It was on this day in a Parisian summer in 1794 that sixteen female members of the Carmelite Order, located at Compiègne – one day after their patronal feast – lined up one by one in the Place de la Révolution (now more ironically renamed the Place de la Concord), which was by then so covered in blood that even the mules drawing the carts refused to approach. And, one by one, they, from the youngest novice to the elderly prioress, had their heads severed from their bodies by the great devouring guillotine. They sang as they faced their deaths; according to tradition, they sang the Veni Creator, even if others say it was the Salve Regina, or Psalm 117, the Laudate Dominum, wonderfully set to music by Mozart – perhaps they sang all three. The point is, they sang – remember singing? – on their way to eternity, as we all should.
Their bodies were buried in a mass grave in the nearby Picpus cemetery – along with over a thousand other victims – marked with one simple cross.
Why would anyone murder a whole convent of nuns? Well, the revolutionaries had by point gone insane – which also sound sort of ominously familiar – destroying anything or anyone who did not submit to their principles – which included such wonderful things as atheism, anarchy, obliterating the past – the whole ancien regime – everything they deemed non-functional, impractical or useless, including a life of contemplative prayer. All the convents were suppressed, and the nuns faced a choice either to abandon their vocation and disperse, or stick to their habits.
They had been imprisoned with a group of English Benedictine Sisters, who had set up a convent at Cambrai, in France, with all the monasteries and convents having been destroyed by Henry VIII, and made illegal by his successors. After the Carmelites had been ‘offered up’, so to speak, the Revolution ended ten days later, with the death of Robespierre by the very blade by which he had had thousands killed. It seems it was through the merits of that ultimate offering of the Carmelites that the carnage ended, sparing the lives of the Benedictine Sisters were spared. Their Order eventually returned to England, bringing the blood-stained habits of the martyred Carmelites, which may still be found in their convent, which stands to this day.
The story of the Carmelites also caught the popular imagination, being recounted in a 1931 novella by Gertrud de la Fort, ‘Song at the Scaffold’, penned five years after her own conversion. Her book inspired George Bernanos to write his 1947 play, Dialogue des Carmélites, which in turn inspired the 1956 opera by Francois Poulenc – and, we may add, a 1960 film by Jeanne Moureau.
But the main influence of the martyrs is supernatural, their example of courage in the face of overpowering, satanic evil – an inspiration for us, to sing heartily and laugh, for, if we but choose the path of life, will we not all meet merrily in heaven with them? I wouldn’t mind hearing how 18th century French was actually spoken, not least by contemplative Carmelites.
Holy Martyrs of Compiègne, orate pro nobis!