Saturday, July 17, 2004

The Carmelite Martyrs of Compiegne



On this day in 1794 all the nuns of the Carmelite monastery of Compiegne were guillotined by the revolutionary French republicans. They offered their lives for France and her liberation from the terror. They were the last executed under that regime and the terror soon ended.

Their story has been retold in many forms. Dialogue des Carmélites, a Poulenc opera based on a film scenario by Georges Bernanos, is perhaps the most well-known treatment. That in turn was based upon Gertrude von le Fort's novel, The Song at the Scaffold.
ICS has published an extensive history of the Carmelite martyrs, To Quell the Terror.

The most complete recounting of their story on the web is probably here. That site contains the heart of a booklet written a few years ago by Terry Newkirk, herself a Carmelite Secular. A short excerpt:

"An ironic sidelight: the one nun of royal blood, Marie of the Incarnation, happened to be away at the time of the arrest and thus escaped execution; one of only three survivors of her community, she became the martyrs' first historian, collecting eyewitness accounts of the nuns deaths. Reverend Mother Émilienne, Superior General of the Sisters of Charity of Nevers, wrote in a letter:

" 'I learned from a person who was a witness to their martyrdom that the youngest of these good Carmelites was called first and that she went to kneel before her venerable Superior, asked her blessing and permission to die. She then mounted the scaffold singing Laudate Dominum omnes gentes. She then went to place herself beneath the blade (not) allowing the executioner to touch her. All the others did the same. The Venerable Mother was the last sacrificed. During the whole time, there was not a single drum-roll; but there reigned a profound silence.'

"Sister Charlotte of the Resurrection, seventy-eight and an invalid, having been thrown roughly to the pavement from the tumbrel, was heard to speak words of forgiveness and encouragement to her tormentor. Sister Julie had an extreme horror of the guillotine; yet she refused to leave her sisters even when her family sent for her, saying, 'We are victims of the age, and we must sacrifice ourselves for its reconciliation with God.' Another witness said of the nuns, 'They looked like they were going to their weddings.'

"Throughout France a vaunted new age of spiritual maturity, free from the bonds of sectarian religion, was underway. On June 20, 1794, a Feast of the Supreme Being" was celebrated in Compiègne. In November of the previous year, the worship of Reason was officially proclaimed: the church of Saint-Jacques in Compiégne became the Temple of Reason. The church of Saint- Antoine became a public meeting hall and fodder storehouse. In December, the Mayor of Paris had announced in the Temple of Reason that the Declaration of the Rights of Man would henceforth be the catechism of the French, and that the Constitution would be their Gospel. The prevailing mood of the times is reflected in a letter of July 17, 1794, from municipal officials of Compiègne to the Comité du Sureté Nationale:

" 'The citizens of the Commune of Compiègne and of the District celebrated a civic festival on the 26 of this month (Messidor) in memory of the taking of the Bastille and in rejoicing for the recent victories of our armies. The minutes of the Municipalites attest that everywhere people were animated by the same spirit. The festival was concluded with dances and patriotic banquets.'

"Yet there must have been a growing public unease not evident in this letter. Something in the sight of the nuns being executed seems to have affected even the hardened Parisian crowd, accustomed to cheering loudly each fall of the guillotine blade. Within ten days, by July 27, 1794, Robespierre and the provisional revolutionary government were finished."


The Catholic Encyclopaedia lists all of the 16 martyrs:

"Madeleine-Claudine Ledoine (Mother Teresa of St. Augustine), prioress, b. in Paris, 22 Sept., 1752, professed 16 or 17 May, 1775;

"Marie-Anne (or Antoinette) Brideau (Mother St. Louis), sub-prioress, b. at Belfort, 7 Dec., 1752, professed 3 Sept, 1771;

"Marie-Anne Piedcourt (Sister of Jesus Crucified), choir-nun, b. 1715, professed 1737; on mounting the scaffold she said "I forgive you as heartily as I wish God to forgive me";

"Anne-Marie-Madeleine Thouret (Sister Charlotte of the Resurrection), sacristan, b. at Mouy, 16 Sept., 1715, professed 19 Aug., 1740, twice sub-prioress in 1764 and 1778. Her portrait is reproduced opposite p. 2 of Miss Willson's work cited below;

"Marie-Antoniette or Anne Hanisset (Sister Teresa of the Holy Heart of Mary), b. at Rheims in 1740 or 1742, professed in 1764;

"Marie-Françoise Gabrielle de Croissy (Mother Henriette of Jesus), b. in Paris, 18 June, 1745, professed 22 Feb., 1764, prioress from 1779 to 1785;

"Marie-Gabrielle Trézel (Sister Teresa of St. Ignatius), choir-nun, b. at Compiègne, 4 April, 1743, professed 12 Dec., 1771;

"Rose-Chrétien de la Neuville, widow, choir-nun (Sister Julia Louisa of Jesus), b. at Loreau (or Evreux), in 1741, professed probably in 1777;

"Anne Petras (Sister Mary Henrietta of Providence), choir-nun, b. at Cajarc (Lot), 17 June, 1760, professed 22 Oct., 1786.

"Concerning Sister Euphrasia of the Immaculate Conception accounts vary. Miss Willson says that her name was Marie Claude Cyprienne Brard, and that she was born 12 May, 1736; Pierre, that her name was Catherine Charlotte Brard, and that she was born 7 Sept., 1736. She was born at Bourth, and professed in 1757;

"Marie-Geneviève Meunier (Sister Constance), novice, b. 28 May, 1765, or 1766, at St. Denis, received the habit 16 Dec., 1788. She mounted the scaffold singing "Laudate Dominum". In addition to the above, three lay sisters suffered and two tourières.

"The lay sisters are:

"Angélique Roussel (Sister Mary of the Holy Ghost), lay sister, b. at Fresnes, 4 August, 1742, professed 14 May, 1769;

"Marie Dufour (Sister St. Martha), lay sister, b. at Beaune, 1 or 2 Oct., 1742, entered the community in 1772;

"Julie or Juliette Vérolot (Sister St. Francis Xavier), lay sister, b. at Laignes or Lignières, 11 Jan., 1764, professed 12 Jan., 1789.

"The two tourières, who were not Carmelites at all, but merely servants of the nunnery were: Catherine and Teresa Soiron, b. respectively on 2 Feb., 1742 and 23 Jan., 1748 at Compiègne, both of whom had been in the service of the community since 1772."