In the choir of virgin-martyrs, who forever sing the praises of the Lamb of God whom they followed unto the very end of sacrifical love, are our Carmelite Nuns of Compiengne, France. The cultural and civil conflicts of their time were centered in the time of the French Revolution which began in July of 1789, with the fall of the Bastille. The new governmental Assembly of anti-religious hostility was the beginning of this great “Reign of Terror” as this time in world history is often referred to.
The community of Carmelite Nuns at Compiegne had been established in 1641, a daughter house of the monastery of Amiens. The community rapidly flourished and was renowned for its fervor and fidelity to the spirit of St. Teresa of Jesus, the Mother of the Discalced Carmelite Order. From its beginnings it enjoyed the affection and esteem of the French court, until the fatal turn of the French Revolution, when they then became, along with all other religious groups, the object of hatred and scorn. The anti-religious views of the new regime was proved by their proclaiming the vows taken by religious as null and void. Despite growing hostility, the nuns of Compiengne continued to live their religious life and refused to abandon their religious habit. Rumors of riots and orgies taking place in Paris continued to reach the nuns, which warned them of the growing and dire situation at hand. Officials of the newly appointed local government visited the Carmelite monastery of Compiengne with the intention of inspecting the monastery grounds and interviewing each of the nuns, while soldiers kept guard outside. The nuns were offered full freedom from the ‘so called vows’ with a suitable pension should they wish to leave the convent. They one and all refused this offer.
Realizing the gravity of this situation in which they were now in, their dynamic and discerning Prioress, Mother Teresa of St. Augustine, read the signs of the times accurately and was inspired to prepare the community for the supreme sacrifice should the need arise. They then sent in a formal document to the District Directory, stating that they wished to live and die as professed Carmelite nuns. As a community, in Easter of the year 1792, the nuns of Compiengne (numbering 21 at the time) 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.”
Hearing of the eviction of many religious from their monasteries, Mother Teresa decided to make preparations for a similar emergency. 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 their 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 14, the property was confiscated and the nuns forced to adopt secular dress.
With apartments rented in four houses, the community divided into four separate groups, where they did their best to remain faithful to the Carmelite life in the situation in which they found themselves. Secretly they were provided with a 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 offer Holy Mass for them. The Mass, more than anything else, prepared them for their personal sacrifice in union with the Crucified Savior.
In July of 1794, sixteen nuns of the Community of the Carmel of Compiegne were arrested and brought to Paris in carriages, which proved to be mere carts while the floors were covered with dirty straw. They travelled in discomfort all day and all night on the evening of July 13th which was a Sunday. In Paris the group was imprisoned in the Conciergerie, nick-named the ‘Morge,’ since no one remained there for long. One of the aged nuns of the community, 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 covered with blood. Turning to the attendants she assured then that she bore them no ill-will and would indeed pray for them. After spending two nights in the Conciergerie, on July 17th, the nuns were brought to trial and condemned to be executed a few hours later. The reason given by the judge was this: “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.” “We have now heard the true reason for our arrest and condemnation,” one nun spoke out. “It is because of our religious beliefs that we are to die. . . .”
In the interval between their condemnation and execution the nuns asked for a pail of hot water to wash their soiled clothing. They removed their civilian garb and put on their religious habits which was to give witness to their religious profession. With a roll of the drums the cart bearing the condemned nuns to execution emerged from the prison courtyard. As they awaited the guillotine, each Sister knelt before the Prioress and asked her permission to die. They kissed her scapular and a little statue of Our Lady which she held out to each one as they renewed their vows for the last time on earth. Then they began chanting the Laudate Dominun, the Salve Regina, and the Magnificat.
Each of the Sisters, one by one, beginning with the youngest willingly placed themselves on the block of the scaffold, making an offering to God of their lives on behalf of the people and in union with the Sacrifice of Jesus. 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 and kissed the statue of Our Lady as the others had done. With heroic courage she mounted the scaffold chanting the Salve Regina until her voice was silenced on earth . Then began the eternal canticle in heaven!
Within ten days of the execution of the Carmelites, many of those who had sat in judgement of them and had them condemned to death were themselves brought before a tribunal and sentenced to death. By the end of August the reign of the guillotine had come to an end. Without a doubt it was the victorious offering and martyrdom of the Carmelite nuns of Compiegne which ended this “Reign of Terror.” As Mother Teresa of St. Augustine was wont to say: “Love will always be victorious. The one who loves can do everything.” The feast of the Carmelite Martyrs of Compiegne is celebrated on July 17th, the day of their martyrdom.