Singing Their Way to the Guillotine
by Meghan Ferrara
One of the darkest periods of the French Revolution was the Reign of Terror, which lasted from September 1793 to July 28, 1794. During these months, over 1,300 victims met their fate at the guillotine. Yet, out of this turmoil emerged the story of sixteen nuns, the Carmelites of Compiegne, whose courage and hope in the face of martyrdom remains an inspiration today.
Darkness Gathers in Revolutionary France
Following the outbreak of the Revolution in 1789, the Church faced increasing hostility from the National Assembly and the new Republican government. On October 28, 1789, the Assembly banned the professing of vows in French monasteries. A few months later, on February 13, 1790, religious orders with solemn vows were subdued. During this time, practices such as gathering for common prayer and wearing religious clothing were also outlawed. On July 12 of that same year, the Assembly passed the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, requiring all religious to swear allegiance to the new Republic instead of Rome. By 1792, religious houses were closed and their members dispersed.
Cloistered Carmelites In A Quiet, Northern Town
The sixteen Carmelites resided in the quiet, northern town of Compiègne. The sixteen women were composed of professed sisters, lay sisters, and two servants. The names of the professed Carmelites were Mother Teresa of St. Augustine, prioress; 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. The lay sisters were Sister St. Martha; Sister Mary of the Holy Spirit; and Sister St. Francis Xavier. The two women who served the Carmelites were Catherine Soiron and Thérèse Soiron.
While many of these women came from poor or middle-class backgrounds, the community enjoyed the patronage of the royal family. If a girl’s family found it difficult to pay the dowry expected upon entering the convent, it was not unusual for a noble or royal benefactor to provide assistance. Someone who exemplified this generosity throughout her life was the Dauphine, Marie Antoinette, who graciously paid the dowry of the prioress, Mother Teresa of St. Augustine, when she took the veil.
Ordered To Leave Their Carmel and Arrested
The Carmelites were ordered to leave their Carmel on September 14, 1792, the feast of the Exultation of the Holy Cross. Shortly before their eviction, Mother Teresa lead her sisters in a communal act of consecration, offering their lives for the end of violence and the sake of peace in their homeland. Following the expulsion from their convent, the women lived in four groups and wore simple clothing. However, they continued to meet for common prayer and their for devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
The community’s staunch fidelity to their vocation along with their refusal to swear allegiance to the new Constitution lead to their arrest on June 22, 1794. The women were charged with conspiracy, treason, being royalists, and corresponding with anti-revolutionaries.
Charged with “attachment to your Religion and the King”
Mother Henriette of Jesus successfully demanded the addition of the charge, “attachment to your Religion and the King.” She then turned to her sisters and declared proudly, “We must rejoice and give thanks to God for we die for our religion, for our faith, and for being members of the Holy Roman Catholic Church.” During their trial, the sisters were not allowed lawyers or witnesses, the entire process being a mere formality. The “evidence” submitted by the state included pictures of the late King Louis XVI, images of the Sacred Heart, and the Canticle to the Sacred Heart.
Their Wedding Day at the Guillotine
On 17 July 1794, the Carmelite sisters, attired in their religious habits because they had been washing their plain clothes the morning of their arrest, renewed their vows of baptism and religious profession. They then mounted a tumbrel and were led through the streets of Paris to the Place du Trône Renversé (now the Place de la Nation).
Witnesses reported that the sisters radiated joy, as if anticipating their wedding day. Juxtaposed against the ethereal silence of the usually raucous crowds were the voices of the sisters, singing their way to heaven. En route, they chanted the Salve Regina, the Te Deum, and Veni, Sancte Spiritus, and then intoned the psalm Laudate Dominum, omnes gentes. Before each sister mounted the scaffold, she knelt before the Mother Superior to receive a blessing, kissed a small statue of the Madonna and Child, and placed herself beneath the blade without allowing the executioner to touch her. The Mother Prioress was the last sacrificed. All throughout, the silence was complete. Not even a single drum-roll sounded.
Ten days after the martyrdom of the sixteen Carmelites, Maximilien Francois Marie Isidore de Robespierre was arrested and executed, and the Reign of Terror came to an end. The sacrifice of the sisters, sustained by their devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, paved the way for the peace they so desired.
Image: Les martyrs de Compiègne à la guillotine, dessin de 1907: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:MartyrinnenComp-HJSb.jpg