Carmelites know how 16 nuns of the Compiègne Carmel during the French Revolution sang hymns on their way to their deaths on the guillotine.  The Song at the Scaffold by Gertrude von le Fort was a novella that caused interest in their martyrdom at a time when Edith Stein was still alive.  The composer Francis Poulenc then put their story to music in his opera “Dialogues of the Carmelites” after World War II and he saw it performed in opera houses both in Europe and across the Atlantic in the United States.  Devotion to the martyrs in our country was promoted by the Carmelite nuns of Boston in a 108-page commemorative booklet published soon after the first centenary of their death:

Gift of Louisville Carmel to J. Sullivan, O.C.D

Creativity in Carmel with “a lo divino” settings/singing

Toward the end of their captivity as a community the nuns from the “royal Carmel” (because the French court frequently convened in the chateau located at Compiègne) were able to draw on tradition in their Order.

Mindful of their origins in Spain, country of la Madre Saint Teresa of Avila, they had a love for forms of localized recreations conducted for each other, especially on festive occasions.  They devised pious skits (like the ones Saint Thérèse created in the nineteenth century) and applied religious lyrics to melodies of popular songs (as Thérèse did, too).  They would “baptize” songs, as result.

Modern compilation of songs devised by Thérèse

To keep their spirits up they went on singing in the prison settings they encountered, and in one of them they gave their jailers much more than what the guards thought they were hearing. They simply took the melody of the newly launched republican anthem “La Marseillaise” and modified entirely its sometimes cruel and violent imagery.  Instead of chanting words like “May impure blood water our fields,” they inserted a phrase praising “Holy Virgin [Mary their]. . . august Queen.” Those words and the full text can be found in the popular ICS Publications history To Quell the Terror: The True Story of the Carmelite Martyrs of Compiègne (at pages 36-37). Upon singing it, they charmed the revolutionary fervor of the jailers who imagined—clearly not hearing the words accompanying the now familiar tune–the captive Carmelite religious had agreed to embrace the spirit of their revolution. One stanza (the first, actually) will suffice to show what their impish(?) pay-back spirit provided for those who heard them chanting away [to the tune of the Marseillaise, now France’s national anthem]:

Let our hearts be given 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! (repeat).
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 inflamed!!
Let’s give our bodies in his Name!
Let’s climb, let’s climb, the scaffold High
We’ll give God the victory.

As later on they also refer to Christ their beloved king, there is no mistaking their frank disregard for the new structures in place that had rejected the “old order” or ancien regime they knew till then.  This was a renewed instance of the Discalced Carmelites doing “a lo divino” compositions that had inspired other nuns in the pursuit of their vocation in consecrated life.

La Conciergerie

Only by coincidence, yet by a disposition of Providence, the group of nuns would be held for a time in the basement of the palace in Paris called the “Conciergerie” not far from Notre Dame Cathedral on an island in the Seine river.  They remained devoted to Christ the King, and in the previous year Marie Antoinette, queen of their now beheaded king, Louis XVI, spent time in the same prison section of the palace building. (William Bush in To Quell the Terror, came up with the fascinating connection of Marie Antoinette paying the dowry for Mother Teresa of Saint Augustine when she entered Carmel back in 1773.) Nowadays, anyone visiting the place as a tourist can think of the martyred nuns as they imagine what happened to the royal consort from Austria there before she followed her husband to the guillotine (she on October 16 and he on January 21, 1793).

Another Queen at the Moment of their Death

Forced to travel lightly from the time of their condemnation to death the sisters had with them a fittingly reduced-size (2 inches ca.) image of devotion.  They had a small statuette of the Blessed Mother, true queen and their Queen of Carmel.

As each of them moved forward to the steps leading to the guillotine they approached mother prioress, Blessed Teresa of Saint Augustine, asked for permission to die, and kissed the statuette hidden in the palm of her hand.  Still today, the restored monastery near Compiègne provides a display case showing the same image.

As the carts were leading them from the Conciergerie to the execution square the nuns chanted. One of the hymns they sang was the “Salve Regina.”  It does not detract from their victory to say they “went out singing” from “this vale of tears” to the banquet of the Lamb that was slain, their eternal Spouse, on the day after the patronal feast of Mary Queen of Carmel, July 17, 1794.

Historical Cause still timely Today

The community of 16 martyrs has been beatified for 115 years.  Theirs is what is termed in Vatican parlance a “historical cause” for the long span since their death in 1794. One hopes they could be finally canonized if only for this one timely reason: they were ostracized and punished by a process overflowing with what we call today “state terrorism.”  How many times does this occur even in the age we live in. For all the sophistication we feel we have reached through increased transformations of technology and communication, through our enlightened reasoning, we still sadly witness similar violent injustices imposed on persons of faith precisely because their belief in God is judged objectionable.  May the Martyrs of Compiègne intercede for us that their witness might give pause for such abuses and serve as an inducement to peace in the human heart. Ten days after they died in Paris, after all, the long bloody {reign of] “Terror” spawned by the French Revolution stopped with the decapitation of Robespierre. So many revolutions tend to turn in upon themselves and wreak havoc, not renewed order, so we hope that a full declaration of sanctity (their canonization, that is) might serve as a strong reminder to our contemporaries of the futility of violence and the healing power of joyful love for God.

Text and photos by Fr. John Sullivan, O.C.D.