Restaurants, taxis and buses ring around the Place de la Nation and its statue depicting Marianne, the symbol of the Republic, while locals walk their dogs in the park. But here, in the last hot summer of the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror, on July 17, 1794, 14 nuns, three lay sisters and two servants of the Carmelite house of Compiègne died for their Catholic faith.
What brought them to such a bloody end beneath the blade of the guillotine the day after the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel?
The answer might be surprising if we presume the ideals of liberty, fraternity and equality truly summarize the spirit of the French Revolution. After the fall of the traditional, absolute monarchy and the rise of the National Assembly with a constitutional monarchy in 1789, the state attacked the Catholic Church, confiscating churches and closing convents.
Descent into Tyranny
The leaders of the National Assembly decided that cloistered religious, dedicated to prayer and silence, contributed nothing to the common good. Therefore they abolished monastic vows and dissolved the monasteries.
Priests and active religious became employees of the state. The Civil Constitution of the Clergy in 1790 intensified the crisis for the Catholic clergy. It required an oath of loyalty that conflicted with loyalty to the pope and the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. Nonjuring priests (those who would not take the oath) were exiled, imprisoned and executed as traitors. The revolutionary leaders campaigned to de-Christianize France, abolishing holy days and even the observance of Sunday as a day of rest and worship.
After the fall of the constitutional monarchy and the execution of King Louis XVI in 1792, Maximilien Robespierre created rituals to honor the Cult of the Supreme Being even as he led the Committee of Public Safety and the Reign of Terror from 1793 to 1794 — dedicated to eliminating enemies of the Republic.
The Carmelite nuns of Compiègne were just such enemies, although all they wished to do was remain true to their vows to pray, live and work together in a cloistered community. In Robespierre’s view, these nuns were counterrevolutionaries.
Compiègne is a town north of Paris with many other historical connections: St. Joan of Arc was captured there in the 15th century and two armistice agreements were signed in the Forest of Compiègne in the 20th century: the surrender of Germany in 1918 and the surrender of France in 1940. In the 17th and 18th centuries the French royal family visited their chateau in Compiègne often, and they supported the Carmelites of Compiègne, who were from poor and middle-class families.
After abolishing religious vows, officials visited the Carmelite convent at Compiègne. They offered freedom and financial rewards to those who wanted to leave the order, but none accepted their offer. Instead, the prioress, Sister Teresa of St. Augustine, led the others in an act of consecration, a vow of martyrdom.
They were thrown out of their cloister on Sept. 14, the feast of the Triumph of the Cross, in 1792. In quiet defiance they continued to live in small groups observing their usual schedule of prayer.
When revolutionary officials visited one of their new “convents” in Compiègne, they found a portrait of King Louis XVI and a prayer to the Sacred Heart of Jesus for the king.
Along with their so-called subversive cloistered religious life, this evidence was enough to arrest them.
Sixteen members of their community were taken to Paris for trial in June 1794. They shared their detention with a group of Benedictine nuns from Cambrai, from a house established for English religious exiles (King Henry VIII had suppressed English monasticism in the 16th century; it would not be fully re-established until the 19th century).
While awaiting trial the nuns were forbidden to wear their habits. But because they washed their civilian clothes just before their trial on July 17, the Carmelites appeared in court wearing their habits. The outcome of the trial was certain, and so the nuns would also die in their habits.
Like so many of the trials during the Reign of Terror, the proceedings were unfair and the nuns endured mockery of their vocation before being sentenced to death that very day.
Their deaths were orderly, calm and holy. Each Carmelite paused before their prioress and asked permission to fulfill her vow.
They sang together, chanting the Salve Regina, the Te Deum and Veni, Sancte Spiritus on their way to the guillotine, and then intoned the psalm Laudate Dominum, omnes gentes (“Praise the Lord, all peoples”); each stroke of the guillotine silenced another voice until at last the prioress walked up the steps to die. The usually cheering mob was unusually silent.
Place du Trône Renversé
Until June 8, 1794, the guillotine had stood at what is today Place de la Concorde. Because Robespierre planned a deistic celebration of the Cult of the Supreme Being on what should have been Pentecost Sunday, and the stench of blood along the procession route would have interfered with the solemnity of the occasion, it had been moved to Place du Trône Renversé (the throne turned upside down).
The square had been the royal Place du Trône at the end of a grand entry from the east, along which the kings and queens of France had passed between two grand columns, topped by statues of the great crusading kings, St. Louis and Philippe-August.
The place’s name had been changed after the execution of Louis XVI.
In six weeks, 1,306 “enemies of the state” were decapitated there before the Terror ended. A place of understandable horror, it was renamed Place de la Nation in 1880.
Within 10 days of the Carmelites’ martyrdom, Robespierre and the members of the Committee of Public Safety were executed at the same site. The English Benedictines of Cambrai, safely home at Stanbrook Abbey, recalled their former cellmates.
The Benedictines had been released wearing the Carmelite’s civilian clothing, and they regarded the clothes as relics of the martyrs. They ascribed the end of the Reign of Terror to the martyrdom of the Carmelites, who were beatified in 1906 by Pope St. Pius X.
For pilgrims seeking to walk the path of the Carmelites, after leaving the whirl of the Place de la Nation, they should walk to Cimitière de Picpus where the Carmelites are buried in one of the two mass graves behind the wall next to the family tombs. The opening hours are limited, the entrance fee is only two euros, and it is far off the tourist track.
But it is peaceful and apart, perfect for a traveler who wants to be a pilgrim in Paris, contemplating the mystery and the glory of martyrdom. TCA