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The French Revolution and the Carmelites of Compiègne

When Bastille Day comes around each summer on July 14, I just can’t bring myself to pop the cork on a bottle of Champagne-style California sparkling wine (the kind I can afford). The Fête Nationale commemorates the storming of the Bastille prison in 1789 and its one year anniversary, Fête de la Fédération, when a new government, with Louis XVI as a constitutional monarch, seemed to indicate a peaceful resolution to the French Revolution. I can’t help thinking of all that came after that, including the Reign of Terror and the campaign to destroy Catholicism in France. If I’m going to toast the memory of anyone in the middle of July, it would be the Blessed Carmelites of Compiègne, the nuns guillotined on July 17, 1794.


The More-Benedictine Connection

Their Carmel had been closed in 1792 as part of the revolutionary reforms of the Catholic Church: contemplative orders of monks and nuns were considered useless and selfish. Anyone who had not taken final vows was not permitted to do so. Some of the active religious orders were allowed to function in society, but priests were considered employees of the State. Priests who refused to take the Oath to the Civil Constitution to the Clergy went underground to continue their ministry and if they were arrested, they were found guilty of betraying the Revolution and executed.

The Revolutionary government followed up on the dispersed Carmelites in Compiègne and found sixteen of them still observing their religious life of prayer. On June 22, 1972, they were arrested and imprisoned in a former Visitation convent where they lived in community until they were taken to prison in Paris. While they were in the Visitation convent they met several English Benedictine nuns who had also been arrested and were awaiting trial.

These Benedictine were already in exile from England, where Catholics were not free to follow God’s call to a religious vocation. Henry VIII had suppressed all the religious orders in 1540. Helen More, the great-great-granddaughter of St. Thomas More, was one of the first postulants in the Benedictine house at Cambrai; her father Cresacre More (the great-grandson of John More, St. Thomas More’s only son), donated funds and dowries to the foundation of Our Lady of Consolation and her sister Bridget joined the order too. Generations of English girls had endured exile to observe St. Benedict’s Rule.

The Benedictines and the Carmelites shared the journey to Paris but the Benedictines would be exiled again—back to England, where they built a new abbey in Worcestershire. The Carmelites were not allowed to wear their habits and thus were garbed in secular clothing; this detail would matter to the English Benedictines in the near future.


Our Lady of Mount Carmel

The Carmelites, as one of them had told the Benedictines, had been making a daily act of consecration of themselves for peace in France and for all those innocents caught up in the Reign of Terror. As Charles Dickens accurately portrayed in the last pages of A Tale of Two Cities, both aristocrats and poor men and women, like the anonymous seamstress, were being accused of imaginary conspiracies against the Revolution, dragged to court, and summarily sentenced to death. The standard was trial and execution within 24 hours, so there was no time for justice.

In Paris, the Carmelites were imprisoned in the Conciergerie, in the former royal palace that contains King St. Louis’ Sainte Chapelle, built as a reliquary for the Crown of Thorns. They were given permission to wash their secular clothing and thus went to trial and to their executions wearing garments much like their habits while the other clothes dried. They were also able to celebrate their Order’s great feast, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, on July 16.

Read more at National Catholic Register 

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