Today, three days after Bastille Day, is the feast day of the Martyrs of Compiegne. Here is a piece by Stephanie Mann that tells their story:
Their trial, held in a courtroom crowded with other defendants, was quick. Accused of hiding arms for counter-revolutionary forces, the Prioress held up a crucifix, proclaiming it contained the only arms they had ever kept. Authorities had found an altar cloth decorated with a fleur-de-lis, so they were accused of supporting Louis XVI and the monarchy. One of the nuns answered that “If that is a crime, we are all guilty of it; you can never tear out of our hearts the attachment for Louis XVI and his family. Your laws cannot prohibit feeling; they cannot extend their empire to the affections of the soul; God alone has the right to judge them.”
Finally, one of the nuns asked the judge, Fouquier-Tinville, what he meant when he charged them with “fanaticism.” He replied, “I mean your attachment to your childish beliefs and your silly religious practices.” The Carmelites rejoiced that they could be found guilty of being true Catholics.
Their conduct at the guillotine, which had been moved from what is now Place de la Concorde to what is now Place de la Nation (too much blood had accumulated on the former site) is the stuff of legend—and of operatic drama (Poulenc’s “Dialogues of the Carmelites”, based on a play by George Bernanos, based on a novel by Gertrude von Le Fort). Loaded into the tumbrel and driven through the streets of Paris, they chanted the “Miserere”, the “Salve Regina”, the “Te Deum”. Even the most hardened atheistic Revolutionary would have recognized these chants of the Church. When they arrived at the Place de la Nation, they sang the “Veni, Creator Spiritus”, invoking the Holy Spirit.
Each of the Choir nuns paused at the foot of the scaffold and renewed their vows to the Prioress, Mother Teresa of St. Augustine, as they began to chant “Laudate Dominum omnes gentes”. They each kissed a small statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary and mounted the scaffold starting with the youngest, Sister Constance, who made her final vows just before she died:
Mother Teresa of St. Augustine
Mother St. Louis, sub-prioress
Mother Henriette of Jesus, ex-prioress
Sister Mary of Jesus Crucified
Sister Charlotte of the Resurrection, ex-sub-prioress and sacristan
Sister Euphrasia of the Immaculate Conception
Sister Teresa of the Sacred Heart of Mary
Sister Julie Louise of Jesus, widow
Sister Teresa of St. Ignatius
Sister Mary-Henrietta of Providence
Sister Constance, novice
Three lay sisters, who had helped the choir nuns with chores and hospitality and two externs, who had been the nuns’ contacts with the outside world, also suffered martyrdom:
Sister St. Martha
Sister Mary of the Holy Spirit
Sister St. Francis Xavier
The chant ended when the Prioress was guillotined. Their bodies were loaded into a cart and hauled off to the Picpus Cemetery, where they were dumped into a mass grave.
It wouldn’t hurt to embed Poulenc’s finale once again: