It’s only a couple months until Louis Martin and Zélie Martin (née Guérin), the parents of St. Therese and a whole family of blesseds and venerables and Servants of God, are themselves canonized. So it’s more than time to talk about the Baptismal name Zelie, since a lot of folks are choosing it for their girls!
First, “Zélie” was Madame Martin’s nickname. Her full name was Marie-Azélie.
Second, “Azelie” doesn’t have anything to do with azaleas, which were given that scientific name in 1753 by the Dutch biologist Linnaeus. (“Azalea” comes from the Greek word “azaleos,” dry. The French spelling of “azalea” is “azalée.”)
“Azelie” is also not etymologically related to “Asella,” even though St. Asella’s feastday has sometimes been used as a nameday for girls named Azelie and Azeline. (St. Asella was a ten year old girl in ancient Rome who became a vowed virgin, and then became a house hermit at age 12. Forty years later, she was part of St. Jerome’s circle of women Bible students and friends. Her feastday is December 6. Her family name would have been Asellus, which means “little donkey.”)
“Azelie” is also not related to “Celia” (from Latin “coelia,” heavenly, or from the Etruscan-derived name of the Caelius family of ancient Rome), although the little girl who was healed as the Martin’s canonization miracle was named “Celia” as a Spanish approximation or functional equivalent of Zelie.
(And since that sort of thing is super-common in Irish naming, I’m sure not going to quibble about whether somebody’s name can be Cornelius and mean Conal.)
So what does the name “Azélie” mean?
Actually, it seems to be either part of a group of early medieval Frankish or Gallo-Roman names taken from the Latin word “solemnia” or “solennia” (“solemn, solemnity”) such as “Solinus” and “Solange”;
Or it is related to early medieval Frankish names like the male names “Adso,” “Atzel” and “Ascelin,” and the female names “Aza,” “Azala,” and “Azelina.” If this latter is the case (which seems more likely), the stem is rather mysterious, as “At-” stems can be related either to “Athal-, Atta-” (“father”), or “Cat-, Chad-, Had-, Hath-“.] Azélie may mean the same thing as Adélie (“noble, highborn”), where the root just went another direction phonetically.
So it’s a Christian name, and it’s been a Christian name for a long time, but there hasn’t been a clear saint’s name involved until now. That’s just how it goes with some old names – they’re more hallowed by use by Christians than anything else!
Traditionally, Azélie and Zélie seem to be names found mostly in Northern France. (Which is where our new saint is from.) Now it is found all over France, and all around the world. But it’s not very common, and even many French people have never heard of it. (This is obviously about to change.)
There was also an 1817 historical novel set during the French Revolution, and written by the historian and authoress Melanie de Boileau, called Azélie, ou Les Vicissitudes de Fortune. Since the saint’s sister was nicknamed Elise, and the author also wrote a novel called Elisa, ou Les Trois Chasseurs, it leads one to wonder about novel-readers in the Guerin family.
(The preface to the novel says sternly that it’s not about ghosts and old castles, but is a “simple and natural” story, showing how Azélie, a girl of aristocratic birth, develops a great and noble character through facing adversity in a troubled time. The conversations and travels of the characters are also advertised as educational without being boring, so that the Guerins may have felt it to be an edifying work.)
The American form of Zelie is “Zeely,” probably best known from its use in Virginia Hamilton’s children’s novel, Zeely. The eponymous Zeely is not the main character, but rather a neighbor woman of great dignity whom the girl protagonist (Geeder) is interested in learning more about. (I remember the book being very interesting and haunting, although part of that is Hamilton’s habit of always seeming to be just about to reveal that you’re reading a fantasy novel. But it’s not.)