Tue 30th Sep 2014 | Last updated: Tue 30th Sep 2014 at 11:38am

Facebook Logo Twitter Logo RSS Logo
Hot Topics

Comment & Blogs

Why on earth did French revolutionaries persecute and murder enclosed nuns?

The fine parish church of St Jacques in Compiègne has a side chapel dedicated to 16 Carmelites martyred in the Revolution

By on Friday, 7 October 2011

The Château de Compiègne

The Château de Compiègne

I mentioned earlier this week a second French holy place that might interest readers: Compiègne. The town is only 40 minutes by fast and frequent train from Paris, and what drew me there was the famous chateau, a place beloved of Louis XV, who hunted in the nearby forest, as well as Marie Antoinette; and also a favourite place of resort for members of the Fourth Dynasty to rule France. Napoleon was fond of Compiègne and spent time there, and so did the Empress Marie Louise, some of whose furniture is still in situ. Compiègne was also the scene of the house and shooting parties of Emperor Napoleon III and the Empress Eugenie, where the great and good of the Second Empire gathered. The chateau is beautiful and more restrained than Versailles and the park, laid out in the English style, extremely attractive; it was a pity that the museum of the Second Empire was shut, as were the apartments of the Prince Imperial and those of the King of Rome – all because of lack of staff, I was told.

By chance I had time to spend in the pleasant town itself, and was pleased to discover a very fine parish church, St Jacques. The church contains several interesting features: a memorial to Joan of Arc, who was arrested in Compiègne; and altar rails that once surrounded the royal bed in the chateau – the gift of Louis XVIII: having once guarded the bed of Louis XVI, they are relics of a martyr. And at the back of the church there was a side chapel dedicated to the Blessed Carmelite Martyrs of Compiègne. You can read a full account of their martyrdom here.

The 16 Blessed martyrs were victims of the French Revolution, and the first such victims to be beatified. That the revolutionary government of France took such trouble over them is quite incredible. Remember, these were enclosed nuns, so they could have been safely ignored, as they were pretty much unseen. But no, the revolutionaries simply could not leave them alone. First they harassed them, and declared that their vows were not binding (though why secularists should have an opinion, yet alone legislate, on the validity of religious vows is beyond me). Then, when the nuns refused to disperse voluntarily, they confiscated their priory and turned them out on to the street. The nuns went into lodgings, and adopted lay dress, as the law dictated, but continued to live a life of prayer, and continued to worship in the parish church. Finally, they were arrested, imprisoned, taken to Paris, condemned by the revolutionary tribunal, and guillotined. They wore religious dress for their execution. They were among the last victims of the Terror: within a few weeks Robespierre himself had been overthrown and guillotined.

But why on earth did the Revolution consider them worth persecuting? Their martyrdom exposes the supposed secularism of the French Revolution as a mere mask for rabid anti-clericalism. Anti-clericalism has a long track record of hatred for nuns, particularly enclosed nuns. Many were the convents attacked and destroyed in Spain at the start of the Civil War. There too Carmelites were martyred. I wonder why this should be.

The Blessed Martyrs of Compiègne are very well known in France, and are even the subject of an opera by Poulenc, the last scene of which admirably conveys the glory of martyrdom. These Blessed Sisters went to their deaths praying for peace in the Church and peace in the state. Let us hope we will continue have both, and much less of the ugly anti-clericalism that killed them.

  • http://www.benedictinenuns.org.uk Digitalnun

    Perhaps a cloistered Benedictine may comment (especially as I have links with the English Benedictine community which shared the Compiègne Carmelites’ prison and one of my kinswomen, D. Anselma Anne, actually died during her imprisonment; so I am familiar with the story, and a very wonderful story it is, too.). Nuns are not clerical and have very little obvious power as the world reckons it. The Carmelites of Compiègne were well-connected socially but their refusal to conform to the demands of the Revolutionaries to abjure Christ pitted their religious strength against mere physical might. Whenever there are political revolutions that turn on the churches as symbols of oppression and injustice, the nuns tend to be treated harshly. We know what we believe and have nothing to lose. We are really free people, and no dictatorship, whether of an individual or of “the people” can tolerate that. That said, I hope I’d be as brave if I were faced with the same thing.

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    Thanks for that lovely comment, Sister!

  • thomasc

    I think it’s because they are a clear symbol of Christianity not merely being a rival ideology and also of it’s being something a reasonable person might give their whole life to.   Bishops can be presented as great lords; priests as people chasing power in their communities.  But contemplatives are a real challenge to that way of looking at religion – they suggest a radically different understanding of what human life might be about to that the revolutionaries would be preaching, and a very subversive one. 

    I met some Czech nuns whose community was permitted to continue after being dispersed – after the authorities spent years trying to stop the nuns living together or dressing like religious, they gave up and let them run homes for the mentally disabled in rural locations.  The Czech government was less fanatical or bloodthirsty than the radicals in France or Mexico – but they saw the same threat.  They didn’t mind the nuns continuing to exist, as long as ordinary people couldn’t see them, because seeing them (or knowing people who had become them) challenged the story that they wanted to tell about religion.

  • Brian A. Cook

    By no means do I want to excuse the extermination of clergy and religious. On the contrary, I abhor it.  I simply wish to try to put it in context.  The Church was strongly associated, whether rightly or wrongly, with a deeply backward regime that failed to promote freedom and dignity for the people.  Even long after the Revolution, anti-liberal Catholics who pined for the old regime piled on a Jewish captain falsely convicted of treason. 

  • Brian A. Cook

    By no means do I want to excuse the extermination of clergy and religious. On the contrary, I abhor it.  I simply wish to try to put it in context.  The Church was strongly associated, whether rightly or wrongly, with a deeply backward regime that failed to promote freedom and dignity for the people.  Even long after the Revolution, anti-liberal Catholics who pined for the old regime piled on a Jewish captain falsely convicted of treason. 

  • http://valleadurni.blogspot.com Pastor in Valle

    One of the most extraordinary jobs I had to do when archivist of my diocese was to transfer the wimples of the sisters of Compiégne from one reliquary to another, and authenticate and seal them. They had been in the Carmel at Chichester, which was closing, and the wimples were being sent to the current Carmel at Compiégne as a gift. These were the very wimples that they had removed to ascend the scaffold.

  • Parasum

    “Why on earth did French revolutionaries persecute and murder enclosed nuns?”

    What Digitalnun said.

    Because they were in the way. Just as God is always in the way of human megalomania and pride. Since God is not available to be murdered, people have to make do with murdering his followers. The French Revolution, and the revolution of 1917, and the Nazi Reich, (a clear case of the “kingdom” of a pseudo-Messiah), all come from the same impulse, objectively even if not subjectively; so they all end in the same brutal way. Which makes it possible to tell how movements of a similar kind will end. The EU is shaping up to become another of the same. Those who hate God, are not going to love their fellow-man. The countless victims of Stalin and Mao were in the way – so they too were “liquidated”. A murderous & profoundly anti-human ideology does not require any legal reason for proceeding against its victims – that they exist is reason enough to kill them. That is their crime. The crimes of the previous regime were mostly a pretext; if they had been the reason for the Revolution, the revolutionaries would not have “persecute[d] and murder[ed] enclosed nuns”, nor would the Revolution have begun to eat its own children.  What is the good in being incorruptible, or kind to animals, if one is brutal to human beings ? 

  • Sdlukac

    thomasc: you should read a little book called “The Deliverance of Sister Cecilia”, which describes the savage way the Czechoslovak communist authorities treated nuns, priests and ordinary Catholics.   I have the book in an American paperback and it’s falling apart, but it reads like a thriller.   It was published in the Fifties in the US. 

  • Anonymous

    The martyrdom of the Carmelite nuns at  Compiègne was not a resigned acceptance of the triumph of evil but rather a counter-cultural sign of the resistance of the “Spirit” to worldly compromise which would ultimately mean the denial of the reality of Jesus Christ.  Many other murderous regimes used the same tactics to try to encourage both religious and laypeople to disavow their Faith in Christ but to no avail.   We have only to think of the fate of millions of Catholics and their fellow Christians of other Churches and denominations whom the atheist communists tried to lure by threats and deceitful promises in the Eastern block countries during the days of the old Soviet Union and it’s satellite states  Members of the contemplative orders have a special charism as their spirituality is both of this world but simultaneously points way beyond it.  Thus they cannot easily be distracted by the blandishments of earthly powers and this reality is exemplified by the dignified, peaceful reisistance of the Compiègne nuns to their captors.

  • AgingPapist

    Martyring nuns and priests does nothing to destroy the Catholic Church. In fact, martyrdom does for the Church  what fertilizer does for a flower garden.  The clergy will destroy the Church.   We’ve seen this happening for some years now.  Not a shot will have to be fired.  No guillotines will have to fall.

  • Anonymous

    What an extraordinary claim about the EU!  Presumably @Parasum is claiming that the central institutions of the EU are shaping up in a particular way rather than the 27 member states which have transferred a very few of their powers to be exercised in a certain way by the central institutions the most important of which, the Council, is composed of an appropriate minister from each of them.  Where, in all this complicated and difficult structure is the pseudo-messiah?  Surely not poor old Van Rompuy, a staunch catholic.  What is the point of weakening an otherwise tenable argument about radical revolutionaries with personal political fantasies?

  • Anonymous

    Father, Why on earth did the Church murder Giordano Bruno?  Oh, I forgot, he was a heretic…..

  • Honeybadger

    On your bike!

  • Oconnordamien

    Better question is why are christians still being killed? That article is thankfully now history. What about now?

    Do you have to take a religious  order for your murder to be scandalous? Today christians are being killed for no reason other than freedom of thought. They believe in christ, I don’t, but why are you quiet  while I am fuming?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Adrian-Johnson/100002117620278 Adrian Johnson

    I read this book too,  It is all that you say.  

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Adrian-Johnson/100002117620278 Adrian Johnson

    I am an American knowledgable in history, who now lives in the UK. I am one of the few who has actually read the Libson Treaty, and I see first hand how the European Union is “Fascism lite” which is playing along game to dissolve all national soverigntys –why else does its laws trump English law wherenever there is a conflict with EU law, always to the detriment of the English land and people?  The 27 nations whose leaders shanghaied them into what started as a “trading bloc” did not (with only three exceptions) permit a referendum to ask if when the “Commerce bloc” turned into “the United States of Europe” the people wanted to give away national soverignty?  And for good reason.  The British want out, and their “management” (elected officials) know if.  “Government” resides in Brussels; which has established a “Diplomatic Corps” and is pushing for a STANDING ARMY.  Why, when they have NATO?  I suspect, as many others do, it will be to suppress a populace who does not want “Fascism lite”.  And Mr Rompuy may say he is a Catholic, but he does not vote like one–. He has stealthily tried to expand his powers as president at the price of still more national soverignty of member nations, however he has been temporarily stymied.  But he and his “good grey”  successors will keep trying.   The EU  “Human Rights” legislation is in fact anti-Christian and anti-Catholic, and freedom of non PC speech and religion is legally actionable –Catholic doctors and pharmicists no longer have freedom of conscience to refuse to cooperate in abortions or abortificiants–and are losing their jobs in consequence.  If you lived here, you would be aghast at the erosion of real religous freedom. and the brainwashing of children in the state schools to accept this.  Next generation will be mostly “Sheeple” who do not realize how much of their authentic –as opposed to “touristic” culture they have lost.  In the states I (typical American!) found it hard to believe all this–now I live here, I am horrified at the reality.  

  • Anonymous

    I can see where you are coming from and would suggest you look carefully at which is the more appropriate system of thought to describe as fascist, the world of the idiotic right of the US or the voluntary association of the EU.  Rule by referendum is a very new and potentially dangerous introduction into our constitution and hardly seems suitable in an issue where, as you say, almost no one has read the Lisbon treaty or indeed any of its precursors and therefore are bound to rely on politicians.   While it is true that regulations and directives which are agreed to by a qualified majority of the Member States and often by the European Parliament trump the laws of all the Member States  that does not remotely resemble fascism at all.  However eccentric views you have of the European Convention of Human Rights or the European Unions’ declaration neither of which are directly effective law in the member states it is hard to see them as crypto fascist or fascist lite.  I am sorry to reply to a fantasist in that it may make your views seem less off the wall but it is wholly wrong to peddle such nonsense in a catholic forum.

  • Guest

    What utter bitterness and negativism you display. Please reconcile yourself with the Church, and so with Christ.

  • Lindsay

    haha … and they’ve been saying that since the beginning.
    But keep saying it, it makes for humorous reading. I just read a hilarious book
    written near the turn of the last century, casting an almost-nostalgic glance
    over the illustrious and sometimes brutal history of an institution the author is
    sure had already faded into oblivion.

  • Christina

    Personally, I believe that the French revolutionaries were strongly pushed by the devil to destroy
    the Church’s strength [France always having been "the elder daughter of the Church" - and
    to think Our Lady appeared so many times in France. Not just at Lourdes and the rue du Bac
    Miraculous Apparitions, but the lesser known ones at Laus]

    Perhaps the singling out of Carmelites reveals how that order is very pleasing to God,
    and all REAL contemplatives in general are doing hidden but important work for Him.

    So the devil inspired the revolutionaries to attack them.

  • Christina

    Personally, I believe that the French revolutionaries were strongly pushed by the devil to destroy
    the Church’s strength [France always having been "the elder daughter of the Church" - and
    to think Our Lady appeared so many times in France. Not just at Lourdes and the rue du Bac
    Miraculous Apparitions, but the lesser known ones at Laus]

    Perhaps the singling out of Carmelites reveals how that order is very pleasing to God,
    and all REAL contemplatives in general are doing hidden but important work for Him.

    So the devil inspired the revolutionaries to attack them.

  • Christina

    Personally, I believe that the French revolutionaries were strongly pushed by the devil to destroy
    the Church’s strength [France always having been "the elder daughter of the Church" - and
    to think Our Lady appeared so many times in France. Not just at Lourdes and the rue du Bac
    Miraculous Apparitions, but the lesser known ones at Laus]

    Perhaps the singling out of Carmelites reveals how that order is very pleasing to God,
    and all REAL contemplatives in general are doing hidden but important work for Him.

    So the devil inspired the revolutionaries to attack them.

  • Christina

    Personally, I believe that the French revolutionaries were strongly pushed by the devil to destroy
    the Church’s strength [France always having been "the elder daughter of the Church" - and
    to think Our Lady appeared so many times in France. Not just at Lourdes and the rue du Bac
    Miraculous Apparitions, but the lesser known ones at Laus]

    Perhaps the singling out of Carmelites reveals how that order is very pleasing to God,
    and all REAL contemplatives in general are doing hidden but important work for Him.

    So the devil inspired the revolutionaries to attack them.

  • Christina

    Personally, I believe that the French revolutionaries were strongly pushed by the devil to destroy
    the Church’s strength [France always having been "the elder daughter of the Church" - and
    to think Our Lady appeared so many times in France. Not just at Lourdes and the rue du Bac
    Miraculous Apparitions, but the lesser known ones at Laus]

    Perhaps the singling out of Carmelites reveals how that order is very pleasing to God,
    and all REAL contemplatives in general are doing hidden but important work for Him.

    So the devil inspired the revolutionaries to attack them.

  • Christina

    Personally, I believe that the French revolutionaries were strongly pushed by the devil to destroy
    the Church’s strength [France always having been "the elder daughter of the Church" - and
    to think Our Lady appeared so many times in France. Not just at Lourdes and the rue du Bac
    Miraculous Apparitions, but the lesser known ones at Laus]

    Perhaps the singling out of Carmelites reveals how that order is very pleasing to God,
    and all REAL contemplatives in general are doing hidden but important work for Him.

    So the devil inspired the revolutionaries to attack them.

  • Christina

    As far the Musee de la Seconde Empire, one has to call and make arrangements in advance
    for a tour given specially by a director. This used to be Francoise Maison – you could check to
    see if she is still there.

    It is free, and SO enriching to see, if one is interested in this epoch.
    By the way, the famous Winterhalter painting of Empress Eugenie with her ladies in waiting
    is in these rooms.

    I still love to look back at all the pictures I took in the many apartments comprising the Musee.
    So much is there: even the very saddle of which the girth strap broke in South Africa in June 1879,
    sending the Prince Imperial to his sad and untimely demise at the hands of Zulus.

  • Gail Finke

    Pleased to meet you, Martin Luther!

  • Paolo

    Mussolini, an
    Italian politician, was also something of a philosopher:” Everything I
    have said and done in these last years is relativism by intuition…If
    relativism signifies contempt for fixed categories and men who claim to be the
    bearers of an objective, immortal truth…then there is nothing more
    relativistic than fascistic attitudes and activity…From the fact that all
    ideologies are of equal value, that all ideologies are mere fictions, the
    modern relativist infers that everybody has the right to create for himself his
    own ideology and to attempt to enforce it with all the energy of which he is
    capable.” (Diuturna, 1924, pages 374 and next ones).

    Moral
    relativism, or positivism, is now the official philosophy of all Western
    countries, except Malta, Ireland, Poland, Liechtenstein, Hungary: e.g., in
    Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the American Supreme Court explicitly repudiated
    the appeal to a natural moral law. Are human babies human? Nobody can know.
    This premise can justify any immoral conclusion.

    Almost the whole
    of Western philosophy, since the “Enlightenment”- thought I would
    call it rather “Endarkenment”- has been an attack on reason- in the sound
    widening score – in a dozen different ways, and exalted authority of ideology,
    or politics, or feelings, or power, or pragmatism, or positivism, or
    Deconstructionism, or Marxism, or Freudianism, or Romanticism, or
    Existentialism – as said Peter Kreeft, a current intellectual warrior American
    saint.

    But relativism
    doesn’t begins on earth. The first relativist was not a man (or a woman), but
    the Devil.

    Listen to his
    philosophy:” I prefer to be the first, either sad, than being in the
    second place but joyful” (Praefero misere
    praeesse quam feliciter subesse- St.Bernard of Clairvaux). So, listen what he said to our
    ancestors:” Did God say there is such a moral standard?…Good and evil
    are relative, you see.”

    How successful
    has been, in our Courts, Parliaments, media, mind molders, Devil’s advertising!

    If  absolutism is divine, has no history, and is
    natural, being from the beginning, on the other hand, Protagora, Machiavelli,
    De Sade, French, October Revolution, Nazi, Stalin and all our soft western
    politically correct moral relativists 
    say:” reason – our human positive willing – is the measure of all
    things, instead of the contrary” (Res
    non sunt mensura rationis, sed potius e converso).

    So Devil, and
    his partners, have a particular sagaciousness in finding people who knows the
    Beauty, the Truth and the eternal Goodness and, when they want to build their
    political Tower of Babel, their ideology, they start with genocide of all who
    stay in the God’s light side, e.g. contemplatives and newborn.

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

  • http://www.ghpoetryplace.blogspot.com/ Maria Horvath

    Father Lucie-Smith,

    Is there a book in English you would recommend that tells the story of these brave and holy women?

    Maria Horvath

  • Marion (Mael Muire)

    ‘The Church was strongly associated . . . with a deeply backward regime that
    failed to promote freedom and dignity for the people.”

     

    That answer left me puzzled in its incompleteness. I will share the way in which I have finished that thought: “‘The Church was strongly associated . . . with
    a deeply backward regime that failed to promote freedom and dignity for the
    people, and so to remedy this situation, the Revolutionaries’ approach was to round
    up defenseless women who carefully kept to themselves and who had spent their lives praying and
    assisting the poor. And butchered them.”

     

    Now, that I re-read it, my sentences seem incomplete, as well.

  • Marion (Mael Muire)

    P.S. It has now struck me what these sentences need to complete them: A series of “WTF?s” followed by several exclamation points. !

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Adrian-Johnson/100002117620278 Adrian Johnson

    It is “just such nonsense” gradually conditioning society and the zeitgeist to approve “white” martyrdom of Catholics who resist “group-think”–by way unjust laws enforced by lawsuit, fines, confiscation of property, and eventual destitution.  Wait and see. 

  • Brighteducation

    The UK is in a very sad state now, a not properly elected regime is forcing people to work at non existent jobs and goto work on non existent bus routes, paid for with non existent money. All the time the UK “government” is printing money and giving it to their friends the bankers, which puses up inflation. Whatever thoughts on the EU are, the reality is the EU gives UK people a way out, because life in the UK is increasingly untenable.

  • Brian A. Cook

    The conspiracy theories go on.

  • Brian A. Cook

    “By no means do I want to excuse the extermination of clergy and religious. On the contrary, I abhor it.”

  • Brian A. Cook

    I always thought it was misguided human ideals of freedom that inspired them. 

  • Brian A. Cook

    Also, fascism is the exact polar opposite of liberalism.  David Neiwert, for example, has written extensively on the distinctions.

  • prada

    i  think  you  are  kinda  overexaggerating  it.