Seven kilometres from the town of Orange, in the south of France, is the small Chapel of Gabet. A naturalistic and distracted gaze could consider it as just another monument of piety, among the countless forgotten ones that exist throughout Europe. The reality, however, is different. It is a precious reliquary of the mortal remains of over three hundred victims of the bloody French Revolution.
Among them stand out, for their patience and heroism, thirty-two nuns taken to the scaffold for their fidelity to the Holy Church. At the head of the virginal and angelic procession of the martyrs of Orange was Blessed Suzanne-Agathe Deloye.
In her youth a call comes to light
On February 4 of the year 1741, Suzanne-Agathe Deloye was born in the then-quiet city of Sérignan, daughter of Joseph Alexis Deloye and Suzanne Jean-Clerc. Her parents, fervent Catholics, were able to give her an exemplary education, founded on solid principles of love of religion, which would shine forth during the persecutions she would undergo in the future.
After a virtuous and healthy childhood, she asked her parents’ permission, upon reaching the age of twenty, to follow the religious life. With their consent, she entered the Benedictine abbey of Caderousse.
Within these sacred walls, the young woman, now Sr. Marie-Rose, would live for over thirty years in a routine of prayer, work and silence. Although she did not suspect it, in every act, in every suffering joyfully endured or humiliation freely accepted, the Divine Spouse was preparing her for the great day of the “marriage of the Lamb” (Rv 19:7).
The French Revolution rises up against the Church
During the year 1789, the French Revolution strikes like a devastating typhoon, attacking the whole social order forged for centuries under the salutary influence of the Holy Church. Soon, the monarchy will be extinguished, the royal couple beheaded and the Church brutally persecuted.
And it is not long, in fact, before the agents of disorder turn against the Mystical Bride of Christ, for, owing to her doctrine, morals and dogmas, they consider her their most terrible enemy. In 1790, the Constituent Assembly nationalizes ecclesiastical property and promulgates the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, obliging all ecclesiastics to swear an oath to the State. Religious vows are no longer recognized by temporal law and monasteries are closed.
From this point on, many priests and religious are hunted down like animals for not bending the knee to this regime, which camouflages its ruthlessness under the dubious maxim of liberty, equality and fraternity.
A nun, even without a monastery
When the new regulations came into force, the nuns of Caderousse Abbey were forced to abandon their beloved monastery. From then on, they lost all recognition before the law and became simple “citizens” and, worse, soon “criminals”…
Suzanne Deloye found refuge in the house of her brother, Pierre Alexis, in Sérignan. But neither the threats of the agents of the Terror nor the closure of the abbey dissuaded her from leading a monastic life. Remaining faithful to her religious vows, she edified everyone by her constant piety.
Pierre Alexis was an exemplary Catholic. His three daughters had consecrated themselves to God even before the outbreak of the persecution. The two eldest dedicated themselves to the service of the poor sick in the St. Martha Hospital in Avignon, and the third daughter, Thérèse Rosalie Deloye, entered the Order of the Blessed Sacrament of Bollène.
The holy courage of the first Christians shone in Pierre, taking on special brilliance during the days of the Terror. Unafraid to risk his own life, he hid in the attic of his house one of the priests who refused to take the oath of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. Thanks to this, the faithful of the region were able to attend Holy Mass and receive the other Sacraments several times during this period of crisis.
Sr. Marie-Rose’s new routine was interrupted on March 2, 1794, when she was ordered to present herself to the Prefecture of Sérignan to take the revolutionary oath and renounce the Catholic religion. In addition to her, two other nuns from the Monastery of the Blessed Sacrament of Bollène were summoned: Thérèse Henriquine Faurie and Anne-Andrea Minutte.
Although they were pressured – in the name of freedom! – to adhere to the dictates of the Revolution, none of them consented. They were then given a period of ten days to reflect on this refusal, which seemed intolerable in the eyes of the commissioners. Such was the latter’s eagerness to destroy these pure souls, that the three were summoned again before the stipulated deadline. But they did not give in!
Suzanne and her two companions, together with Fr. Antoine-Joseph Lusignan, were then ordered to be imprisoned. Their crime? They had refused to exchange their Faith, and their fidelity to the Church, for submission to a bloody and corrupt government. They knew that a pure conscience is worth more than an apostate life.
The local watch committee ordered that Sr. Marie-Rose and the other convicts be placed in the same cart and taken to the prison. The three nuns “emotionally reunite in these dramatic circumstances and exchange the kiss of peace. It is midday. The religious intone the Regina Caeli while the wagon leaves, escorted by two guards. Their destination: the prison of La Cure in Orange!”1
Transforming purgatory into an antechamber of Paradise
They arrived at the prison on May 10. Such a sad lot could easily have discouraged them. What chance did they stand of escaping the scaffold, they might have thought, since the revolutionary commissars were not concerned with justice, but with eliminating any form of opposition? However, they kept firmly rooted in their souls the love of the Master who had called them and the hope in the Kingdom that awaited them after the struggles of this life. This is the reason for the joy and constancy they showed in captivity.
To Suzanne’s surprise, there were many nuns confined in that place. Although they belonged to different congregations and followed different rules, a single ideal animated them in this circumstance: to continue living as religious. “[They set about] turning purgatory into an antechamber of Paradise. They all know that when they rise once again to the surface of the earth and meet the light of day, it will be to enter eternal glory. […] The prison must be an extension of the cloister, to allow each one to lead a life of silence, prayer and offering.”2
Gradually they organized rules and schedules. At five in the morning, meditation; at six, recitation together of the Office of the Blessed Virgin and the prayers of the Mass; at eight, the Litany of the Saints. After this, each one makes her confession aloud and prepares to receive Holy Communion spiritually. Shortly before nine o’clock the prisoners destined for trial were called, at which time all renewed their religious vows, ready to suffer whatever was necessary.
In a short time, the prison became permeated with the good odour of the virtues and the acts of generosity that the nuns offered to Our Lord out of love. Moved by their good example, other prisoners converted and gained courage to surrender their lives and attain the palm of martyrdom.
Meals for the captives were provided by their relatives, who went to the prison every day for this purpose. On Friday, July 4, Suzanne’s aunt brought her a tasty broth. She thanked her, but did not accept it, and gave an answer that edified all her sisters present, saying that “in all her life she had fasted on Fridays and it would not be on the eve of her death that she would allow herself an exemption from her abstinence.”3
In fact, it was on the following day, July 5, that her martyrdom began.
Convicted of fanaticism and superstition
“Citizen Deloye!” resounded a metallic voice in the prison, summoning the faithful religious woman to testify in court. She barely had time to take leave of her sisters, whom she would never see again, and was immediately taken to the dock. There were about fifteen people on trial. Among them, Suzanne recognized Fr. Lusignan, with whom she had made the journey from Sérignan to Orange.
Viot, the public accuser, made everyone aware of the “crimes” on the basis of which the priest and the nun were to be tried. “Lusignan, former priest, and Suzanne-Agathe Deloye, former nun, are both guilty of the same offences: enemies of liberty, they have made every attempt to destroy the Republic by fanaticism and superstition; refractory to the law, they have refused to take the oath that it requires of them.”4
Suzanne was the first to be interrogated. Being the only woman present and the first summoned among the religious, they expected her to weaken. The president of the popular commission, Fauvety, immediately urged her to take the revolutionary oath. Demonstrating the same firmness with which the martyrs of the first centuries had faced the crazed mobs and the hungry beasts of the Colosseum, the Benedictine did not consent. She declared that the oath was equivalent to apostasy; she would never betray her Lord and would rather lose her body than her soul! For the jury, the matter was closed: they condemned her for fanaticism and superstition.
The verdict for the priest was identical, for he was seen as a conspirator against France. Both remained imprisoned in court in order to receive their final sentence the following day. As they already knew what it would be, they spent the night in fervent prayer to the Divine Martyr, offering their lives to Him as a sacrifice of pleasing odour.
To the guillotine…
The afternoon of the following day, they were summoned to hear the death sentence. At 6 p.m., the two victims were already in the Place de la Justice – a more ironic name could not exist – in the shadow of the dreaded guillotine. “The emulation to die like true martyrs is such that one cannot say whether it is the nun who sustains the courage of the priest or the priest who sustains that of the nun.”5 What is certain is that both walk towards death with holy joy.
Suzanne Deloye was the first to go up to the scaffold. The executioner made her lie down on a plank, to which he tied her torso and feet. Then, with her neck positioned for the blade, he released it, which instantly severed her head. Her eyes, closed to this life, were opened for eternity, while the executioner displayed her blood-stained face to the vociferous public.
In prison, the other Sisters heard the beating of the drums that announced the execution. They then recited the prayers of the dying and intoned the psalm Laudate Dominum as a sign of jubilation. To the sound of these songs of praise, the remains of Suzanne Deloye were placed in a cart and thrown into a mass grave.
“Blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord!”
In all ages, the enemies of the Church have thought they could stifle her growth by eliminating her most beloved children from the earth. But the blood of these victims, offered for love, only reaffirms God’s victory. Before the divine and just Judge, this sacrifice cries out for vengeance and reparation, drawing down graces for others to enter the fold of the one Shepherd.
Blessed Suzanne Deloye and her fellow martyrs well deserve the praise of the Psalmist: “Blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord!” (Ps 118:1). Even enduring suffering, they were faithful, and therefore their sacrifice continues to move history and events according to God’s designs. Let us follow their example!
In 1832 the Chapel of Gabet was erected over the pit in which more than three hundred guillotined people were buried with such indignity. And in 1925 Pope Pius XI beatified the thirty-two nuns martyred in Orange, whose joint feast day is celebrated on July 9, although that of Blessed Suzanne is commemorated on July 6, the date of her execution. Thus the memory of those whom the Revolution wished to bury in oblivion will stand forever, for they gave their lives for the Redeemer who never forgets His own. ◊
1 NEVIASKI, Alexis. Les martyres d’Orange. Paris: Artège, 2019, p.169.
2 Idem, p.173.
3 Idem, p.209.
4 Idem, ibidem.
5 REDON, apud NEVIASKI, op. cit., p.211.