The heroic sacrifice of the Discalced Carmelites of Compiègne
In November 1792, a small group of Discalced Carmelite nuns of Compiègne began reciting a prayer every day, offering themselves for the salvation of France. Their prayer was answered.
Flipping through the annals of history, there are moments when women religious entered into the course of human events. One case is the Carmelite Martyrs of Compiègne. Many have heard of them, but may not know that their sacrifice may have helped bring the Reign of Terror to an end.
It all began with a dream. In 1693, a 29-year-old disabled lay woman boarding in the Carmel of Compiègne dreamt of Jesus escorted by His mother, St Teresa of Avila, and two other Carmelites connected with the monastery. After receiving personal instructions about her own vocation, she then beheld a vision in which a number of Carmelites were being chosen “to follow the Lamb”.
Fast forward to 1786. Mother Teresa of St. Augustine, newly-elected prioress of the same monastery, found an account of this vision Sr Elisabeth Baptiste had received prior to taking her vows as a Carmelite. Mother Teresa sensed the dream was a prophecy regarding her own community.
Defiance in the face of Terror
A few years later, France was plunged into the French Revolution, then the Reign of Terror. In February 1790, the provisional suspension of religious vows was definitively ratified.
On August 4, the Carmelite community’s possessions were inventoried. A day later, each of the nuns was interviewed and given the chance to renounce her vows. To the chagrin of the Revolutionary Directors assigned with the task, every single nun expressed her firm conviction to remain faithful to her vows until death.
On Easter 1792, two days after the wearing of the religious habit became illegal on April 6, the dream was shared with other members of the community. Things then began to move quickly. By August, all women’s monasteries were ordered closed and evacuated; the sequestering of their goods soon followed.
The 20 Carmelites of Compiègne evacuated their monastery on September 14, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. Through the help of friends, they found shelter in four different locations and were able to acquire one set of civilian clothing. They could not afford to purchase a change of clothing, and their request for funds from the government to do so went unanswered.
Prayer for the salvation of France
Not too long after, Mother Teresa of St Augustine shared with the four oldest choir sisters with whom she lived a proposal to invite the entire community to offer their lives for the salvation of France, in imitation of St Teresa of Avila who reformed Carmel for that express intention. She understandably met with immediate resistance. After all, who in their right mind would voluntarily submit themselves to instant decapitation by the newly inaugurated guillotine?
Remarkably, however, within the space of a few hours, the two senior nuns begged their Prioress’ forgiveness for their lack of courage. This opened the way for Mother Teresa to propose an act of self-offering to the other members of the community.
As of November 27, each nun daily recited an act of self-offering for the salvation of France written by the prioress. Eventually, an intention was added for the release of those who had been arrested and that fewer people would be guillotined.
Life of consecration
On June 21, 1794, soldiers searched the nuns’ living quarters. The next day, they were arrested on evidence that turned up during the search that was used as proof that they continued to live a life of consecration, and that their sympathies lay with the monarchy. The now 16-member Carmelite community found themselves imprisoned in a former Visitation convent along with 17 English Benedictines.
On July 12, as their only sets of civilian clothes were soaking, the mayor of Compiégne, accompanied by soldiers, burst into the convent, completely surprised to see them dressed in their habits. But their departure to Paris to undergo trial could not be delayed.
On July 17 the 16 Carmelite nuns, along with 24 other prisoners, were found guilty of being “enemies of the People”, among other charges, and sentenced to death. Each of the nuns now prepared themselves for the fulfilment of the prophetic dream. They would soon be following the Lamb.
Sacrifice and end to Reign of Terror
That same evening, the nuns’ voices singing the Divine Office floated through the streets of Paris as they were paraded toward the executioner’s block.
The executioner also allowed the nuns to complete the prayers for the dying, which included the singing of the Te Deum. After the subsequent singing of the Veni Creator Spiritus, and the renewal of their vows, the nuns went one by one to the scaffold, received a final blessing from their Prioress, kissed a statuette of Our Lady, and followed the sacrificial Lamb.
Ten days later, Robespierre was arrested and executed the next day, leaving little doubt that the Lord accepted their act of sacrificial offering of their lives.
The Martyrs of Compiègne were beatified by Pope Pius X in 1909. A process for equipollent canonization is currently under way.
Sr Bernadette Mary Reis