THE SIXTEEN CARMELITE MARTYRS OF COMPIEGNE
The French Revolution reveals the titanic struggle between good and evil. During the terror, over 40,000 Frenchmen were executed just for holding fast to the Catholic Faith and objecting to the worst excesses of the Committee of Public Safety. The blood lost in the years of 1792-1794 staggers the imagination even in the retelling and the campaign against the Church was as diabolical as it was cruel.
Contemplative religious communities had been among the first targets of the fury of the French Revolution against the Catholic Church. Less than a year from May 1789 when the Revolution began with the meeting of the Estates-General, these communities had been required by law to disband. But many of them continued in being, in hiding. Among these were the community of the Carmelite nuns of Compiegne, in northeastern France not far from Paris – the fifty-third convent in France of the Carmelite sisters who followed the reform of St. Teresa of Avila, founded in 1641, noted throughout its history for fidelity and fervor. Their convent was raided in August 1790, all the property of the sisters was seized by the government, and they were forced to discard their habits and leave their house. They divided into four groups which found lodging in four different houses all near the same church in Compiegne, and for several years they were to a large extent able to continue their religious life in secret. But the intensified surveillance and searches of the “Great Terror” revealed their secret, and in June 1794 most of them were arrested and imprisoned.
They had expected this; indeed, they had prayed for it. At some time during the summer of 1792, very likely just after the events of August 10 of that year that marked the descent into the true deeps of the Revolution, their prioress, Madeleine Lidoine, whose name in religion was Teresa in honor of the founder of their order, by all accounts a charming perceptive, and highly intelligent woman, had foreseen much of what was to come. At Easter of 1792, she told her community that, while looking through the archives she had found the account of a dream a Carmelite had in 1693. In that dream, the Sister saw the whole Community, with the exception of 2 or 3 Sisters, in glory and called to follow the Lamb. In the mind of the Prioress, this mean martyrdom and might well be a prophetic announcement of their fate.
Mother Teresa had said to her sisters: “Having meditated much on this subject, I have thought of making an act of consecration by which the Community would offer itself as a sacrifice to appease the anger of God, so that the divine peace of His Dear Son would be brought into the world, returned to the Church and the state.” The sisters discussed her proposal and all agreed to it but the two oldest, who were hesitant. But when the news of the September massacres came, mingling glorious martyrdom with apostasy, these two sisters made their choice, joining their commitment to that of the rest of the community. All made their offering; it was to be accepted.
After their lodgings were invaded again in June, their devotional objects shattered and their tabernacle trampled underfoot by a Revolutionary who told them that their place of worship should be transformed into a dog kennel, the Carmelite sisters were taken to the Conciergerie prison, where so many of the leading victims of the guillotine had been held during their last days on earth. There they composed a canticle for their martyrdom, to be sung to the familiar tune of the Marseillaise. The original still exists, written in pencil and given to one of their fellow prisoners, a lay woman who survived.
Give over our hearts to joy, the day of glory has arrived,
Far from us all weakness, seeing the standard come;
We prepare for the victory, we all march to the true conquest,
Under the flag of the dying God we run, we all seek the glory;
Rekindle our ardor, our bodies are the Lord’s,
We climb, we climb the scaffold and give ourselves back to the Victor.
O happiness ever desired for Catholics of France, To follow the wondrous road
Already marked out so often by the martyrs toward their suffering,
After Jesus with the King, we show our faith to Christians,
We adore a God of justice; as the fervent priest, the constant faithful,
Seal, seal with all their blood faith in the dying God….
Holy Virgin, our model, August queen of martyrs, deign to strengthen our zeal
And purify our desires, protect France even yet, help; us mount to Heaven,
Make us feel even in these places, the effects of your power. Sustain your children,
Submissive, obedient, dying, dying with Jesus and in our King believing.
On July 17 the sixteen sisters were brought before Fouquier-Tinville. All cases were now being disposed of within twenty-four hours as Robespierre had wished; theirs was no exception. They were charged with having received arms for the émigrés; their prioress, Sister Teresa, answered by holding up a crucifix. “Here are the only arms that we have ever had in our house.” They were charged with possessing an altar-cloth with designs honoring the old monarchy (perhaps the fleur-de-lis) and were asked to deny any attachment to the royal family. Sister Teresa responded: “If that is a crime, we are all guilty of it; you can never tear out of our hearts the attachment for Louis XVI and his family. Your laws cannot prohibit feeling; they cannot extend their empire to the affections of the soul; God alone has the right to judge them.” They were charged with corresponding with priests forced to leave the country because they would not take the constitutional oath; they freely admitted this. Finally they were charged with the catchall indictment by which any serious Catholic in France could be guillotined during the Terror: “fanaticism.” Sister Henriette, who had been Gabrielle de Croissy, challenged Fouguier-Tinvile to his face: “Citizen, it is your duty to respond to the request of one condemned; I call upon you to answer us and to tell us just what you mean by the word ‘fanatic.’” “I mean,” snapped the Public Prosecutor of the Terror, “your attachment to your childish beliefs and your silly religious practices.” “Let us rejoice, my dear Mother and Sisters, in the joy of the Lord,” said Sister Henriette, “that we shall die for our holy religion, our faith, our confidence in the Holy Roman Catholic Church.”
While in prison, they asked and were granted permission to wash their clothes. As they had only one set of lay clothes, they put on their religious habit and set to the task. Providentially, the revolutionaries picked that “wash day” for their transfer to Paris. As their clothes were soaking wet, the Carmelites left for Paris wearing their “outlawed” religious habit. They celebrated the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in prison, wondering whether they would die that day.
It was only the next day they went to the guillotine. The journey in the carts took more than an hour. All the way the Carmelite sisters sang: the “Miserere,” “Salve Regina,” and “Te Deum.” Beholding them, a total silence fell on the raucous, brutal crowd, most of them cheapened and hardened by day after day of the spectacle of public slaughter. At the foot of the towering killing machine, their eyes raised to Heaven, the sisters sang “Veni Creator Spiritus.” One by one, they renewed their religious vows. They pardoned their executioners. One observer cried out: “Look at them and see if they do not have the air of angels! By my faith, if these women did not all go straight to Paradise, then no one is there!”
Sister Teresa, their prioress, requested and obtained permission to go last under the knife. The youngest, Sister Constance, went first. She climbed the steps of the guillotine “With the air of a queen going to receive her crown,” singing Laudate Dominum omnes gentes, “all peoples praise the Lord.” She placed her head in the position for death without allowing the executioner to touch her. Each sister followed her example, those remaining singing likewise with each, until only the prioress was left, holding in her hand a small figure of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The killing of each martyr required about two minutes. It was about eight o’clock in the evening, still bright at midsummer. During the whole time the profound silence of the crowd about the guillotine endured unbroken.
Two years before when the horror began, the Carmelite community at Compiegne had offered itself as a holocaust, that peace might be restored to France and the Church. The return of full peace was still twenty-one years in the future. But the Reign of Terror had only ten days left to run. Years of war, oppression and persecution were yet to come, but the mass official killing in the public squares of Paris was about to end. The Cross had vanquished the guillotine.
These sixteen holy Carmelite nuns have all been beatified by our Holy Father, the Pope, (Pope St. Pius X, 27 May 1906) which is the last step before canonization. Blessed Carmelites of Compiegne, pray for us!