The Mantle of Elijah: The Martyrs of Compiègne as Prophets of Modern Age
Terrye Newkirk, OCDS
 
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Copyright 1995 by ICS Publications.

In mid-July, 1794, in the closing days of Robespierre's Directoire, sixteen Carmelite nuns were guillotined at the Barrière de Vincennes in Paris, convicted of crimes against the state. They were buried in a common grave in a makeshift cemetery, where a single cross today marks the remains of 1,306 victims of the guillotine.1 They were a mere handful of the Revolution s victims; they should have earned at most a footnote in history books. Instead, they have commanded the attention of historians, hagiographers, authors, playwrights, composers, and librettists for two hundred years. In our century the Martyrs of Compiègne have been the subject of at least one massive scholarly history, a German novella, a French play, a film, and an opera. In 1902, Pope Leo XIII declared the nuns Venerable, the first step toward canonization. They were later beatified by Pius X in May, 1906: Carmelites celebrate the memory of the prioress, Blessed Teresa of St. Augustine (Lidoine), and her fifteen companions on July 17, and Catholics may adopt them as patrons. As the bicentenary of their death is observed, many are petitioning for their canonization.

Within the church, the influence of the Martyrs of Compiègne has been profound, beginning with their fellow prisoners, the English Benedictine community of Cambrai. Catholic religious orders were still forbidden in England, and these exiles had sought a haven in France. But the nuns were imprisoned by the Revolution in October of 1793, and they welcomed the Compiègnoises" when they, too, became inmates of the same house of detention in June, 1794. Learning that the Carmelites were daily offering themselves as victims to divine justice for the restoration of peace to France and the church, the Benedictines regarded them as saintly; when the Reign of Terror ended only days after their martyrdom, the English nuns credited the Carmelites with stopping the Revolution s bloodbath and with saving their own community from annihilation. The nuns of Cambrai preserved with devotion relics of the martyrs the secular clothes they were required to wear before their arrest, and which the jailer forced on the English nuns after the Carmelites had been killed.2 Indeed, the Benedictines were still wearing them when on May 2, 1795, they were at last allowed to return to England, where they became the community of Stanbrook Abbey.3 The Abbess of Stanbrook, on the centenary of the martyrdom, wrote to the Prioress at 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.4

Other religious communities have also drawn inspiration from Blessed Teresa of St. Augustine and her companions. As a young woman, Saint Julie Billiart, who would one day found the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, often visited the nuns of Compiègne, whose conversation fostered her desire for prayer and sacrifice. Later, in her instructions to her Sisters, the foundress held the martyrs up as models of fidelity and courage under persecution. Saint Madeleine Sophie Barat, foundress of the Society of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, was born five years after the executions and seems to have shared a devotion to the Carmelite martyrs; Father Lamarche, who, at the risk of his life, served the Martyrs as chaplain during the Reign of Terror, was the spiritual director of both Saint Julie and Saint Madeleine Sophie.5

One of the best-known devotees of the Compiègne Carmelites was Saint Thérèse of Lisieux. She kept at least three images of these martyrs in her books, and joined enthusiastically in the 1894 celebrations for the centenary of their martyrdom, the year before her own famous Act of Oblation to Merciful Love." 6 In turn, Thérèse s act has become one of the most renowned prayers in the modern church, serving as a model for countless prayers of self-offering. Among them is O My God, Trinity Whom I Adore" by Elizabeth of the Trinity, the Carmelite mystical writer who died in 1906, the year the Martyrs of Compiègne were beatified.7 That Elizabeth was also directly inspired by the martyrs is shown in her letters:

How beautiful the [beatification] ceremony of our Blesseds [of Compiègne] must have been, and how you must have given thanks to God, who has led me onto this mountain of Carmel, in this Order made famous by so many saints and martyrs. Oh! how happy I would be if my Master also wanted me to pour out my blood for Him! But what I ask of Him especially is that martyrdom of love which consumed my holy Mother Teresa, whom the Church proclaims a victim of charity." 8