Pope Francis opens special process to canonize 16 Carmelite martyrs of the French Revolution

Blessed Martyrs of Compiègne Blessed Martyrs of Compiègne were guillotined for their faith on July 17, 1794. | Photo illustration.

Their voices sang out from the scaffold as they went to their death on July 17, 1794, during the Reign of Terror, the frightening period of the French Revolution which oversaw the execution of at least 17,000 people.

At the request of the bishops of France and the Order of Carmelites Discalced (OCD), Pope Francis agreed on Feb. 22 to open a special process known in the Catholic Church as “equipollent canonization” to raise the 16 Carmelite martyrs of Compiègne to the altars.

Equipollent, or "equivalent," canonization is, like the usual canonization process, an invocation of papal infallibility where the Pope declares that a person is among the saints in heaven. It avoids the formal process of canonization as well as the ceremony, since it occurs by the publication of a papal bull. 

Longtime veneration of the saint and demonstrated heroic virtue are still required, and though no modern miracle is necessary, the fame of miracles that occurred before or after his or her death is taken into account after study is made by the historical section of the Congregation of the Saints. 

The process is very rare. Pope Francis has declared others saints through equipollent canonization, such as St. Peter Faber and St. Margaret of Costello, something that Pope Benedict XVI also did for St. Hildegard of Bingen and Pius XI granted for St. Albert the Great.

The long-revered martyrs include 11 nuns, three lay sisters and two externs. 

Inspired by the spontaneous action of the lone novice among them — and the first and youngest to die — each of the 16 members of a Carmelite monastery in Compiègne intoned the Laudate Dominum as she mounted the steps up to the guillotine. The convent prioress granted the solemn permission to die to each sister who, kneeling before her just after they kissed the statue of the Blessed Virgin in her hands, mounted the steps of the scaffold. The prioress was the last to die, her voice resounding until the metal seared head and body.

Their deaths quieted the crowd, and 10 days later, the Reign of Terror was itself silenced, a feat for which the sisters offered their executions to God.

Professed Carmelite and EWTN host Father John Hogan added his weight to the news of Pope Francis' action on Twitter.

“These Carmelite sisters remained true to the Faith even though the State demanded they embrace what was ultimately a new religion - worship of the secular,” he tweeted, adding that there are “Many parallels with what’s happening now.”

Their feast day will remain July 17. 

A heroic plan to end the Terror

Beatified in 1906, the sisters’ fidelity to their vows and the remarkable witness of their deaths have inspired everything from novellas such as “The Song and the Scaffold,” to movies, and even a famous opera titled “Dialogue of the Carmelites,” inspired by the book of the same name written by famous Catholic novelist and essayist Georges Bernanos.

Destined to meet their deaths during the chaos of one of the most anti-Catholic persecutions to face the Church, the sisters imitated the manner of early Christian deaths through their piety and practice of singing of traditional hymns and offices as they went to greet their death.

The Carmelite monastery was founded in 1641 just an hour’s drive north of Paris and renowned for its fervor and religious practice. Its daughters would particularly practice and witness that fervor throughout the years of the French Revolution.

Among the first acts of the anti-Catholic Civil Constitution of the Clergy in 1790 were to force priests to swear fidelity to the civil government and outlaw religious life, though it would be two years before the sisters were finally stripped of their ability to wear habits and pray in common inside the monastery walls.

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On the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, Sept. 14, 1792, the cloistered Carmelites, vowed to enclosure and dedicated by religious consecration to the contemplation of heaven, re-entered a society torn asunder by the bloody chaos of the French Revolution.  

They had already formulated their plan.

According to the record of events put down by Sister Marie de l’Incarnation, who was away during the time of the arrest and therefore not executed, during the Easter of 1792, the convent prioress Mother Teresa of St. Augustine suggested to the sisters an additional vow: to offer their lives in exchange for an end to the French Revolution and for the Catholic Church in France.

When the convent was disbanded in September after the government plundered and confiscated all Catholic churches in the vicinity, the sisters continued their religious life in hiding in a set of apartments within Paris for the next two years. The revolution grew steadily worse before the sisters would be discovered and given a chance to fulfill this vow.

In 1794, the Reign of Terror commenced and the bloodshed accelerated. In addition to the 17,000 executed by the Committee of Public Safety, 300,000 were arrested, some 10,000 of whom would die in jail.

Even cultural elements of Christianity were subjected to attack. The authorities changed the work week to 10 days, to eliminate any traces of Christianity within the culture, including the practice of Sunday rest.

The body of Voltaire, proclaimed the atheist’s patron saint during the Reign of Terror because of his vehement anti-Catholic and atheistic stances, was exhumed and paraded through the streets. Dictator Maximilien Robespierre, who oversaw much of the bloodshed, was also paraded through the streets and proclaimed a god inside the famous Notre Dame cathedral, repurposed as a temple dedicated to the goddess Reason.

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Singing hymns of praise

In this climate in June of 1794 the sisters were arrested, put on trial, and condemned by the Committee of Public Safety for being counter-revolutionaries and religious fanatics. After 26 days in prison, on July 17, 1794, the 16 members of a Carmelite monastery in Compiègne were processed through an open prison cart down the streets of Paris to their death. 

The journey took two hours. The constant harassment of the large crowd assembled to witness their fate and the difficulty of the horses to manage the crowd contributed to the length, in addition to the fact that, according to onlookers, the horses were spooked by the smell of the blood from weeks of executions.

On the way to the scaffold, the sisters sang hymns of praise, including the Miserere, the Salve Regina, and evening vespers among other prayers and songs. At the place of the execution the sisters sang both the Veni Creator Spiritus and the Te Deum, as was the custom at religious profession of vows, and afterwards the lone novice, Sister Constance, made her vows.

It was the spontaneous intonation of the Laudate Dominum by Sister Constance at the end on the scaffold, however, that was destined to fill the imagination of opera composers and novelists, though popularly portrayed in artistic depictions as the Salve Regina, Veni Creator Spiritus, or the Te Deum

The definitive history, written in French and titled, “History of the Carmelite Nuns of Compiègne,” detailed the vow proposed by Mother Teresa of Saint Augustine and the manner of the executions.