On July 17 the Church commemorates 16 French religious sisters who died at the hands of the French Revolution, hastening the end of its Reign of Terror.
Compiegne is about an hour’s drive away from Paris, where the French Revolution broke out in 1789. Increasingly radical governments took power in France, targeting the Catholic Church as revolutionaries exalted reason over religion. Streets named after saints were renamed, churches were desecrated, and Sunday was erased from the calendar.
The revolution shattered the monastic peace of the sisters of Compiegne in 1790, when the government passed the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, which outlawed religious life.
Government officials came to the convent, interviewing each sister and presenting them with a choice: break your vows or risk further punishment. Each sister refused to abandon their life of poverty, chastity, and obedience.
Mother Teresa of St. Augustine, the monastery’s prioress, hastened to make arrangements for the sisters to take shelter in the city, where they courageously continued to practice community prayer.
But the French Revolution continued to radicalize, and it further devolved into the Reign of Terror under Maximilien Robespierre and Committee for Public Safety, a provisional government, in 1793.
In 1794, the government arrested the Carmelites and detained them in Paris– where execution by guillotine was all but inevitable.
The trial accused the sisters of being religious fanatics and counter-revolutionaries, evidenced by a fleur-de-lis stitched into an altar cloth, which was a symbol for the monarchy.
All 16 were sentenced to death on charges of treason. Among them were 11 nuns, three lay sisters, and two tertiaries.
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