translation copyright Maureen O'Riordan 2013).   

Marie had entered the Lisieux Carmel four years after Pauline, on October 15, 1886, the feast of St. Teresa of Avila.  She was then twenty-six years old.  On the feast of St. Joseph, March 19, 1887, Marie received the habit.  Thus, when Therese, 15, entered in April 1888, Marie, 28, was approaching the end of her year of formation as a novice.  Because choir nuns remained in the novitiate for three years after profession, Marie and Therese were together in the novitiate for almost three years.  On March 19, 1887 Marie had also received her religious name: Sister Marie of the Sacred Heart.  This name had been chosen for her by her spiritual director, the Jesuit Almire Pichon, a preacher well known in Normandy who came to have a significant influence on the Martin family. He preached devotion to the Sacred Heart fervently.

Almire Pichon, S.J.

Marie was the first of her family to meet Pere Pichon. She recounts it in her Souvenirs autobiographiques, the autobiographical reflectons she wrote at Pauline's request in 1909 (available in French at the Web site of the Archives of the Carmel of Lisieux, and soon to be posted in English).  Early in April 1882, when Marie was twenty-two years old and preparing to part with Pauline, she met a friend who told her that a holy Jesuit priest was to preach a mission at the Lambert factory outside Lisieux.  (In France, at this time, priests came to factories to preach to the workers. The Franciscan, Pere Alexis Prou, of whom Therese said that he "launched me full sail upon the waves of confidence and love" when she confessed to him in October 1891, was a last-minute replacement.  He was not expected to be wildly popular among the Carmelite nuns at Lisieux because "he preached in factories"). 

Marie's friend said enthusiastically about Pere Pichon "He is a saint whom one does not often see." Marie went to the mission out of curiosity to see a saint and went into the confessional for the same reason.  With her usual candor, she told Pere Pichon that she had come to see him because she'd heard he was a saint.  He laughed a little and invited her to confess. She did so briefly, but went home feeling disappointed.  This meeting was on April 17, 1882, 131 years ago today, and from then on the two friends kept this date as the anniversary of the beginning of their friendship.  The priest was then 39 years old.

That evening, though, Marie felt drawn to confide in Pere Pichon again.  As she never went out alone, she asked the maid, Victoire Pasquer, to accompany her to Pere Pichon's Mass the next day.  Victoire Pasquer, a maid at Les Buissonnets 1877-1884Then she entered his confessional again, explaining that she had felt irresistibly drawn to talk to him again but didn't know why.  He asked her whether she wanted to be a nun.  No.  Did she want to get married? Oh, no!  Well, did she want to be an old maid?  No.  Pere Pichon had to catch a train, but two weeks later he was to return to Lisieux to preach a reteat at the Refuge.  He gave Marie some homework: write down all your impressions of the religious life, why you don't want to become a nun, and all the thoughts that come to you during these days on the subject of your vocation.  "For my part, I hope very much to give you to Jesus."  Several weeks later, when Marie entered his confessional again, he read the eight pages she had written and began to ask her questions.  They began a lively correspondence which lasted for several years, even after he was missioned to Canada.  He returned to France, and in 1886 he finally "nudged" Marie into the Carmel.

One week after Therese's entrance, Pere Pichon wrote to Marie from Poitiers.  The mail service, by train, was excellent, so he could write on April 16 and know that she would get his letter for their anniversary on April 17th. His letter shows his tender affection for the young sister, his proprietary pride and gratitude for her vocation, and something of his spirituality.  Read the full text of this letter at the Web site of the Archives of the Carmel of Lisieux, which was accessed April 17, 2013.

Almire Pichon will appear again in the story of the Martin family. He was to have considerable influence on the Martin family, especially on Marie, so April 17, 1882 was the date of an important event in the family's history. His role in the lives of the Martin family is sensitively analyzed in chapter two of Thomas R. Nevin's superb book Therese of Lisieux: God's Gentle Warrior (New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 2006, pp. 38-42).  I recommend it highly.  

Pere Pichon's letters to St. Therese appear in Letters of St. Therese of Lisieux, Volume I (1877-1890), tr. John Clarke, O.C.D. (Washington, D.C., ICS Publications, 1982) and in Letters of St. Therese of Lisieux, Volume II, (1890-1897), tr. John Clarke, O.C.D.  (Washington, D.C.: ICS Publications, 1982). These two volumes are a gold mine of information about Saint Therese and the Martin family.

The story of Pere Pichon's life and of his association with the Martin family and with the family of Jean Vanier, founder of l'Arche (Pere Pichon was the cherished spiritual director of Jean Vanier's grandmother, Therese de Salaberry Archer, who was the mother of Pauline Vanier) is told in  The Hidden Way: The Life and Influence of Almire Pichon, by Mary Frances Coady (Toronto: Novalis, 1999).

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