Saturday, July 17, 2010

Saint of the Day - The Carmelite Martyrs of Compiegne

While France reeled in the throws of the revolution a group of 16 Carmelite nuns continued their prayerful lives in the cloister.

On October 29, 1789 the sisters were directly affected for the first time by the revolution when the government decreed that the profession of vows for all religious orders was to be suspended. The prioress of the Carmelites - Mother Therese of St. Augustine - was distressed with this order because it prevented their sole novice, Sr. Constance, from making her final profession of vows. Sr. Constance was no stranger to objections to her vocation. As Mother Therese wrote "Sr. Constance remains always a novice here. Troubles have not been lacking on the side of her family: now they do not want her letters anymore or to hear her spoken of. The Lord permits this to be assured of her fidelity, and she accounts herself happy if they leave her in peace as at present. She hopes that the good God will at last touch their hearts and that they will look on her perseverance without sorrow."

The government's next attack on the Church came in the Civil Constitution on the Clergy which, among other things, ordered the suppresion of all religious orders and the "liberation" of any monks or nuns who should wish to renounce their vows. Government officials arrived at the monastery at Compiegne on August 15, 1790 to offer the sisters their "freedom." The sisters unanimously declared that they had no intention of renouncing their vows. Some of the sisters were rather more forceful. Sister of Jesus Crucified declared "For fifty-six years I have been a Carmelite. I desire to have the same number of years more to be consecrated to the Lord." Sister Euphrasie stated "I became a religious by my own will. I have made up my mind to go on wearing this habit, even if I have to purchase this joy with my own blood." Sister Saint Francis Xavier displayed her love of the Lord when she stated "A good spouse desires to remain with her husband. I do not wish to abandon my spouse." Sister Therese of the Heart of Mary finished "If I will be able to double the bonds of my attachment to God, then, with all my strength and zeal, I will do so."

The infamous guillotine was erected in Paris two weeks after Easter in 1792. At this time Mother Therese instructed her sisters to offer everything they could for an end to the massacres; in her own words "in order that the Divine peace which Christ has brought to the world may be restored to the Church and to the State."

The government continued in its persecution of the Church with a decree that all religious orders must take the Oath of Liberte-Egalite and, three days later, that all monasteries must be vacated. On September 14, 1792 the Carmelites of Compiegne took on secular clothing and divided into four groups to live inconspicuously in the town. For two years the Sisters struggled to maintain their religious life in the world outside the cloister.

In the summer of 1793 Maximilien Robespierre and his Jacobin henchmen attained power and instituted the infamous Reign of Terror which led thousands of French citizens, many of whom were clergy and religious, to the guillotine.

Sister Marie and Mother Therese were obliged to go to Paris in March 1794 for family reasons. While walking down the street the sisters were confronted with the sight of tumbrils carrying victims to the guillotine. Sister Marie attempted to avert Mother Therese' gaze but she told her sister "allow me the sad consolation of seeing how martyrs go to their death."

Upon the return of Mother Therese to Compiegne she received the report from her sisters that all four of their houses had been searched by the Committee for Revolutionary Surveillance and all their papers and food had been seized.

Shortly after the sisters were arrested. Their names were as follows: Mother Therese of St. Augustine, Prioress; Mother St. Louis, sub-prioress; Mother Henriette of Jesus, novice mistress; Sr. Charlotte of the Resurrection, the oldest of the sisters; Sr. of Jesus Crucified; Sr. Therese of the Heart of Mary; Sr. Therese of St. Ignatius; Sr. Julie-Louise of Jesus; Sr. Marie-Henriette of Providence; Sr. Euphrasie of the Immaculate Conception; Sr. Marie of the Holy Spirit, lay sister; Sr. St. Martha, lay sister; Sr. St. Francis Xavier, lay sister; and Sr. Constance, novice and youngest of the sisters. Also arrested with the sisters were two women, blood sisters, who served the community, Anne-Catherine Soiron and Therese Soiron. On the day of their arrest Anne-Catherine begged Mother Therese not to allow herself and her sister to be separated from the Carmelites.

On June 23 the sisters entered their first imprisonement in the Maison de Reclusion where they remained for three weeks with little and sickening food. The Revolutionary Committee of Compiegne arrived to transfer the Sisters to the dreaded Conciergerie in Paris while the sisters were doing their wash on July 12. Having no dry clothes but their religious habits the sisters once again donned their habits and proceeded to their trial as brides to the altar.

The sisters awaited their trial in prayer and works of charity, ministering to the other prisoners, especially the sick.

On July 17 at 9:00 a.m. the sisters were led before three judges and the infamous Antoine Fouquiere-Tinville. He read the Act of Accusation which included the accusation of "fanatical puerility." When Sr. Marie-Henriette asked Fouquier-Tinville to explain this phrase he responded "What I mean is your attachment to your childish beliefs, your stupid religious practices." She then turned to her sisters, proclaiming "My dear Mother and sisters, let us rejoice in the Lord for this. We are going to die for the cause of our holy religion, our faith, our reliance in the holy Roman Catholic Church."

Mother Therese offered to the judges that she herself was responsible for any misconduct of the sisters and that, if they desired a victim, she alone was it. The judges replied that her sisters were accomplices and sentenced all sixteen to the guillotine.

The sisters were summoned that evening while praying the Office for the Dead. Clothed in their religious habits, though their veils had been cut short so as not to interfere with the guillotine's work, the sisters boarded the tumbril carts which would take them to their deaths. While on their journey, disguised priests granted them absolution, as the sisters renewed their baptismal and religious vows and Sister Constance at last made her final profession of vows. The jeers of the crowds subsided as the sisters' chanted prayers rang out.

Mother Therese was informed that she would go last to the guillotine so that she must watch her sisters die. The nuns were called by their given names from youngest to oldest, beginning with Sister Constance.

The young sister had been in a panic moments before because she had been unable to finish the divine office. Mother Therese said to her "Be strong daughter. You will finish it in Paradise!" She now advanced with the strength of knowing that she would die as a professed Carmelite. Sister Constance knelt before Mother Therese and received her superior's blessing. Mother then offered a clay statue of the Virgin and Child for Sister Constance to kiss. The new Carmelite looked up at her mother superior and asked "Permission to die, Mother?" to which Mother Therese replied "Go, my daughter!" As she ascended the scaffold Sister Constance began to intone the psalm Laudate Dominum omnes gentes which St. Teresa of Avila had sung 190 years before "at the foundation of a new Carmel." The song was taken up by all the sisters.

Each sister knelt before Mother Therese to receive her blessing, kiss the image of Virgin and Child, and ask permission to die, while the chorus continued. Sister of Jesus Crucified informed the executioner and his assistants that "I forgive you with all my heart, as I desire forgiveness from God."

Mother Therese mounted the scaffold last, still intoning the psalm which ended abruptly at the fall of the guillotine's blade. The sisters were interred in a mass grave with other of the guillotine's victims.

These were the last executions to take place save those of Maximilien Robespierre and Antoine Fouquiere-Tinville who were guillotined ten days after the sisters, thereby ending the Reign of Terror. The sisters made every sacrifice, culminating in that of their lives, for an end to the violence of the revolution.

The decree on their martyrdom was promulgated on June 24, 1905 and they were beatified by Pope Pius X on May 17, 1906. Their canonization is still pending.

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