On February 13, 1790, France, the eldest daughter of the Church, forbade the taking of religious vows.
A little over two years later, in September 1792, a Carmelite convent about 50 miles north of Paris was seized. The nuns were forced to live separately, and to abandon their habits.
In his book To Quell the Terror, William Bush tells us that the revolutionaries deemed habits “offensive to republican eyes,” an echo of Protestant reformers some 300 years earlier: “The reformers focused especially on religious habits, ripping them to shreds or burning them, ordering sisters to adopt secular dress.” (Elizabeth Kuhns, The Habit: A History of the Clothing of Catholic Nuns)
While the sisters scattered across town, they continued to pray as a community as much as possible. Two years later, they were denounced, and on June 22, 1794, the 16 nuns were arrested.
On July 12, the nuns were transferred to the Conciergerie prison in Paris. On July 16, the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, they learned that they would face trial the next day. While the martyrs are famous for singing at the scaffold, they also sang in prison. In addition to the Divine Office, they sang a parody of La Marseillaise, written by one of the sisters. William Bush provides a translation of part of their parody:
Let our hearts be giv’n to joyfulness
The day of glory now is here!
Let us banish all of our weakness,
We can see that the cross now is near!
Let’s prepare ourselves for the victory!
Let us each as a conqueror go forth!
Under the cross, God’s great banner,
Let’s all run, let’s all fly toward glory!
Let our ardor be enflamed!
Let’s give our bodies in his Name!
Let’s climb, let’s climb, the scaffold high!
We’ll give God the victory!
Their trial took place on the morning of July 17 in the Palais of Justice, and their sentence was passed down that afternoon. Sub-prioress Mother St. Louis bartered her fur muff for a cup of hot chocolate for each sister, to help them endure the grueling ride ahead, and as a touching consideration of possible human frailty in the final hours. The sisters were loaded into a cart and wheeled about 2 miles to the guillotine at the Place du Trone-Renverse, or Place of the Toppled Throne.
The holy women may not have been entirely alone during their journey. Bush tells us: “[T]hroughout the Terror priests in disguise would either escort the prisoners from the Conciergerie or place themselves along the route…Thus, even at the height of the Great Terror in Paris, a discerning eye might somewhere have detected along the long route to the Place du Trone, if not at the scaffold itself, the slightly raised hand of the priest disguised as a ferocious sans-culotte, blessing and absolving”.
All records and eyewitnesses are unanimous that the sisters wore parts of their habits for their execution. They did not have their veils, as their necks needed to remain exposed, but they at least had brown robes and a small headcovering. There is some evidence that prioress Mother Teresa of St. Augustine had prepared haircuts and head coverings for her daughters ahead of time, to keep the women from being touched until the absolute last moment.
This trip could have taken up to 2 hours, and eyewitnesses report that they sang the entire time. We can’t be completely sure of everything they sang, but it is commonly held that they sang the Office for the Dead, Psalm 51 (the Miserere), the Salve Regina, and possibly Vespers and Compline.
Miserere mei, Deus: secundum magnam misericordiam tuam. Et secundum multitudinem miserationum tuarum, dele iniquitatem meam….
Have mercy upon me, O God, after thy great goodness. According to the multitude of thy mercies, do away mine offenses… – Miserere
The crowds that lined the streets to the guillotine were famously loud, raucous, and jeering. The sisters’ chanting was met with silence: “The universal silence greeting the procession has been attested to by all witnesses” (Bush).
Around 8pm, the cart of victims reached the guillotine. The executioner was Charles-Henri Sanson, from a family with 6 generations of executioners. In 1793, Charles-Henri executed King Louis XIV, and Charles-Henri’s son executed Queen Marie Antoinette.
At the foot of the scaffold, facing the oppressive crowds, the rivers of blood in the streets, the overpowering smell, and the guillotine itself, the nuns sang the Te Deum:
Te Deum laudamus: te Dominum confitemur.
Te aeternum Patrem, omnis terra veneratur.
O God, we praise Thee: we acknowledge Thee to be the Lord.
Everlasting Father, all the earth doth worship Thee.
Before they mounted the scaffold, each sister renewed her vows and received a final blessing, hands clasped in between their prioress’ hands:
Permission to die?
Go, my child!
They chanted Veni, Creator Spiritus as each sister walked to her death.
Veni Creator Spiritus,
mentes tuorum visita,
imple superna gratia,
quae tu creasti, pectora.
Come, Holy Ghost, Creator, come
from thy bright heav’nly throne;
come, take possession of our souls,
and make them all thine own.
Sister Constance, the youngest and the first to die, reportedly chanted Psalm 117, Laudate Dominum omnes gentes as she began her walk up the steps.
Laudate Dominum, omnes gentes; laudate eum, omnes populi.
Quoniam confirmata est super nos misericordia ejus, et veritas Domini manet in aeternum.
Praise the Lord, all ye nations! Praise Him all ye people!
For His mercy is confirmed upon us, and the truth of the Lord endures forever!
Mother Teresa of St. Augustine, after blessing each sister and watching each martyrdom, was the last to die. Mounting the scaffold alone, the 41 year old woman joined the wedding feast of the Lamb moments later.
24 other victims would be guillotined that night. The 40 bodies were stripped, inventoried, and covered in quicklime at the Picpus burial bits (itself a former convent seized by the revolutionaries).
10 days later – one week as measured by the godless revolutionaries – Robespierre would be guillotined, marking the end of the Reign of Terror.
The sisters were made venerable by Pope Leo XIII in 1904, and beatified by Pope Pius in 1906.
Many religious were similarly executed during the Revolution, but the Carmelites are uniquely linked to a group of Benedictine nuns. At one point, the Carmelites were imprisoned with Benedictines, who had fled England only to find themselves ensnared in France’s revolutions. (After Henry VIII’s reign, England and France traded persecutions and martyrs. There is a database on the subject of English nuns in exile, called Who Were the Nuns?.)
The Benedictines were spared martyrdom, and sent back to England in May 1795. They eventually settled at Stanbrook Abbey, and wrote a chronicle of their time with the Carmelites: “Our Mothers of Cambrai were fellow prisoners with the Martyrs at Compiegne. From their prison windows they bade them a loving farewell and witnessed their joy as they went to their martyrdom” (from the Baltimore Carmelite Archives).
The Benedictines of Stanbrook Abbey became the inspiration for Rumer Godden’s novel, In This House of Brede. In an homage, intentional or otherwise, to the Carmelites and many religious throughout history stripped of their rights, Godden writes:
‘I don’t like to see these;’ Brother John had said, tapping the grille of the parlour. ‘I look forward to the day when the bars will come down and you can mingle freely with your guests – perhaps even wear lay clothes as they do.’
‘Just as we did a hundred years ago,’ said the young councillor Dame Catherine Ismay.
That took him aback.
‘Didn’t you know?’ asked Dame Beatrice, sweetly. ‘When we first came to Brede that was how we had to live. We could not wear our habits, and were not allowed enclosure until 1880. We had to fight to get our grilles.’
‘We kept a school in those days. Now, thank God, we don’t have to,’ said Dame Agnes.
‘Why thank God?’ he had bristled.
‘Because it took us away from our proper work.’