On Saturday, December 5, 1891, Mother Genevieve of St. Therese, venerated as the founder of the Lisieux Carmel, died. Therese recalls the experience of her death in Story of a Soul.
About Mother Genevieve
The future Mother Genevieve was born Claire-Marie-Radegonde Bertrand on July 5, 1805 in Poitiers. In 1830, at age 24, she entered the Carmel of Poitiers.1 About seven years later the Gosselin sisters, who wished to establish a Carmel with their family fortune, entered the community at Poitiers to make their novitiate. In 1838, when the two sisters returned to Lisieux, they were accompanied by nuns from Poitiers, including the prioress of the new house, Mother Elizabeth of St. Louis, and the subprioress and novice mistress, Mother Genevieve of St. Therese. A few years later Mother Elizabeth died. Mother Genevieve succeeded her, and so it was she who was considered the "foundress." Her sisters, who loved her very much, elected her prioress as often as the Rule allowed until her health prevented her fulfilling the office any more
Mother Genevieve and the Martin sisters
Pauline Martin's entrance on October 2, 1882 fell during one of the periods when Mother Genevieve was not eligible to be elected a third term; Mother Marie de Gonzague was prioress at the time. On January 31, 1883, Mother Genevieve was re-elected, so she held the office when Pauline received the habit. At the end of 1884, Mother Genevieve became an invalid. When the elections came around on February 3, 1886, it was clear that the 80-year-old founder was not well enough to serve, and Mother Gonzague was elected again. Thus, Mother Gonzague was prioress when Marie Martin entered (October 15, 1886) and when Therese followed (April 9, 1888). Still, a close spiritual bond existed between Mother Genevieve and the Martin sisters, especially Pauline, whom she described as "our angelic novice," and Therese.
Mother Genevieve and Therese
The priest who supervised the Lisieux Carmel, Canon Jean-Baptiste Delatroette, vigorously opposed Therese's entrance. When he was inside the enclosure visiting Mother Genevieve, she bravely (but in vain) asked him to consent to Therese's entrance.
When she came to write her memoir, Therese mentioned Mother Genevieve three times. She speaks of
my good fortune at knowing our holy Mother Geneviève. This certainly was a priceless gift; God, who had given me so many graces, willed that I should live with a saint. Not one that was inimitable, but one who was made holy by the practice of the hidden virtues, the ordinary virtues . . . . I saw the degree to which Jesus was living within her and making her act and speak. Ah! that type of sanctity seems the truest and the most holy to me, and it is the type that I desire because in it one meets with no deceptions.
For a sensitive reflection on the influence of Mother Genevieve on St. Therese, and for the founder's role as a precursor of Therese's way of confidence and love, please see pages 131-133 of Therese of Lisieux: God's Gentle Warrior, by Thomas R. Nevin (New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).2
Mother Genevieve dictated to young Sister Therese certain "secrets" (moments in her spiritual life and recollections of her childhood). Read this "Remembrance of Mother Genevieve."
The death of Mother Genevieve took place at the beginning of a severe winter. An epidemic of influenza, which would shortly claim the lives of three Carmelites, was sweeping over France. Before it hit the community, the nuns joined the Carmelite Order in celebrating the third centenary of the death of St. John of the Cross, who died December 14, 1551. To honor the anniversary, Fr. Deodat de Basly, a Franciscan Recollect of the same order as Fr. Alexis Prou, who had heard Therese's confession in October ("he launched me full sail upon the waves of confidence and love"), preached a triduum from November 23-25. Therese recalls that Bishop Hugonin entered the cloister for this occasion and surrounded her with tenderness. Mother Genevieve received "extreme unction," as the sacrament of the sick was then called, on the last day of the Triduum, November 25. In a letter to Celine on that date, Pauline wrote:
Mother Geneviève was worse at the beginning of the week' now she is better, and, despite everything, she expects to die on Friday! One can tell she is convinced of it . . . how happy our holy Mother is! I find her face is imbued with celestial peace, one can sense that the port is nigh!"
It was early in the morning of Saturday, December 5, 1891, that the Bridegroom came for the 86-year-old founder. This was the first time Therese, now 18, had seen death; she found it a "ravishing spectacle."
I was placed at the foot of the dying saint’s bed, and witnessed her slightest movements . . . . at the moment itself of our saintly Mother Geneviève’s birth in heaven . . . . I experienced an inexpressible joy and fervor; it was as though Mother Geneviève had imparted to me a little of the happiness she was enjoying, for I was convinced she went straight to heaven
Read Therese's full account of the death of Mother Genevieve, together with account of her dream about Mother Genevieve after the latter's death, at the Web site of the Archives of the Carmel of Lisieux.
Mother Genevieve was so revered in the community and in the town that her body was laid out in the choir for a week. See a photo of her body and several portraits taken during her lifetime. She could not be interred immediately, for the local government did not at once consent to her burial within the monastery. The town council eventually consented, and she was buried in the sanctuary of the Carmel chapel, near Father Sauvage, the priest-founder, on December 23, 1891.3
Mother Genevieve was indeed the "grain of wheat" of which Jesus speaks: "if it dies, it bears much fruit." The fruit would become visible in only a few years.
1The details of Mother Genevieve's childhood and her religious life are available in the little book, now happily online, "The Foundation of the Carmel of Lisieux and Its Foundress, Reverend Mother Genevieve of St. Teresa," translated by a religious of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus in 1913. The title page lists as publishers the Carmel of Lisieux; St. Anselm's Society in London; and the Carmelite Convent in Philadelphia. This short book is a valuable resource for those who want to understand the 50-year history of the Carmel Therese entered in 1888. It points out that Mother Genevieve was considered the mother of the Carmels of Caen, Coutances, and Saigon (all founded from Lisieux), as well as of all the Carmels of the Far East, which were founded from Saigon.
2 [Note that a purchase through the link supports this Web site].
3 Sainte Therese de Lisieux (1873-1897), by Guy Gaucher, O.C.D. Paris: Editions du Cerf, 2011, p. 349.