Le Petit Grignotage
We know the story well. On the day following the Feast of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, 1794, sixteen Carmelites from Compiègne, singing the Veni Creator, mounted the scaffold one by one and were beheaded. To justify their condemnation, the tribunal had produced as proof of their treason a picture of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus along with one of the deposed king, taken from the convent wall.
Four years earlier, when the Assemblée Nationale had demanded the Carmelite Order to justify its existence, Mother Nathalie of Jesus came forward and on behalf of the entire Order in France addressed the company thus:
The most complete liberty governs our vows; the most perfect equality reigns in our houses; here we know neither the rich nor the noble and we depend only on the Law. In the world they like to broadcast that monasteries contain only victims slowly consumed by regrets; but we proclaim before God that if there is on earth a true happiness, we possess it in the dimness of the sanctuary and that, if we had to choose again between the world and the cloister, there is not one of us who would not ratify with greater joy her first decision. After having solemnly declared that man is free, would you oblige us to think that we no longer are?
The long penitential season for Carmelites begins on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, when Carmelites fast until Easter. It was on this day in 1792 that the nuns of Compiègne were forced from their beloved Carmel back into the world. Only a few months before, the nuns had together agreed to offer themselves as victims to divine justice to restore peace to France and to the Church. They renewed their offering daily, continuing to meet in secret for two years dressed as laywomen and convening for common prayer.
The nuns were discovered in June of 1794, arrested, and imprisoned in the Conciergerie, where other priests and religious waited their fate. (Ironically, the one Carmelite of royal blood escaped death because she happened to be away; she became the martyrs’ first historian). On July 17, they were called before the tribunal and, in the very city where St. Joan of Arc three centuries earlier had been abandoned and handed over to the enemy, they were condemned to die.
Reverend Mother Émilienne, Superior General of the Sisters of Charity of Nevers, wrote in a letter:
I learned from a person who was a witness to their martyrdom that the youngest of these good Carmelites was called first and that she went to kneel before her venerable Superior, asked her blessing and permission to die. She then mounted the scaffold singing Laudate Dominum omnes gentes [the psalm sung by St. Teresa of Avila 190 years earlier on founding the new Carmel]. She then went to place herself beneath the blade allowing the executioner to touch her. All the others did the same. The Venerable Mother was the last sacrificed. During the whole time, there was not a single drum-roll; but there reigned a profound silence.
Another witness said the nuns looked as if they were going to their weddings.
Ten days later, Robespierre was executed on the same spot, and the provisional revolutionary government came to an end. The nuns were beatified by Pope St. Pius X in 1906 (the same year in which Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity died).
A community of English Benedictines, exiled in France, were imprisoned in October of 1793, where they met the nuns of Compiègne and learned of their sacrificial offering. After the death of the Carmelites, jailers forced the English nuns to don the secular clothes worn by the martyrs. They wore them still two years later when they were finally allowed to cross to their own shores, where they founded the community of Stanbrook Abbey. There they preserved the clothes as sacred relics.
One hundred years after the martyrdom of the sixteen Carmelites of Compiègne, the Abbess of Stanbrook wrote to the Prioress of Compiègne:
We hold these things in high honor, as twofold relics; relics of the martyrs, and relics of our own Mothers, who were almost martyrs. How happy we are to have kept this sandal for so many years! It seems to invite us to follow in the footsteps of those who, in the person of our [Carmelite] Mothers, bade us farewell so tenderly, before getting into the cart to reach the throne of glory by way of Paris and the guillotine.
A lovely collection of black-and-white photographs of the present Carmelite community of Compiègne can be seen at this website.
You can read more from Christine at her own blog, Laudem Gloriae.