Today is the memorial of the sixteen martyred Carmelite Sisters of Compiegne, killed during the “Reign of Terror” of the French Revolution. Though ordered to disband, the sisters were accused by the revolutionary Committee of Surveillance of living a communal life of prayer and obedience to their superior. The Committee of Public Safety tried the sisters for this crime of “fanaticism”. They were charged with hiding arms in the convent. The prioress, Mother Teresa of St. Augustine, held out her crucifix and declared, “Here are the only arms we have ever had in our house.” They were found guilty and sentenced to death by guillotine.
As they mounted the tumbrils, they began to sing their offices.
Brought to Paris and imprisoned, the sisters spent their last days sharing their faith with the guards. On July 16, the Feast of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, a visitor smuggled in some burned wooden sticks. The sisters used these sticks to write a hymn on the walls of the prison. They sang it to the tune of the Marseillaise.
Here is Jo Ann Kay McNamara’s description of their deaths from her book, Sisters in Arms: Catholic Nuns Through Two Millennia,
“They had recovered their habits, or enough pieces of them to go as nuns to the guillotine, having cut their wimples around the neck so that the executioner need not touch them. As they mounted the tumbrils, they began to sing their offices. For once, the crowds of Paris were abashed. Onlookers testified to the silence as the chanting nuns were driven through the streets. Even the rattling drums that customarily celebrated the death of an aristocrat were silenced. Mme. Lidoine (their prioress, Mother Teresa of St. Augustine) received permission to shepherd her flock before her. Each nun in turn renewed her vows of religion and asked her prioress for permission to mount the scaffold. The novice Constance went first, singing Laudate Dominum omnes gentes. Sister Julie, who feared the scaffold, refused her family’s attempts to free her, proclaiming, ‘We are the victims of this age and we should sacrifice ourselves for its reconciliation with God.’”
Francois Poulenc wrote the opera, Dialogues des Carmelites, about these women who died for their faith.
For all who are today dying for the faith, victims of this age, let us pray to the Lord.