Elisabeth Arrighi Leseur, was born in Paris in 1866. She had been pious as a young girl, but, by the time she married the doctor Félix Leseur at the age of 21, her religious observance had become rather conventional, though sincere.
Her husband had lost his faith completely, however, and though he had promised to respect Elizabeth’s practice of her religion, he soon began a relentless attack to make her lose her faith.
After seven years of marriage, she had lapsed, but when Félix tried to finish off what remained of her faith by giving her Renan’s treacherous History of the Origins of Christianity to read, his attempt backfired, as he later wrote:
“Thanks to Divine Providence, the very work that I thought would accomplish my hateful object brought about its ruin. Elisabeth …] was not deceived by the glamour of the form, but was struck by the poverty of the substance …]. She felt herself approach the abyss, and sprang backwards, and from then on she devoted herself to her own religious instruction.”
Accordingly, she began to read the works of the Fathers of the Church, St Augustine, St Thomas Aquinas, St Teresa of Avila, St Francis de Sales, and above all, the Holy Bible. The result was her conversion back to the faith of her youth and the renewed practice of the Christian life.
During a trip to Rome with her husband in 1903, Elisabeth had a mystical experience of the presence of God within her and of a complete renewal of her interior life. She abandoned herself to Our Lord without reserve. One of her greatest consolations and supports thereafter was in the reception of Holy Communion.
At the same time, she worked unceasingly for the conversion of her unbelieving husband. Argument availed nothing, and so she concentrated on praying for Félix and setting him a good example by her own holy life.
The more she co-operated with grace, the more God sent her physical sufferings in order to pay the price of her husband’s conversion. Constantly she prayed: “My God, wilt Thou give me one day - soon - the immense joy of full spiritual communion with my dear husband, of the same faith, and, for him as for me, of a life turned toward Thee? I will redouble my prayers for this intention; more than ever will I supplicate, suffer, and offer to God Communions and sacrifices to obtain this greatly desired grace.”
As a doctor, Félix could be under no illusion as to the gravity of her sufferings, nor to the eventual outcome of the cancer eating away at her body.
“When I saw how ill she was,” he later wrote, “and how she endured with equanimity of temper a complaint that generally provokes much hypochondria, impatience and ill-humour, I was struck to see how her soul had so great a command of itself and of her body; and knowing that she drew this tremendous strength from her convictions, I ceased to attack them.”
Nevertheless, he was not converted. As Elisabeth drew near to death, she told him one day, “Félix, when I am dead, you will become a Catholic and a Dominican priest.”
“Elizabeth, you know my sentiments. I’ve sworn hatred of God, I shall live in the hatred and I shall die in it,” he replied.
She repeated her words before she passed away in 1914 in her husband’s arms at the early age of 47, without seeing his conversion.
Rummaging through Elisabeth’s papers, Félix found her Spiritual Testament and read these lines:
“In l905, I asked Almighty God to send me sufficient sufferings to purchase your soul. On the day that I die, the price will have been paid. Greater love than this no woman has than she who lays down her life for her husband.”
“A revolution took place in my whole moral being”, he wrote. “I understood the celestial beauty of her soul and that she had accepted all her suffering and offered it - and even offered her very self in sacrifice - chiefly for my conversion. …] Her sacrifice was absolute, and she was convinced that God would accept it and would take her early to Himself. She was equally persuaded that He would ensure my conversion.”
That conversion was only to come about three years after her death as the doctor, still an atheist, visited Lourdes with a view to writing an attack on the devotion of Catholics to Our Lady.
Once again, however, his malice was to backfire. What happened at the grotto in Lordes he later confided to Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, who, as a young priest, attended a retreat given by Félix after he had become a Dominican:
“As he looked up into the face of the statue of Mary Immaculate, he received the great gift of faith. So total, so complete was it, that he never had to go through the process of juxtaposition and say, ‘How will I answer this or that difficulty?’ He saw it all. At once.”
In 1919, at the age of 57, he became a novice in the Order of Preachers, and was ordained a priest at 62. Fr Félix Leseur died in 1950, blessing the memory of his wife, who had offered her sufferings for his conversion at the feet of Mary Immaculate. [After Rev. Fr Jordan Aumann, O.P. Christian Spirituality in the Catholic Tradition and Mgr Fulton J. Sheen’s talk The Woman I love, (transcription at www.catholic.org).]