#TBT The Martyrs of Compiègne

On this day (July 17) in 1794, 16 Carmelite monastic women were executed during the French Revolution’s “Reign of Terror” and became known as the The Martyrs of Compiègne.

Stained glass window in the Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Norfolk, England

The 16 Carmelites–10 sisters in solemn vows, three simply professed sisters, a novice, and two affiliates–were arrested for supposed crimes against the Republic, including trumped up charges of harboring weapons, fanaticism, and living in a religious community. The witness of these monastic women has inspired plays, novels, and operas (the latter of which–“Dialogues des carmélites–can be found on Spotify.) 

The story goes that, while the nuns were being transported to their death, they did not mourn, but instead sang hymns (the Te Deum, the Salve Reginathe Veni Creator Spiritus) and renewed their monastic profession of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Indeed, it is said that Sister Constance, who had been forbidden by civil law to profess vows and subsequently spent six years in the novitiate, professed her vows en route to her death. When the women arrived at the guillotine, they lined up each one in order and received their prioress’ blessing before ascending the steps to their martyrdom. 

“Permission to die, Mother”

“Go, my daughter!” 

Ten days following the execution of the Carmelite women, the Reign of Terror came to an end and its architect met his own death at the hands of the guillotine. A community of English Benedictines who had been imprisoned alongside the Carmelites (arrested for being foreigners in France at the time of the Revolution–does that sound familiar?) reported that the Carmelites prayed daily for an end to the death and destruction of the Revolution, willing to offer themselves as a witness for peace. 

“Blessed Carmelite Martyrs of Compiègne, killed during French Revolution” by López-Melúz brothers from “El Santo de Cada Día”

What strikes me as impressive about these women is their realization that their death was symbolic.Symbols have power. Sixteen women did not die that day. Sixteen women who had consecrated themselves to God–to a bigger picture–were executed for living in a highly countercultural fashion. These women subverted the power structures of the day by spurning marriage and childbirth, by renouncing the pleasures of the world, by rejecting the comforts many French clerics and religious enjoyed, by refusing to obey the unjust direction of their government, by asserting their right to dress in the manner of their choice, by continuing their religious observance even to the scaffolding of the guillotine. 

Mother Teresa of St. Augustine,
Mother St. Louis,
Mother Henriette of Jesus,
Sister Mary of Jesus Crucified,
Sister Charlotte of the Resurrection,
Sister Euphrasia of the Immaculate Conception,
Sister Teresa of the Sacred Heart of Mary,
Sister Julie Louise of Jesus,
Sister Teresa of St. Ignatius,
Sister Mary-Henrietta of Providence,
Sister Constance,
Sister St. Martha,
Sister Mary of the Holy Spirit,
Sister St. Francis Xavier,
Catherine and Thérèse Soiron, pray for us

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#TBT is a social media device which stands for Throwback Thursday. Folks usually post old photographs of themselves or others to celebrate the day. I’d like to start a #ForAllTheSaints version of #TBT where I post about those who have gone on to glory ahead of us. Consider this the first in a (hopefully!) long line of installments. 

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