The following is a short introduction to the life of Elisabeth Leseur. For more information, please see the compilation of books and articles that are available.
Elisabeth Arrighi Leseur, daughter of Antoine and Marie-Laure Arrighi, was born in Paris in 1866. She was the oldest of five children. She and her siblings were raised and educated as would be any Catholic family at the time. She began her spiritual writing at an early age; her first dated diary entry was made on November 14, 1877. In May 1879, she both made her first Communion and received the sacrament of Confirmation.
Friends introduced Elisabeth to Felix Leseur in 1889. They became engaged on May 23, 1889 and married just a few months later (July 31st). In the following months Elisabeth would come to know that Felix had abandoned all his religious beliefs while studying at the Faculty of Medicine in Paris. Towards the end of the summer of 1889, Elisabeth fell ill with an abscess of the intestine. It took her several months to recover her strength, but this would be only the first of a series of health problems she would suffer for the rest of her life.
Despite their religious differences, Elisabeth and Felix were loving towards each other. They would travel extensively in the early years of their marriage, visiting Rome, Algeria, Tunisia, Germany, and sites in Eastern Europe. Both Felix and Elisabeth were well read. In addition to reading the great classics, Elisabeth studied many languages. During this time Felix would begin publishing several anticlerical articles and become more public in his loss of faith. Given Felix’s attitude towards religion, and after returning from a long journey, Elisabeth abandoned all relationship with God in 1897. In the following year, Felix suggested the works of Renan, a brilliant but rationalist author. Elisabeth began La Vie de Jésus (The Life of Jesus). Given her intelligence and experience she took to deconstruct the work, pointing out the flaws she found in the work. This reading and reflection would re-awaken her spiritual life. She would begin to record her thoughts and reflections in several journals.
From this time on, the primary focus of her life was praying for the conversion of her husband. She would also work on several charitable projects in support of the poor. Given her loving and gentle nature, many non-believers would seek her counsel, some of which was shared in beautiful correspondence. Some of Elisabeth’s most beautiful writing would be between her and Sœur Marie Goby, a Hospitaller Sister of St. Martha of Beaune. They would meet each other only a few times in person, but would share their experiences and a deep of love of God through written letters over just a few short years.
In 1907 Elisabeth’s health deteriorated to the extent that she was forced to lead a primarily sedentary life, receiving friends and visitors to her home. In 1911 she had surgery and radiation for a malignant tumor, recovered, and was well enough that she and Felix made one more pilgrimage to Lourdes. By July of 1913 she would be bedridden, as her recurring breast cancer continued to spread. She died in May 1914. So many people attended her funeral, and expressed such profound distress at her death, that priests are reported to have asked Felix, “But who is this woman? We have never seen such a funeral before.”
Felix discovered Elisabeth’s spiritual journals and correspondence following her death. In her journal, Elisabeth notes her pact with God, whereby she offered her life for the conversion of her beloved husband. She believed that not only would God’s grace inspire a change of heart for Felix, but she believed he would serve God as a Dominican priest. He originally sought to destroy the journal as part of a trip to Lourdes. He longed to discount the conversion and healing stories of Lourdes, along with the writings of his wife. However, upon reaching Lourdes he felt strongly Elisabeth’s presence as well as God’s presence and he would slowly begin his conversion back to Catholicism.
It was not so easy for Felix to become a Dominican priest. He would eventually need to plead his case to Pope Benedict XV, who initially forbade Felix to enter the priesthood. However, Pope Benedict would reverse his decision and in 1923 Felix was ordained to the priesthood. He would spend most of his energy publishing Elisabeth’s writings, both her spiritual journal and her correspondence. He would be instrumental in opening the cause for her canonization.