July 17, 1794: The Martyrdom of the 16 Blessed Discalced Martyrs of Compeigne
About every two minutes, one voice would fall away from the others, to be heard no more by mortal ears. Each sister, when her time came, went to her Mother and knelt; received a blessing; and kissed the Madonna and Child statuette. “Permission to die, Mother?” “Go, my daughter!”
On the evening of July 17, 1794, during the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror, in Paris’s Place de la Nation, a hardened crowd waited at the guillotine for the carts carrying that day’s “batch” from the Palais de Justice. A heavy stench from the putrefying blood in the pit below the scaffold hung over the plaza. During the five weeks the guillotine had stood in the Place de la Nation, a thousand severed heads had fallen into the blood-stiffened leather bag of Sanson, the Paris executioner. The blood pit had been enlarged once already but had quickly filled up again.
Usually, raucous jeers from where Rue du Faubourg St. Antoine emptied into the plaza would signal the approach of the tumbrels carrying the condemned. Not this night. A strange hush spread into the plaza. Then there was something else. Singing. Serene, female voices intoning a cool, effortless chant of verse after verse of the Te Deum.
When the tumbrels rolled up to the scaffold, the crowd grew silent. The singers were sixteen sisters from the Discalced Carmelite monastery in Compiegne. They wore long white choir mantles (cloaks) over brown robes similar to nuns’ habits. Such attire had long since been outlawed in the new order. But these women were not of the new order. Their religious clothing and singing in Latin embodied the lost time before the storming of the Bastille and the start of the revolution on July 14, 1789. Also, while plenty of priests and some nuns had been executed individually, never had an entire religious community been carted up to the guillotine. Their radiant, happy faces were wrong for this place. They should have looked sad. They were about to die. They looked joyous. The other twenty-four condemned prisoners with them looked unhappy.
The reason for the Carmelites’ happiness was their belief that the guillotine was the answer to their prayers. Every day for almost two years, since about the time of the September 1792 massacres, the sisters had made a daily act of consecration in which they offered their own lives to God as a sacrifice to restore peace, help France, and stop the killing. For Christ, their heavenly Spouse, to actually accept their offer of themselves in holocaust and grant them their martyrdom gave them great joy.
Three hours earlier at the Palais de Justice, the sisters had been condemned to death. A show trial proved them “enemies of the people.” The blatantly false charges included “hiding weapons in your convent.” In answer, the 41-year old prioress, Mother Teresa of St. Augustine, lifted her crucifix from her bosom and held it up to the presiding judge saying, “The only weapon we’ve ever had in our convent is this. You cannot prove we have ever had any others.” They had no convent anyway. The revolutionary government had confiscated it and ejected them in September 1792. Carmel Compiegne and everything in it had been sold to finance the revolution.
A fellow prisoner who saw them return from hearing their death sentences reported their faces were “beaming with joy.” A Parisian working class woman who watched the Carmelites pass by on the tumbrels had shouted, “What good souls! Just look at them! Tell me if you don’t think they look just like angels! I tell you, if these women don’t go straight to paradise, then we’ll just have to believe it doesn’t exist!”
At the scaffold, the sisters performed devotions normal for dying Carmelites. The nuns renewed their monastic vows of poverty chastity and obedience. They sang the Veni Creator Spiritus:
Come, Holy Ghost, Creator blest, and in our hearts take up Thy rest; come with Thy grace and heav’nly aid, To fill the hearts which Thou hast made. …
One sister, was heard to cry out, “Only too happy, O my God, if this little sacrifice can calm your wrath and reduce the number of victims.”
Then Mother Teresa of Saint Augustine walked over to the foot of the scaffold steps and turned to face her spiritual daughters. In the palm of her hand, the prioress held a tiny terracotta image of the Virgin and Child, a last relic saved from Carmel Compiegne. She summoned Sister Constance, the youngest sister, who approached.
This was 29-year-old Sister Contance’s first act of obedience as a professed Carmelite. Moments before, as her sisters were renewing their vows, she was pronouncing her vows for the first time. In 1789, at the start of the Revolution, just before she completed her novice year, the revolutionary government prohibited the taking of religious vows. So, after six years as a novice, she finally made her profession in extremis. Previously, she had expressed a terrible fear of the guillotine. She would show no fear this night.
At the steps, Sister Constance knelt at her prioress’s feet and received a blessing. She kissed the clay Madonna and Child cupped in her prioress’ hand. Finally, bowing her head, she asked: “Permission to die, Mother?” “Go, my daughter!”
Sister Constance rose from her knees. A witness described her as radiant as “a queen going to her receive her diadem.“ As she began her climb up to the scaffold, she spontaneously intoned the Laudate Dominum omnes gentes, the 117th Psalm. That psalm was sung by the Discalced Carmelite Order’s mother-foundress, St. Teresa of Avila, at the foundation of every new Carmel in 16th-century Spain. Hearing Sister Constance, her sisters immediately took up the chant:
Praise the Lord, all ye nations! Praise Him all ye people! For his mercy is confirmed upon us, And the truth of the Lord endureth forever! Praise the Lord!
At the top of scaffold steps, still joined in chant with her sisters, Sister Constance waved aside the executioner and his valet. She walked on her own to the vertical balance-plank; was strapped to it; and then lowered into horizontal position. With a swoosh and a thud, the guillotine had cut the number of voices to 15. The remaining voices rose in defiance. Even before her falling head reached Sanson’s leather bag, Sister Constance was in the arms of her heavenly Spouse in the Kingdom of the Lamb.
The exact order in which the other 15 sisters climbed the scaffold has not come down to us. We know only the last two sisters. What is known is that the guillotine mob remained silent the whole time, an almost impossible–or one could say miraculous–occurrence. The bumps, clicks, swooshes and thuds of the death apparatus told of the deadly business. But the calm, austere chant of the Laudate Dominum never stopped.
About every two minutes, one voice would fall away from the others, to be heard no more by mortal ears. Each sister, when her time came, went to her Mother and knelt; received a blessing; and kissed the Madonna and Child statuette. “Permission to die, Mother?” “Go, my daughter!”
Here are the names of the other sisters: Sister Jesus Crucified, choir sister, age 78. She and Sister Charlotte had celebrated their jubilee of 50 years of profession. Sister Charlotte of the Resurrection, choir sister, age 78. The martyrs arrived at the Paris Concierge (jail) from Compiegne on July 13 after a two-day journey in open carts. Sister Charlotte was unable to rise and step out of the cart with her sisters. She could only walk with a crutch, but her hands were tied behind her back. Exhausted, she sat alone in the tumbrel in the soiled straw. An angry guard jumped up and tossed her out onto the cobblestones. After lying still for a while, Sister Charlotte lifted her bloodied head and gently thanked the brutal guard for not killing her. She wanted to live long enough to make her witness with her sisters. Sister Euphrasia of the Immaculate Conception, choir sister, age 58 Sister Julie Louise of Jesus, choir sister, age 52. Sister Julie Louise of Jesus entered Carmel as an aristocratic young widow. Well educated and musically talented, she composed a song or poem every year for the community’s July 16 patronal festival, the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. This year, at the Concierge in Paris, since writing materials were forbidden in jail, she managed to obtain scraps of charcoal. She composed a long five stanza song about a happy martyrdom and set it to the tune of the bloodthirsty La Marseillaise. One line went, “Let’s climb, let’s climb, the scaffold high!” The day before they went to the guillotine, all the sisters gaily sang Sister Julie Louise’s feast day song. Their only disappointment was they would not die on the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. Sister Teresa of the Heart of Mary, choir sister, age 52 Sister Saint Martha, lay sister, age 52 Sister Catherine, extern, age 52 Sister Marie of the Holy Spirit, lay sister, age 51 Sister Teresa of Saint Ignatius, choir sister, age 51 Mother Henriette of Jesus, past prioress and novice mistress, choir sister, age 49 Sister Teresa, extern, age 46 Sister Saint Louis, subprioress, choir sister, age 42 Sister Saint Francis Xavier, lay sister, age 30 Sister Henriette of the Divine Providence, choir sister, age 34. This sister was the second to last to die. She was a fiery beauty, whose nine adult bothers and sisters included two priests and five nuns. Fearing her natural beauty would be a distraction, she had withdrawn from the Sisters of Charity of Nevers, a public nursing order and sought out the hidden life in the cloister at Carmel. One of her sisters became the Superior General of all the Sisters of Charity of Nevers. (This was the order of St Bernadette of Lourdes.)
In the courtroom at the Revolutionary Tribunal on the day of her martyrdom, she boldly challenged the Tribunal’s notorious public prosecutor, Antoine Fouquier-Tinville, to define what he meant by calling her community “fanatic.” In response to her repeated demands that he stop avoiding her question and answer it, the prosecutor finally said their “attachment to their religion” made them criminals and dangers to public freedom. At the guillotine, since she was the Carmel’s infirmarian, she took a place by the steps and helped her older, weaker sisters up the scaffold steps.
The psalm chant stopped only when the last Carmelite, the prioress—Mother Teresa of Saint Augustine, age 41, had climbed the scaffold steps and followed her daughters. She was the only child of an employee of the Paris Observatory. Since she was not from a wealthy family, the generous young Dauphine of France, Marie Antoinette, had paid her dowry for Carmel. The prioress was well educated and artistic. Some of her paintings still hang on the walls of French Carmels. She was only 34 when she was first elected prioress. She is believed to be the first nun to have felt the call to community martyrdom.
Before beginning her walk up the steps, the prioress made the sign of the cross and paused. A pious woman in the crowd, who saw the hesitation, understood and moved up to discreetly take the tiny terracotta Virgin and Child statuette from the hand of the great prioress of Carmel Compiegne. The statuette was kept safe and has come down to us.
Ten days after the Carmelites of Compiegne fulfilled their vow and offered themselves up in sacrifice to stop the bloodshed, Robespierre fell from power. A bloody revolutionary, he was a key architect of the Reign of Terror. The next day, July 28, 1794, he was guillotined and the Reign of Terror soon faded. That the martyrs were able to wear parts of their forbidden habits at the guillotine, like their white choir mantles, was due to unusual coincidences or, more likely, the hand of God. After their expulsion from Carmel Compiegne, they had been forbidden to wear their habits. With no money to buy clothes, they had to accept worn out, cast-off, immodest clothing. They draped scarves over their shoulders and necks to protect their modesty.
But, on July 12, 1794, in the jail in Compiegne (a confiscated convent) they had donned what remained of their habits in order to wash their single outfits of civilian clothing. At the same time, the mayor received an order from the Paris Committee of Public Safety ordering the martyrs’ immediate transport to Paris for “trial.” The secular clothes were soaking in wash tubs. Delaying the execution of the Paris order was unthinkable (and too risky) for the Compiegne officials. Therefore, the martyrs went to Paris in what they had left of their forbidden habits. Perhaps, when their Lord decided to accept their offer of martyrdom, He also granted the martyrs the tender mercy of dying in their beloved, long, white choir mantles.
The worn-out, immodest civilian clothes left soaking in the tubs at Compiegne had yet another role in God’s plan. Confined in the Compiegne jail with the Carmelites had been 17 English Benedictine sisters. Four others had already died in jail. They had been arrested as foreigners in 1792 at their monastery in Cambrai. A granddaughter of St. Thomas More had founded the monastery when Catholic religious orders were forbidden in England. Though kept apart, Benedictines learned of the Carmelites’ daily consecration to sacrifice themselves to restore peace and free prisoners.
After the Carmelites were taken to Paris, the Compiegne jailers made the Benedictines wear the Carmelites’ abandoned civilian clothes. The Benedictines were still wearing them when they were finally allowed to sail for England in 1795. That community eventually founded England’s famous Stanbrook Abbey. Today, Benedictines at Stanbrook still honor the Carmelites as martyrs whose deaths somehow stopped the killing and saved the jailed Benedictine sisters from the guillotine. In 1895, Stanbrook Abbey returned many of the “wash tub” clothes as venerated relics to the newly reestablished Carmel Compiegne.
The martyrs were beatified by St. Pius X on May 13, 1906. Their memory is celebrated on July 17 by both branches of the Carmelites and the archdiocese of Paris.
In early December, for example, the students of Edinburgh University broke into the Parliament House in broad daylight and held their own mock trial and condemnation of the pope, whom they then “sentenced to be burn publickly” at the market cross on Christmas Day. Similarly, in January the students of Aberdeen set up a High Court of Justice to “try” his holiness, who was accused (and found guilty) of being “an enemy to Religion, Monarchy and Government.”
1688, the only time when being at a Scottish Uni was even more banterful than it is today.
Hello Father. What are your thoughts on Pope Paul VI? Why do you think are the reasons, aside from his glorious encyclical Humanae Vitae, are many people critical of him? Thanks in advance for taking the time to answer my ask.
I grew up during the pontificate of Blessed Pope Paul VI. I remember him as a gentle giant. He was told early on to crack down on disobedience after Vatican II and to crush the liberal and radical ideas that came from many sectors of the Church. But this was antithetical to his character and personality.
This Bible verse describes, perfectly, the personality of this pope: “ A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. In faithfulness he will bring forth justice” (Isaiah 42:3).
Blessed Paul VI wanted people to feel free to pursue, and to implement, the renewal of Vatican II in Catholic schools and parishes, without being micromanaged, and having authority breathing down their neck.
Thus, he stepped back and often erred on the side of being too aloof to the dissent in the Church and too merciful in the face of widespread challenges and disobedience to his authority.
The dissent, the widespread disobedience, the doctrinal and liturgical abuses and misinterpretations, bothered Paul VI a lot. Then why didn’t he do more to fight against it?
Well, he was always afraid of overreacting and being harsh and severe with his authority. Because of this, he is often pictured as a wimp, a spineless man, a coward even, and in over his head when it came to leading the Catholic Church.
For instance, after the worldwide revolution to attack and undermine his teaching on birth control, Paul VI became something of a recluse and didn’t even issue any more encyclicals. The fact that millions of Catholics abandoned the faith after Humanae Vitae, and thousands of priests and nuns left the Church, broke his heart.
He lost the warrior in his spirit, and didn’t have it in him to fight back or come out swinging. He was still in charge as Pope, but he was a broken man after being condemned for standing up to contraception and abortion.
It was the birth control teaching, by the way, NOT Vatican II, that “brought down” the Catholic Church, in the sense that there was widespread anger and rejection over the birth control teaching.
The Catholic Church was actually doing pretty well in attendance and participation right after Vatican II. But after 1968, and Humanae Vitae, all hell broke loose. Mass attendance plummeted. Confession lines dried up. Seminaries and convents shut down everywhere because new recruits were few, and those who were already priests and sisters practically tripped over themselves to head for the exit door.
But still, in spite of that, in my opinion, Paul VI was anything but “in over his head.” He was a brilliant intellect, a well read man, and an astute observer of the outer world, the outer culture, and was very gratified to see that, in spite of the virus of dissent and liberalism, there was also a lot of clergy and Catholic lay activism to fight the drugs, sex, and hedonism of the 1960′s. Not everybody took that liberalism and looney thinking laying down. No siree. There were some fearsome Catholic angels that rose up and fought back.
But the pope took a pretty good beating. It was like almost every week there was some serious crisis he had to deal with, and give advice about, to the cardinals and bishops, and world leaders. And he did his best, always with the same kindness, the same fairness, the same deep love for the poor, the hurting, and the marginalized.
In his time as Pope, and with his full encouragement, wonderful initiatives were undertaken in liturgy, in theology, in new spiritual movements. New religious orders and communities were popping up and being founded. Church missions and apostolates that were founded and run, by laity, especially family and marriage apostolates would later became the awesome pro-life movement of today.
Plenty of conservative and orthodox Catholics took up the gauntlet and fought to bring the true message of Vatican II to the rest of the Church. That was exciting to see.
But it is true that by 1978, when Paul VI died, the Catholic Church had taken a serious beating, and many had pretty much dismissed the Catholic Church as a dying and has-been religion, without any vigor, without any energy, and with nothing to offer the modern world. Then, this guy who was hidden and unknown came from Poland. Well, the rest is history LOL.
Yes, I remember Blessed Paul VI. I remember him fondly. I can’t think of anyone else who could have brought the Catholic Church through the revolution and tumult of those days. God bless and take care, Fr. Angel
“After her shall virgins be brought to the king: her neighbours shall be brought to thee.They shall be brought with gladness and rejoicing: they shall be brought into the temple of the king.” - Psalm 44:14-15
The Irish and the Scots during the American Revolution
Historians should always steer clear of making generalisations but, very broadly speaking, it can be said that the majority of Irish-descended colonists in 1775 supported the American Revolution while the majority of Scots descendants opposed it. There were a number of reasons for this.
The Irish community living in the Thirteen colonies could (again) broadly be divided into the “native” Irish Roman Catholics who had fled their homeland due to famine or persecution. Such a community needed little incentive to join the revolution against the British government, although the fact that most Americans were even more radically Protestant than the British did give many pause for thought. The fact that the British lifted its ban on Catholics serving in the Army further complicated matters.
The other “Irish” element in America were the Ulster-Scots (or Scots-Irish). They were Presbyterian Protestants descended from the hundreds of thousands of Scots who had emigrated to Ulster in the 17th century to help bring it under British control. Many more, finding life in Ireland hard, had journeyed onward to the American colonies. Scots during that period had been persecuted by the English government because, although both sides were Protestant, the English monarchy disliked Presbyterianism because it promoted the idea that Christ alone was king. The “Killing Times” meted out by Charles II had left the emigrant Scots with a negative view of British government control, and a revolutionary streak that put them at the forefront of the Patriots in 1775 (more about the Scottish Covenanter influence on the American Revolution here).
As for those Scots in America of direct Scottish descent, many were former Jacobites who had fled to the colonies after their cause collapsed in 1746. You would imagine, considering the force with which the British government dealt with the final Jacobite rising in Britain, that these exiles would retain a bitter hatred of King George III. In reality though by the 1770s everyone was aware that the Jacobite cause was dead. Former Jacobites naturally possessed an inclination to support authoritative monarchical control, so the new American republican ideologies were actually the opposite of their own political beliefs. Because of this, ex-Jacobites were almost always loyalists. Nowhere was this seen more clearly than in one of the first battles of the Revolution at Moore’s Creek. Around 600 of the 800 loyalist militia present were Scots, and many of them highlanders.
As mentioned at the start, the general loyalties of the Irish and Scottish colonists during the Revolution included many exceptions. Few are more stark than the Volunteers of Ireland who, with their green facings and Irish harps, were one of Earl Cornwallis’s best loyalist regiments during the British Southern campaign.
1966: Young members of the Red Guards stand outside the Xikai Catholic Church, which they pillaged and covered in propaganda as part of the Cultural Revolution’s campaign to wipe out religion in China.
Free-thinking, free-speaking Camille was, in a measure, at his mercy, and the priest positively refused to allow the wedding [between Camille and Lucille] to take place unless the journalist made a public profession of faith in the Catholic religion.
This M. de Pancemony [the priest] could not obtain in so many words; he was obliged to be content with Camille’s rather hesitating answer to his assertion that, if he were not a Catholic, he could not confer upon him a sacrament of that religion.
“Well, then, yes,” said Camille, “if that be the case, I am a Catholic.”
Two further concessions the priest did obtain, after subjecting the journalist to a catechism which that young gentleman managed to wriggle through, although scarcely with flying colors. He made Camille promise to retract his heretical opinions in the next number of his paper- a promise which, by the way, the journalist never performed.
Violet Methley, from Camille Desmoulins: A Biography (pg. 126)
I don't understand why so many people on here don't understand that France is a SECULAR country.
Hi, another long post incoming, sorry…
Thing about tumblr is that not only do they not understand that France is secular, and which brand of secularism it has, but they also don’t understand what secularism is to start with.
There is that weird trend in some leftist circle to hate secularism in favour of supporting religious theocrats if they perceive this religion as a “minority” one. But religion is religion, it doesn’t matter how it’s dressed up this time around, and supporting the freedom of a religion to impose its laws on people over the freedom of those people to express themselves on an idea (which is what religion is) one is free to believe or not, is something that is about as anti-left as it gets. Theocrats have never been friends of the left, they’ll never be friends of the left, so I don’t understand this absurd insistence some leftists have to defend people who think that the god they believe exist should have a bigger say on how a society is run and on what rights people should have (including what they have a right to say or indeed draw) than the actual men and women living in that society (I have already made a post about that here)
It’s like those people have forgotten what enlightenment was about. The promotion of reason, secular thinking, humanism, rights of men …etc… This is why I call myself “pro-enlightenment” in my blog description because during the whole Charlie Hebdo debacle I have learned the hard way that it isn’t as much of a given as I thought; seeing that a large number of people positioned themselves against free speech and the questioning of ideas in favour of pandering to religious sensibilities, pretty much promoting obscurantism in their misguided desire to offend no one.
But anyway, I digress, to go back to secularism… the problem is that too many people fail to understand that secularism isn’t about repressing freedom of religion, it isn’t about trying to take away rights, it is precisely the reverse. Secularism is what insure that everyone has a right to worship or not what they like. Secularism is what allows every religions to coexist peacefully with each other and with non-religious people. Which is why, again, I think that the part of the left defending theocrats are being very misguided, because theocrats do not care about the freedom of any religion aside from their own, we see that every day still in theocracies that are still existing today (see Raif Badawi for example). For religious freedom to truly exist, religion NEED to be separated from the state, for most secularists (including myself) this is non-negotiable, this is why secularism is needed and is one of the most important value I will continue to defend.
Now… France brand of secularism (or laïcité) is a bit more hardcore than most because it promote total and hard separation of church and state; meaning that in theory the church (any church) can not insert itself anywhere in our public sphere. So no religion in public schools, institutions, civil servant jobs, laws…etc… because if you represent the state then you can not promote a religion. In France, we believe that if religion becomes public, it becomes dangerous and while we believe that freedom of religion is important, we believe that freedom FROM religion is an even more important thing to protect because it is also what insure that you are free to not believe at all or not believe in religions that aren’t your own, it doesn’t mean you don’t have a right to wear religious signs in the street (for example the hijab is NOT banned in France, my god!), or worship what you like in your personal sphere, but it HAS to stay personal. This comes from a long history of struggle with the Catholic church who used to hold (and abuse of) an enormous amount of power. Before the French revolution the catholic church used to be the first estate, above the nobility, its influence was everywhere and during the revolution France tried to get rid of it. We are a bunch of “bouffeurs de curés” (priests eaters) to put it bluntly, our distrust of religion come from there and we don’t want it anywhere near our public sphere. I said that once here already: it might be paranoid, but this paranoia has deep historical roots.
Point of this is, plenty of people here seem to be under the misguided impression that France’s sometime quite anti-clerical stance (to be honest) started when islam became an important minority religion here and that therefore every laws on hard separation of church and state was made with an anti-muslim stance in mind. But it wasn’t, thoselaws existed way before that. Now, I’m not saying that sometimes laïcité isn’t used here as an excuse to promote muslim hatred, but to say it is all of what our laws on laïcité are about is ignoring a huge part of the picture and historical context when it comes to looking at France’s complicated relationship with religion and how it deals with it.
I personally don’t pretend to say that France’s version of secularism is better than the anglo-saxon model, I make no such judgement, but I wish people would look at the big picture before they try to talk and judge how we handle religion.
Regardless of which brand you pick through, I can not envision a free society without secularism, so I’ll keep defending it to the end.
Quick edit on something I forgot to say: You can be religious and secular those two things are not mutually exclusive.
The time to reclaim our Church is now. The main goal of the Catholic Revolution is to reach out to the youth of the Church and re-ignite their love for the Church. By posting things such as images, texts and quotes we hope to give everyone a deeper knowledge of the Church. Today the birthday of our Beloved Church is the day we begin this Revolution. We must remember during these times that we will be persecuted just as Christ was persecuted Himself, “Do not be afraid. Just believe." We must remember we are not just the future of the Church, we are the Church.