The Carmelite Martyrs of Compiegne

The Carmelite Martyrs of Compiegne

 

taken from the Caramel Clarion March – April issue of 2004

by Father Phelim, OCD

 

 

Carmelite foundation

 

The community of Carmelite nuns at Compiegne had been established and 1641.  It was a daughter house of the monastery of Amiens.  The community flourished and was renowned for its fervor and fidelity to the spirit of saint Teresa of Avila.  The continued to enjoy the affection and the sting of the French court and so, a century and a half later it became an object of hatred to the leaders of the French revolution.  As the revolution progressed the nuns had no illusions about the danger of their situation.  Their dynamic and discerning prioress, Sr. Theresa of St. Augustine, read the signs of the times accurately and was inspired to prepare her community for the supreme sacrifice, should the need arise.  In 1792 the community of 21 nuns offered themselves to God as a holocaust “to placate the anger of God, so that divine peace brought on earth by His Beloved Son would return to the church and to the state.” Two years later sixteen members of the Compiegne community gave their lives for God and country.

 

The Revolution

 

With the fall of the battle on July 14, 1789 the French revolution began. The new assembly showed its anti-religious bias by proclaiming the vows taken by a religious was null and void. The nuns, however, continued to live their religious life and refused to abandon the religious habit. Not so their parish priest, who abandoned his parish and took a civil appointment under the new regime. The nuns were providentially cared for spiritually by the Abbe Courouble and later, when he was sent into exile; the Abbe de la Marche S.J. took over complete responsibility for the community.

 

Riots and Orgies

 

Rumors of riots and orgies taking place in Paris continued to reach the nuns at Compiegne. In a 1790 they were visited by the newly appointed members of the local government who inspected the monastery and its accounts as well as interviewing each of the nuns. The Directory of the Compiegne district reported that there was a fifteen choir religious, three lay sisters and two extern and sisters serving the monastery. Later on the 5th August these a gentleman presented themselves again and insisted on being admitted to the enclosure.  In the community room they interviewed each sister separately while soldiers kept a guard outside. The nuns were offered full freedom from their ‘so called vows’ with a suitable pension should they wish to leave the continent. They one and all refused this offer. Next day a formal document was sent to the district Directory signed by each nun stating that they all wished to live and die has professed Carmelite nuns.

 

A Time of Trial

 

Mother Teresa, the Prioress, undertook at this time a regime of personal penance and of prayer in preparation for the trials, which lay ahead. She was helped and encouraged by Fr. De La Marche, her spiritual guide. During the 1791 she endured great trials and a darkness of soul, which gave away in time to deep peace and inner joy. It was then, at Easter 1792 that she communicated her inspiration to the community, of offering themselves as a holocaust to God; to appease His anger, obtain peace for the church and salvation for France.  The nuns, after prayer and reflection came to their prioress and ask that they be allowed to make an offering of their lives with hers. From then they were conscious that their lives were no longer their own.

 

Looking Ahead

 

Hearing of the eviction of many religious from their monasteries Mother Teresa decided to make preparations for a similar emergency at Compiegne. She rented rooms in friendly houses and paid for them in advance. She also obtained secular outfits for the nuns in case they were obliged to discard the religious dress. These precautions were taken none too soon, as on September 12, 1792 local officials systematically searched the house and took whatever valuables they could find. On September 14th the property was confiscated and the nuns forced to adopt secular dress.

 

Four Groups

 

With the apartments rented in four houses the community divided into four separate groups. The Prioress took charge of the first group and Mother Henriette de Croissy headed the second. Sr. St. Louis and Sr. Mary of the Incarnation took charge of the third and fourth groups respectively. Every effort was made to remain faithful to the Carmelite way of life. Individuals were appointed to look after cooking, laundry and shopping.

 

Civil Registration

 

When the nuns were safely installed they each went to the local town hall to register their names and apply for the pension, which they had been assured, would be paid them by the state. The official who met them there was none other than their former parish priest, now a state employee. He was quite upset on seeing them and secretly gave them the keys of the parish church of which he was still the civil custodian, so they might be able to have Mass. Soon they were left without a chaplain. Fr. Courouble refused to take the oath of allegiance to the national assembly and was given 24 hours to leave the country. He made his way to Belgium and continued his priestly ministry at Brussels.

 

A New Chaplain

 

God provided the community however with the new chaplain in the person of Fr. de la Marche S.J. Dressed in disguise he would meet the nuns secretly at the parish church and offered Holy Mass for them. That Mass, more than anything else prepared them for their personal sacrifice in union with the Crucified Saviour. The Blessed Sacrament was also reserved whenever possible in the house where Mother Teresa lodged, through the kind offices of Fr. de la Marche. One of the sisters, an invalid at the time of the eviction, died in October, 1792. Two others became ill and had to depart to be taken care of by relatives who lived some distance away. It was then possible to vacate one house and regroup in the remaining three.

 

Sr. Mary of the Incarnation

 

Contact with Paris and with the nuns relatives and friends were maintained by Sr. Mary of the Incarnation. She was the daughter of the Prince de Conty and a relative of the King. While her father wished her to take her place at court she opted for the Carmelite way of life and was professed and 1786. She went frequently to Paris and operated under various assumed names. It was she who was able to procure secretly, materials for habits and mantles required by the nuns and used at the time of the execution. Sr. Mary made a trip to Paris early and 1794 and continued her activities outside Compiegne for some months.

 

Mother Teresa in Paris

 

In June, 1794 Mother Teresa of St. Augustine went to Paris at the request of her mother who had finalized her preparations to seek refuge in Switzerland.  During this visit to Paris the Prioress witnessed the full horror of the executions.  She saw the tumbrels pass by carrying victims to their death. She remarked to Mary of the Incarnation:  “How happy I would be to think that I would have the joy of going thus to eternity.” Sr. Mary, for her part, shuddered at the prospect and said so quite openly.  When she bade her mother farewell, Mother Teresa of St. Augustine set out for Compiegne, but Mary of the Incarnation decided not to accompany her.  She went instead to complete some business at the estate of her father near Paris.  Later she wrote to say that she planned to travel with her family to Doubs, but the letter was intercepted and the civil authorities got on her track.

 

The Arrest

 

When Mother Teresa returned from Paris she found that the soldiers were waiting to arrest her and her community. It would seem that they had been carefully watched for some time and betrayed by a government agent. Once arrested the nuns were brought under security to Compiegne prison. Their food was meager and poor quality and they were generally ill treated. On July 12th they were told to be ready to get into carriages that were to bring them to Paris. The carriages proved to be mere carts and the floors were covered with dirty straw. They traveled in discomfort all day and all night and on the evening of the thirteenth, which was a Sunday, they reached Paris.

 

In Prison and Again

 

In Paris the group was imprisoned in the Conciergerie, nicknamed the ‘Morque’, since no one remained there for long. The aged Sr. Charlotte, unable to descend from the cart was roughly handled by attendants and fell heavily to the ground. After lying for some time motionless on the ground she was helped to her feet, her face all covered with blood. Turning to the attendants she assured them that she bore them no ill will and would indeed pray for them. As July 14th was a national holiday, no cases were tried. After spending two nights in the Conciergerie the nuns were put on trial on the morning of the seventeenth and condemned to be executed a few hours later.

 

The Trial

 

During their trial the nuns refused with dignity the charges that they were spies, trying to overthrow the government and working in collusion with a foreign power. At the end of the proceedings the judge condemned each sister to death. When pressed by Mother Henriette, a former Prioress, for what reasons they were to die; the judge shouted, “You are to die because you insist on remaining in your convent in spite of the liberty we gave you to abandon all such nonsense.” The aged nun replied, “Thank you, gentlemen, that is all I wished to hear.” Then turning to the Prioress she said, “We have now heard the true reason for our arrest and condemnation. It is because of our religious beliefs that we are to die. We all wished to hear such a statement. Our eternal praise and thanks to Him who has prepared us for the road to Calvary.

 

The Way to Calvary

 

After their condemnation the sisters calmly expressed their joy and desire to offer their lives in union with the great sacrifice of Calvary. As they were led away from the dock one of the Sisters grew faint and stumbled because the group had been without food for many hours. A friend in the crowd procured them a drink of hot chocolate and sustained by this nourishment they returned with radiant faces to the dungeon to await execution. There they spent the time in prayer and in singing the Divine praises. There is a story that on the July 16th, the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, one of the sisters calmly asked a fellow prisoner with more freedom for something on which to write. Then using charred twigs she composed a song of jubilee and petition to Carmel’s Queen in anticipation of martyrdom and adapted it to the melody of the Marseillaise.

 

Preparing to Die

 

In the interval between their condemnation and execution the nuns asked for a pail of hot water to wash their soiled clothes. They doffed their civilian garb and put on their religious habits, which were made so as to facilitate the work of the executioner. They did this in order to give witness to their religious profession. Here mention must be made of a group of Benedictine sisters who met the Carmelites in prison after their condemnation to death. They were later to testify to the faith and fervor of the Carmelites in their last hours. Later when the Benedictines were told to remove their religious habits they protested that they had brought no other clothing. To comply with the prison order they were given the garments discarded by the Carmelites, subsequently they were released through diplomatic negotiations and brought their prison garments with them as souvenirs. They are still preserved as precious relics in the Benedictine convent of Stanbrook.

 

To the Guillotine

 

With a roll of drums, the cart bearing the condemned nuns to execution emerged from the prison courtyard. It was the last cart in the cortege. Along the route the nuns were heartened to see among the onlookers their faithful and devoted chaplain Fr. de la Marche. As he raised his hand in blessing Mother Teresa intoned the Miserere and the nuns took up the chant. After the Miserere the prayers for the recommendation of the dying were recited together with other hymns and prayers. These included the Te Deum and the Salve Regina. Finally as the cortege turned into the Barriere de Vincennes (the modern Place de la Nation) where the platform with the guillotine was erected, the Veni Creator was intoned.

 

The Final Scene

 

In the hush that had fallen on the onlookers beside the guillotine the only voices to be heard were those of the praying nuns. Fr. de la Marche later related how one of the nuns remembered that she had not finished the Office of the day and said to Mother Teresa, “Have no worry,” the latter replied, “we shall recite the Office together when we get to heaven.” At the foot of the scaffold the nuns in turn knelt before their Prioress and asked her permission to die. They kissed her scapular and a little statue of Our Lady she held out to each one as they renewed their vows for the last time on earth. As they awaited there turn to be executed they chanted the Laudate Dominum, the Salve Regina and the Magnificat.

 

Willing Victims

 

The soldiers had no need to help Constance, the novice, up the steps of the scaffold, for she ran up the steps like a young bride eager to meet her bridegroom. She placed her head willingly on the block and was the first to die a martyr’s death. The two eldest sisters aged seventy-nine and seventy-eight had to be helped on to the scaffold. They thanked their executioners for their help and assured them of their prayers when they came into the presence of the Lord.

 

The Prioress was given the option of being the last to die. After she had encouraged each of her community and received their vows she knelt down and renewed her religious profession in a clear voice, kissed the statue of Our Lady as the others had done and handed it for safe keeping to a friend who years later returned it to the French Carmelites. With the heroic courage of the mother of the Macchabees she then mounted the scaffold chanting the Salve Regina until her voice was silenced on earth and began the eternal canticle in heaven. It was around 8 pm on a dark dull evening and soon the place was hushed in silence as darkness fell over Paris.

 

A Sign from Heaven

 

Later that evening the brother of one of the martyrs, Sr. Anne Pelleras, a notary, returned home. As he entered the dark hall he noticed a light shining on the wall, a light that followed him up the stairway. As he entered the room where his wife awaited him she asked what was the light that surrounded him. He turned round to see a bright globe that faded gradually. The next day, when he heard of the execution of his sister, he realized that she had been permitted to give this sign of her entry into glory.

 

The Roll of Honor

 

From existing documents and from the precious testimony of the three nuns who escaped martyrdom we can make an authentic list of the sixteen martyrs with their religious in the world:

 

Sr. Teresa of St. Augustine, Prioress (Lidoine)

Sr. St. Louis (Brideau)

Sr. Anne Marie (Piedcourt)

Sr. Charlotte (Thouret)

Sr. Euphrasia (Brard)

Sr. Henriette (de Croissy)

Sr. Teresa (Hanisset)

Sr. Teresa (Trezel)

Sr. Julia Louise (Neuville)

Sr. M. Henriette (Pelleras)

Sr. Constance (Meunier)

Sr. Mary (Roussel)

Sr. St. Martha (Dufour)

Sr. St Francis de Xavier (Verelot)

Sr. Catherine (Soiron)

Sr. Teresa (Soiron)

 

Burial

 

The bodies of the sixteen martyrs, along with their heads, were taken by carts during the night and thrown into the common pit in the Garden of Picpus, a former Franciscan monastery. Here with thousands of others, the martyrs of Compiegne found their last resting place. Later the area was surrounded by a wall and became the cemetery of Picpus. In time it was bought by a company formed by the relatives of the victims and handed back to the Church. Today marble plaques there carry the names of illustrious and noble families but none more glorious than the sixteen blessed women of Compiegne.

 

Escapee and Witness

 

When Sr. Mary of the Incarnation reached Doubs with her family she had no passport and found the frontiers blocked. It had taken her a month to make the long journey. She retraced her steps and arrived back at Besanson where she overheard in a small hotel where she stayed that her sixteen colleagues had been executed. She was still being sought after because of her royal connections and she sought refuge in the lower regions of the French Alps. Later on, when peace was restored, she returned to France and sought hospitality with the Carmelite nuns at Sens, but was never reinstated as a member of the community. She lived on until 1836 and her Memoirs plus the testimony of the other sisters who escaped death provided Fr. Bruno, O.C.D, the French Carmelite, with authentic documentary evidence which he used to the full in his book entitled Le sang Carmel, ou la veritable passion des seize Carmelites de Compiegne. (Paris 1954)

 

Unexpected Publicity

 

It is of interest to note that St. Therese of Lisieux helped with great zeal to prepare for the centenary celebration for the martyrs in 1894 when the Carmel of Lisieux supplied special decorations for the liturgical events. Madame Catez, mother of Elizabeth of the Trinity, of the Dijon Carmel, was present in Rome when Pope St. Pius X beatified the martyrs of Compiegne on May 13, 1906. Their feast has since been celebrated by the whole Carmelite Order and by the Archdiocese of Paris on the 17th, the day of their entry into glory.

 

More recently the sixteen blessed martyrs have attained unexpected publicity due to the literary work of Gertrude Von Le Fort (1931) in her novel entitled Song on the Scaffold. Gertrude was of Huguenot extraction, a close friend of Edith Stein and like her a convert to Catholicism. It is a pity that this novel departs considerably from historical truth and at times gravely distorts the true facts as Fr. Bruno is at pains to demonstrate.

 

The work of fiction however inspired Fr. R. Bruckberger to produce a film on the subject. In 1937 he entrusted the writing of the dialogue to the well-known writer George Bernanos. Ten years later Bernanos (1947-48) composed a literary work that death prevented him from perfecting. This work, Les Dialogues des Carmelites, met with enormous success when published in 1949.

 

New Developments

 

Because of the success of the work of Bernanos, it was soon adapted by A. Beguin for theater and when staged encountered unexpected success. In 1957 Les Dialogues des Carmelites was set to music bt Francis Poulence and produced in La Scala, Milan, thus further extending the work of Bernanos. Finally in 1959 Fr. Bruckberger was able to realize his dream of putting the work on screen under the direction of Philip Agostini. Thus, in quite an unforeseen way, the epic story of the sixteen martyred daughters of St. Teresa was made kown to the whole world.

 

Epilogue

 

It is worth noting that within ten days of the execution of the Carmelites many of those who sat in judgment on them and had them condemned to death were themselves brought before a tribunakl and sentenced to death. On July 28th, the head of Robespierre rolled beneath the knife of the guillotine. Others like Foquier and Tinville met a similar fate in due course amid cries of “down with the tyrants, down with the murderers”

 

By the end of August the reign of the guillotine had come to an end. Can we doubt that the brave women of Compiegne had a hand in it? There is nobody so much alive as a dead saint. The death of the Carmelite community, which was so pointless, was by no means futile or in vain. Their victory is the victory of love over hatred. As Mother Teresa of St. Augustine was wont to say: “Love will al;ways be victorious. The one who loves can do everything.” The events which took place on July 17th, showed once again the insuperable power of the love of Christ.

 

Special Note: A beautiful, heart-rending detailed account of the events of the sixteen Carmelite martyrs can be acquired through this Link. The title of the book is To Quell the Terror. I have read this book and it is most excellent.

 

Helping Hand

 

 

 

 

 

 

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