The French Revolution and the Carmelites of Compiègne

The Blessed Carmelites of Compiègne were guillotined on July 17, 1794.

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When Bastille Day comes around each summer on July 14, I just can’t bring myself to pop the cork on a bottle of Champagne-style California sparkling wine (the kind I can afford). The Fête Nationale commemorates the storming of the Bastille prison in 1789 and its one year anniversary, Fête de la Fédération, when a new government, with Louis XVI as a constitutional monarch, seemed to indicate a peaceful resolution to the French Revolution. I can’t help thinking of all that came after that, including the Reign of Terror and the campaign to destroy Catholicism in France. If I’m going to toast the memory of anyone in the middle of July, it would be the Blessed Carmelites of Compiègne, the nuns guillotined on July 17, 1794.

 

The More-Benedictine Connection

Their Carmel had been closed in 1792 as part of the revolutionary reforms of the Catholic Church: contemplative orders of monks and nuns were considered useless and selfish. Anyone who had not taken final vows was not permitted to do so. Some of the active religious orders were allowed to function in society, but priests were considered employees of the State. Priests who refused to take the Oath to the Civil Constitution to the Clergy went underground to continue their ministry and if they were arrested, they were found guilty of betraying the Revolution and executed.

The Revolutionary government followed up on the dispersed Carmelites in Compiègne and found sixteen of them still observing their religious life of prayer. On June 22, 1972, they were arrested and imprisoned in a former Visitation convent where they lived in community until they were taken to prison in Paris. While they were in the Visitation convent they met several English Benedictine nuns who had also been arrested and were awaiting trial.

These Benedictine were already in exile from England, where Catholics were not free to follow God’s call to a religious vocation. Henry VIII had suppressed all the religious orders in 1540. Helen More, the great-great-granddaughter of St. Thomas More, was one of the first postulants in the Benedictine house at Cambrai; her father Cresacre More (the great-grandson of John More, St. Thomas More’s only son), donated funds and dowries to the foundation of Our Lady of Consolation and her sister Bridget joined the order too. Generations of English girls had endured exile to observe St. Benedict’s Rule.

The Benedictines and the Carmelites shared the journey to Paris but the Benedictines would be exiled again—back to England, where they built a new abbey in Worcestershire. The Carmelites were not allowed to wear their habits and thus were garbed in secular clothing; this detail would matter to the English Benedictines in the near future.

 

Our Lady of Mount Carmel

The Carmelites, as one of them had told the Benedictines, had been making a daily act of consecration of themselves for peace in France and for all those innocents caught up in the Reign of Terror. As Charles Dickens accurately portrayed in the last pages of A Tale of Two Cities, both aristocrats and poor men and women, like the anonymous seamstress, were being accused of imaginary conspiracies against the Revolution, dragged to court, and summarily sentenced to death. The standard was trial and execution within 24 hours, so there was no time for justice.

In Paris, the Carmelites were imprisoned in the Conciergerie, in the former royal palace that contains King St. Louis’ Sainte Chapelle, built as a reliquary for the Crown of Thorns. They were given permission to wash their secular clothing and thus went to trial and to their executions wearing garments much like their habits while the other clothes dried. They were also able to celebrate their Order’s great feast, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, on July 16.

 

Trial and Execution

Their trial, held in a courtroom crowded with other defendants, was quick. Accused of hiding arms for counter-revolutionary forces, the Prioress held up a crucifix, proclaiming it contained the only arms they had ever kept. Authorities had found an altar cloth decorated with a fleur-de-lis, so they were accused of supporting Louis XVI and the monarchy. One of the nuns answered that “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.”

Finally, one of the nuns asked the judge, Fouquier-Tinville, what he meant when he charged them with “fanaticism.” He replied, “I mean your attachment to your childish beliefs and your silly religious practices.” The Carmelites rejoiced that they could be found guilty of being true Catholics.

Their conduct at the guillotine, which had been moved from what is now Place de la Concorde to what is now Place de la Nation (too much blood had accumulated on the former site) is the stuff of legend—and of operatic drama (Poulenc’s “Dialogues of the Carmelites”, based on a play by George Bernanos, based on a novel by Gertrude von Le Fort). Loaded into the tumbrel and driven through the streets of Paris, they chanted the “Miserere”, the “Salve Regina”, the “Te Deum”. Even the most hardened atheistic Revolutionary would have recognized these chants of the Church. When they arrived at the Place de la Nation, they sang the “Veni, Creator Spiritus”, invoking the Holy Spirit.

Each of the Choir nuns paused at the foot of the scaffold and renewed their vows to the Prioress, Mother Teresa of St. Augustine, as they began to chant “Laudate Dominum omnes gentes”. They each kissed a small statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary and mounted the scaffold starting with the youngest, Sister Constance, who made her final vows just before she died:

  • Mother Teresa of St. Augustine
  • Mother St. Louis, sub-prioress
  • Mother Henriette of Jesus, ex-prioress
  • Sister Mary of Jesus Crucified
  • Sister Charlotte of the Resurrection, ex-sub-prioress and sacristan 
  • Sister Euphrasia of the Immaculate Conception
  • Sister Teresa of the Sacred Heart of Mary
  • Sister Julie Louise of Jesus, widow 
  • Sister Teresa of St. Ignatius
  • Sister Mary-Henrietta of Providence
  • Sister Constance, novice

Three lay sisters, who had helped the choir nuns with chores and hospitality and two externs, who had been the nuns’ contacts with the outside world, also suffered martyrdom:

  • Sister St. Martha
  • Sister Mary of the Holy Spirit
  • Sister St. Francis Xavier
  • Catherine Soiron
  • Thérèse Soiron

The chant ended when the Prioress was guillotined. Their bodies were loaded into a cart and hauled off to the Picpus Cemetery, where they were dumped into a mass grave.

 

Relics in England

The English Benedictines were finally exiled on May 2, 1795 and returned to England, wearing the secular clothing the Carmelites had laundered before their trial and execution. Although there had been some relief, as the Parliamentary act of 1791 termed it, in the recusancy and penal laws against Catholics in England, they were still not completely free to practice their faith openly. Nevertheless, the Catholic exiles from France, both the priests and the religious sisters and monks, were sympathetically welcome in England. The Benedictines opened their new abbey but still thought of the Carmelites of Compiegne.

They regarded the clothing the Carmelites had worn during their imprisonment as the relics of martyrs, and they began to think how the Carmelites’ consecration and martyrdom had contributed to the end of the Reign of Terror in France. Ten days after the Carmelites were beheaded Maximilian Robespierre and his Committee of Public Safety fell from power. Nevertheless, the anti-Catholic spirit remained, as the new government, the Directory, still regarded the Church as the enemy of the Revolution. Not until the First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte and Pope Pius VII signed the Concordat on July 15, 1801 would relations between the Church and French government become more peaceful. The Revolutionary calendar that suppressed all feast days and Sundays was finally replaced by the Gregorian calendar in 1806.

After they were proclaimed Venerable by Pope Leo XIII in 1902, the Carmelites of Compiègne were beatified by Pope St. Pius X on May 13, 1906. Although they are not on the general Roman Calendar we may certainly honor them on their Carmelite feast day by praying:

Lord God,
you called Blessed Teresa of St Augustine and her companions
to go on in the strength of the Holy Spirit
from the heights of Carmel to receive a martyr's crown.
May our love too be so steadfast
that it will bring us
to the everlasting vision of your glory.
We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, forever and ever. Amen.