There have been periods in history when Holy Church has shone before men with great splendour, like a queen ruling over her people firmly and sweetly; at other times, she has made herself small in the arms of her sons, hiding her wisdom and grandeur in order to be carried by them, like the Infant Jesus as a child. However, she has poured out her most brilliant rays when the world and the infernal regions have persecuted her in the person of her chosen children, radical in their dedication to good. For it is then that she has proven the strength of her immortality, the richness of her sanctity and the heroism of her faith.
How difficult it is to understand this reality in a civilization that has made pain and suffering the main adversaries of mankind! And yet, following the example of her Divine Spouse, it is from the height of the Cross that the Church forges her true children, her beloved souls, her other Johns who remain standing with Mary Most Holy to face every torment, completing with their blood what is lacking in the tribulations of Christ (cf. Col 1:24).
Centuries have passed and these chosen ones constitute a golden chain, reinforcing the Divine Master’s promise that the gates of hell shall not prevail against the Church (cf. Mt 16:18). In some cases, they are isolated souls who suffer harsh interior trials in the anonymity of the cloister; in others they are entire communities who prefer the glory of martyrdom to deserting the path of fidelity. Such were the Carmelites of Compiègne during the furore of the French Revolution.
Hatred against the Church
There is no denying that the revolutionary impetus of those turbulent days was unleashed in a savage way against the Church. In effect, “the constellation of martyrs of Jesus Christ never multiplied so suddenly in France as in the first years of the Revolution. Thousands of Christians perished, not only by the guillotine, but also by mass drownings, imprisonments, deportations, shootings, mob violence and sheer butchery.”1 Although aimed at the abolition of the monarchy, it can be said that the establishment of the republic came at the cost of a genuine religious persecution.
This difficult period in French history announced an uncertain future for the then flourishing Carmel of Compiègne in the north of the country.
First invasion of the monastery
In August 1790, the Revolution had already declared the suppression of religious vows and the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. And many, alas, had capitulated before the “new order”. Great numbers fled abroad. Very few faithfully resisted, and it was against these that all the fury of the Revolution was directed.
Among this faithful few were the Carmelites of Compiègne. On August 5 members of the Directory, accompanied by a dozen guards, breached the cloister of the convent for the first time. They wished to “confirm”, in a private conversation with each nun, whether they were living in the community of their own free will, without constraint, or whether they harboured a secret desire to return to the world as “normal” French citizens. To ensure the “defence of the rights” of those they considered to be “unfortunate and kidnapped virgins,” they deployed armed soldiers throughout the building.
The Carmelites, however, firmly defied the civil authorities. Many declared that, having lived so many years of religious life – suffice it to say that the oldest sisters had been in the convent for half a century – they would not abandon their state, much less the habit of the Virgin of Carmel. One simple and uneducated nun called Sr. St. Francis Xavier, when she heard the suggestion that she should return to her civil state, replied with complete serenity that a worthy wife remains with her spouse and that nothing would make her abandon her Divine Spouse, Our Lord Jesus Christ.
The resistance of the community finally obliged the emissaries to retreat, but only for a time. The Revolution was advancing rapidly in France, and everyone knew that their situation was a precarious one. One day, however, the sinister suspense that enveloped their lives was unexpectedly illuminated by a discovery.
A “mystical dream”
Mother Teresa of St. Augustine, the recently elected prioress, decided to go through the annals of the monastery: nine volumes containing the history of the foundations of Carmel in France since the days of Mother Anne of Jesus, a disciple of St. Teresa.
As she leafed through the material, Mother Teresa came across a title that caught her eye: “Mystical Dream”. Without losing a moment, she read it carefully. It was about a dream experienced by a young Carmelite benefactress named Elisabeth Baptiste in 1693. Impressed and even moved by the account, the Prioress received one of the greatest graces of her life, one that would define her vocation and the future of the community.
It was written: “I saw the glory that the religious of this convent will have; this glory seemed to me very great, very high; I saw an Angel ordering the whole community; the younger sisters were higher in glory than some older ones. I saw many whom I did not know, but whom I later recognized. I also saw the Lamb of God slain for the sins of the world; His eyes rested upon us, full of sweetness. […] The Angel took two or three sisters aside; I fear that he did this to me too, for I understood that these sisters were not to follow the Lamb.”2
The impressive description revealed to Prioress’ heart the course that had been marked out for them: the way of the Immolated Lamb, that is, martyrdom. With this dream, their lives and vocation took on clear meaning, in view of the revolutionary furore that was gaining momentum. They were undoubtedly the nuns who would follow the Lamb!
This was the mysterious message that grace spoke in the depths of the prioress’ soul. It was her task, therefore, to prepare the community for the cruel future that awaited it.
Mother Teresa did this on Easter of 1792. She gathered the sisters together and told them the dream. She explained that the Church was suffering one of its worst persecutions and that the only way to quell the Terror and exalt the Mystical Bride of Christ in the midst of her tribulations was for all of them to make an act of offering of themselves and their lives as victims.
Many at first did not understand the prioress… The two oldest sisters of the community reacted with fear, especially because they had heard about an odious and terrifying instrument: the guillotine. Some novices wondered, “Who were these two or three who ‘were not to follow the Lamb’?”
In this climate unfolded the Easter festivities in the Carmel of Compiègne. They could only wait for events to demonstrate the truth of the superior’s presentiment, and they did not have to wait long…
Forced in the name of liberty to abandon Carmel
A decree published on August 4, 1792 finally imposed the closure of all female monasteries. On September 12, the furniture of the Compiègne Carmel was confiscated. Obliged by law to abandon their convent, the nuns chose the 13th to prepare for their painful return to the world. With the help of acquaintances, they obtained civilian clothes for themselves and on the 14th, the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, they consummated their departure.
A tragedy? Apparently so, but from the perspective of faith, this fact signified the arrival of the Lamb of God, who was knocking at the doors of Carmel to invite His virgins to follow Him.
They stayed in four different apartments. In the midst of the chaos and horror that the new French government was spreading throughout the nation, they all tried to lead, as far as possible, a community life, renewing each day the act of offering that they had made at the last Easter celebration in the convent.
As a result, during the almost two years that they spent awaiting the martyrdom that would reward their fidelity, something marvellous happened: suffering transformed their shortcomings into virtues, and their weaknesses into sanctity.
It would be too lengthy to recount in these lines the details of this painful “exile”. However, the fidelity of those religious reached its maximum brilliance on the last day of their lives, in a slaughter that marked history.
Arbitrary death sentence
After having been dragged from their apartments to a provisional detention house on June 22, 1794, the Carmelite nuns were finally taken to the prison set up in the Conciergerie in Paris on July 12.
It is worth mentioning that by a mysterious coincidence – or providence! – they were wearing their habits on this occasion, as the only civilian clothes they owned were being washed. Given the urgency of fulfilling the arrest warrant, the guards had no choice but to take them as they were, albeit with great reluctance.
The formal act of arraignment of the newly arrived prisoners was drawn up by Fouquier de Tinville, the then president of the Revolutionary Court, through whose hands hundreds of victims murdered on the guillotine passed daily. By yet another heavenly coincidence, the document was officially dated July 16, feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel.
On the 17th, the nuns of Compiègne were brought before Fouquier to answer the charges. The impact created in that filthy environment by the entrance of the sixteen Carmelite nuns in their habits can well be imagined!
Now, since this was a parody of a trial, there was no doubt that everything would result in a death sentence, for liberty, so preached and idolized by the Revolution, was ruled out for resisters, especially religious ones.
Challenging his victims, the interrogator outlined their various “crimes”, which consisted basically in the formation of counter-revolutionary coteries and in conspiracies against the nation and the republic.
The proofs of these crimes were, among other absurdities, the fact of living under the obedience of a superior and the seizure of a “voluminous” exchange of correspondence between them, which contained portraits of Louis XVI and of the royal family, as well as representations of the Hearts of Jesus and Mary, symbols of the Vendean insurgents.3
These ridiculous accusations were followed by an interrogation, but obviously no heed was paid to the Carmelites’ answers. At a certain moment of the confrontation, the accuser called them “fanatics”. One intrepid sister, Marie-Henrietta of Providence, then stood up and asked him:
“What do you mean that we are ‘fanatics’?”
And she demanded a more thorough explanation of the term. Caught off-guard, Fouquier became enraged and spewed a torrent of insults against her and the others. Sr. Marie-Henrietta objected, with dignity and determination:
“Citizen, it is your duty to honour a prisoner’s right to ask a question. I ask you, therefore, to answer us.”
The tyrant was forced to declare:
“Since you wish to know, I understand it as attachment to your Religion and to the king.”
“I thank you, citizen, for that happy answer!” – said the nun.
And, turning to her companions, she continued:
“My dear Mother and my sisters, let us exult with joy in the Lord, for we shall die for the sake of our holy Religion, our Faith, our confidence in the Holy Catholic Church.”
What joy! They would really be martyrs, because they would die for their “attachment” to Religion. When the sentence was pronounced at last, they rejoiced, despite the natural trembling of the instinct of conservation; Fouquier de Tinville, without realizing it, had that day opened the gates of Paradise to them.
En route to the guillotine… amid hymns of glory!
When the trial was over, the sixteen Carmelites were put in a cart and led to the scaffold. The emotion inundating their hearts led them to sing the Miserere and the Salve Regina along the way.
They finally arrived at the square where they were to be executed. The guillotine, minister of constant slaughter, awaited them. Only three sounds would accompany each execution: the release of the blade, its descent and… the head rolling. At the foot of the scaffold, they all knelt and renewed their vows. Sr. Constance, the youngest nun in the community, who only on this occasion had the opportunity to make her perpetual profession, approached the prioress and, on her knees, implored:
“Permission to die, Mother.”
Mother Teresa was moved to see the prophetic words of the dream fulfilled in that young girl: “The younger sisters were higher in glory than some of the older ones.”
“Go, my daughter,” replied the Prioress.
With unspeakable courage, Sr. Constance climbed the steps of the scaffold intoning the Psalm Laudate Dominum omnes gentes, and… she soon became a participant in the “marriage supper of the Lamb” (Rv 19:9). She was the first to meet the Divine Spouse!
In the same way, one by one the religious knelt to ask for the last blessing from their Mother and then went to the guillotine. The courageous Sr. Marie-Henrietta stayed at the Prioress’ side to help the sisters climb the stairs to the gallows. In the end she went up too and Mother Teresa remained alone. All her spiritual daughters were waiting for her in Heaven. She had encouraged them and now she had no one to lean on but the Immolated Lamb, who was calling her to himself with utmost love.
Holocaust accepted by God
Like a true captain, who is always the last to leave the ship, Mother Teresa of St. Augustine finally advanced towards death and, in a few moments, she consummated the memorable holocaust of Compiègne. The prophecy was fulfilled, the offering complete. The scaffold had been the altar of immolation for those chosen ones.
Ten days later, Robespierre died and the period of the Terror in France ended. The sacrifice of the Carmel of Compiègne had been pleasing to God! The persecution, hatred and injustice of the Revolution against these faithful souls would be a glory for Holy Church, but also a sign for the wicked every age, who waste their time conspiring against the Mystical Bride of Christ:
“The Lord, who is a strong revenger, will surely repay” (Jer 51:56). ◊
1 BUSH, William. Apaiser la Terreur. Suresnes: Clovis, 2001, p.27-28.
2 Idem, p.71-72.
3 Cf. MARIE DE L’INCARNATION. Manuscrit I. In: BUSH, William (Ed.). La relation du martyre des seize carmélites de Compiègne. Paris: Du Cerf, 1993, p.85-86.