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Catholic Heroes… The Blessed Carmelites Of Compiègne

January 11, 2022 saints No Comments

By DEB PIROCH

There are those who make the capital error of equating France’s French Revolution with the American one. Bastille Day may have liberated the people from autocracy, but beyond that, the Revolution was vile. While phrases like “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity” were bantered about, it was actually only one motto used and it really had nothing whatsoever to do with the true brutality of the Revolution. Some at the time added: “Unity, indivisibility of the Republic; liberty, equality or death,” as if to say, you who are not with us are against us.
Yes, that was how its leader Robespierre felt, and his radical agenda included destruction of the Church. On July 14 one should celebrate the anniversary of the martyrdom of the blessed Carmelites of Compiègne, not Bastille Day.
Robespierre was a despotic ruler; he created the “Cult of the Supreme Being,” in an effort at making his own god, and persecuted those adhering to Catholicism, France’s state religion. Echoes of the same oppression that haunted England during the reign of Henry VIII reverberated in France. The 1790 Civil Constitution of Clergy put the Church under the jurisdiction of the state, and the 1793 law, the Law of Suspects, made it a capital crime to be a priest or harbor one. Additionally, iconoclasm: All religious images, statues, holy items, bells, and anything else used in worship were destroyed. In 1793 churches were closed and public worship forbidden.
The Martyrs of Compiègne died praying for peace in France and the Church. Compiègne lay north of Paris and was also the location where St. Joan of Arc was captured. By the time revolutionaries paid a visit to the nuns, religious orders had been abolished and this order, these women, were offered freedom and rewards if they left.
Instead, St. Teresa of St. Augustine turned to her sisters and led them in reciting a vow of martyrdom. Leaving the convent, they wore secular clothing to lower their profile, while continuing to pray in small separated groups. However, revolutionaries noticed one of the new locations had both a picture of the King and a prayer to the Sacred Heart for him. That was enough to secure the sisters’ death, and all were arrested. Ironically, they were imprisoned at a former convent, the Visitation Convent of Compiègne. Their total number included 14 nuns, three lay sisters, and two servants.
Their trial? A mockery. They were convicted on false charges of having conspired against the state. Then after three weeks, two days prior to their execution date of July 14, they were moved to the Conciergerie. They had been in the middle of washing and were forbidden to finish or take their clothing with them. They therefore left wearing parts of the religious habit, which ironically was forbidden. There the women tried to comfort others; no doubt they were comforted to awake to beautiful voices singing matins in the darkness of the morning hours.
Composer Francis Poulenc immortalized their sacrifice in his opera, Dialogues of the Carmelites. In life the nuns, their hair cut and clothes torn to prepare their necks for beheading, knelt in a horse-drawn carriage on the way, singing the Divine Office, including Psalm 50: “Have mercy on me O God in your kindness.” Then they began the Salve Regina. The crowds watching them pass were unusually silent. It is believed priests disguised in secular clothing gave the sisters final absolution silently as they passed.
On arrival, the women sang the Te Deum and Veni Creator Spiritus. Together, they renewed their baptismal and spiritual vows. When it was time to ascend the scaffold, each was called by her given name, not her religious name. Before ascending the threshold, each asked Mother Teresa’s permission to go to her death, then kissed a little statue they had of the Blessed Virgin. It is likely that they went in order of their profession, with Sr. Constance being the first, and Mother Teresa of St. Augustine being the last. Sr. Constance ascended the steps and began singing, Laudate Dominum Omnes Gentes, or Psalm 117, and the other sisters joined her.
“O praise the Lord all you nations; acclaim him all you peoples. Strong is his love for us; he is faithful forever.” Their voices grew fewer and fewer until one, then none, remained. Mother Superior was 78, and she ended her life freely forgiving those who took it. Their sacrifice was successful, for in four days the Terror had ended. Those who gave their lives:
Mother Teresa of St. Augustine was serving her second term as prioress when the Revolution struck. Her correspondences reveal a woman of great human and supernatural qualities.
Mother St. Louis, the sub-prioress was given to silence and gentleness. She celebrated the divine office with admirable remembrance and exactitude.
Mother Henriette of Jesus, ex-prioress, the novice mistress, “made herself esteemed for the qualities of her heart, her tender piety, zeal, the happy combination of every religious virtue.”
Sr. Charlotte of the Resurrection, ex-sub-prioress and sacristan, the most senior member of the community, possessed a lively temperament. Fond of frequenting balls in her youth, she entered Carmel “after a tragic event.” She served as infirmarian to the point of developing a spinal column deformation that she endured until death.
Sr. Marie of Jesus Crucified was younger than Sr. Charlotte by a few months but was senior to her by profession. She occupied the office of sacristan for many years. Speaking about their persecutors, she said: “How can we be angry with them when they open the gates of Heaven for us?”
Sr. Euphrasia of the Immaculate Conception, the “philosopher” and “joie de vivre of the recreation,” admitted that she was filled for some time with resentment against her prioress. She worked very hard on herself that in the end she was able to overcome her negative disposition.
Sr. Teresa of the Sacred Heart of Mary, first sister of the turn and third bursar, was endowed with wisdom, prudence, and discernment.
Sr. Julie Louise of Jesus entered Carmel as a widow. She dreaded the guillotine, but she chose to stay with her sisters.
Sr. Teresa of St. Ignatius, the “hidden treasure” of the community, was undoubtedly a mystic. Asked why she never brought a book for meditation, she replied: “The good God has found me so ignorant that none but He would be able to instruct me.”
Sr. Marie-Henrietta of Providence, the assistant infirmarian, first entered the Sisters of Charity and Christian Instruction of Nevers, but left it for the more secluded Carmelite life. Youngest among the choir nuns, she possessed a most exquisite beauty.
Sr. Constance, novice, was the youngest member of the convent, where circumstances forced her to remain a novice seven years. Her parents wanted her to return home and even sent the police for this purpose. Sr. Constance told them: “Gentlemen, I thank my parents if, out of love, they fear the danger that may befall me. Yet nothing except death can separate me from my mothers and sisters.”
Lay sisters: Sr. St. Martha, Sr. Mary of the Holy Spirit, Sr. St. Francis Xavier.
Lay servants: Anne Catherine Soiron tearfully begged the prioress not to let her and her sister be separated from the community during those crucial hours.
Thérèse Soiron: possessed such a rare beauty and charming personality that the ill-fated Princesse de Lamballe wanted her to be attached to her court. She responded: “Madame, even if your Highness would offer me the crown of France, I would prefer to remain in this house, where the good God placed me and where I found the means of salvation which I would not find in the house of your Highness.”
All were thrown into mass graves at Cimetière de Picpus. Though no bone relics remain, fragments of the nuns’ secular clothes do. By chance English Benedictine nuns were also imprisoned at the same location as the Martyrs of the Compiègne. Banished back to England, the English Benedictines wore the clothes they’d left behind. These are now in the hands of Stonybrook College, with its remarkable collection of Catholic relics. Today the Terror has ended, but France, eldest daughter of the Church, remains as free to worship as before.
The martyrs’ feast day is July 17.
(Descriptions of the martyrs reportedly come from the biography of Sr. Marie. These and some additional unattributed data were found below, thanks to an anonymous author: https://www.helpfellowship.org/martyrs_of_compiegne.htm.)

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