Bl. Teresa of St. Augustine and Companions
Discalced Carmelite, virgins and martyrs
Feast day: July 17
When Mother Teresa returned from Paris she found that the soldiers were waiting to arrest her and her community. It would seem that they had been carefully watched for some time and betrayed by a government agent. Once arrested the nuns were brought under security to Compiegne prison. Their food was meager and poor quality and they were generally ill treated. On July 12th they were told to be ready to get into carriages that were to bring them to Paris. The carriages proved to be mere carts and the floors were covered with dirty straw. They traveled in discomfort all day and all night and on the evening of the thirteenth, which was a Sunday, they reached Paris.
In Prison and Again
In Paris the group was imprisoned in the Conciergerie, nicknamed the ‘Morque’, since no one remained there for long. The aged Sr. Charlotte, unable to descend from the cart was roughly handled by attendants and fell heavily to the ground. After lying for some time motionless on the ground she was helped to her feet, her face all covered with blood. Turning to the attendants she assured them that she bore them no ill will and would indeed pray for them. As July 14th was a national holiday, no cases were tried. After spending two nights in the Conciergerie the nuns were put on trial on the morning of the seventeenth and condemned to be executed a few hours later.
During their trial the nuns refused with dignity the charges that they were spies, trying to overthrow the government and working in collusion with a foreign power. At the end of the proceedings the judge condemned each sister to death. When pressed by Mother Henriette, a former Prioress, for what reasons they were to die; the judge shouted, “You are to die because you insist on remaining in your convent in spite of the liberty we gave you to abandon all such nonsense.” The aged nun replied, “Thank you, gentlemen, that is all I wished to hear.” Then turning to the Prioress she said, “We have now heard the true reason for our arrest and condemnation. It is because of our religious beliefs that we are to die. We all wished to hear such a statement. Our eternal praise and thanks to Him who has prepared us for the road to Calvary.
The Way to Calvary
After their condemnation the sisters calmly expressed their joy and desire to offer their lives in union with the great sacrifice of Calvary. As they were led away from the dock one of the Sisters grew faint and stumbled because the group had been without food for many hours. A friend in the crowd procured them a drink of hot chocolate and sustained by this nourishment they returned with radiant faces to the dungeon to await execution. There they spent the time in prayer and in singing the Divine praises. There is a story that on the July 16th, the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, one of the sisters calmly asked a fellow prisoner with more freedom for something on which to write. Then using charred twigs she composed a song of jubilee and petition to Carmel’s Queen in anticipation of martyrdom and adapted it to the melody of the Marseillaise.
Preparing to Die
In the interval between their condemnation and execution the nuns asked for a pail of hot water to wash their soiled clothes. They doffed their civilian garb and put on their religious habits, which were made so as to facilitate the work of the executioner. They did this in order to give witness to their religious profession. Here mention must be made of a group of Benedictine sisters who met the Carmelites in prison after their condemnation to death. They were later to testify to the faith and fervor of the Carmelites in their last hours. Later when the Benedictines were told to remove their religious habits they protested that they had brought no other clothing. To comply with the prison order they were given the garments discarded by the Carmelites, subsequently they were released through diplomatic negotiations and brought their prison garments with them as souvenirs. They are still preserved as precious relics in the Benedictine convent of Stanbrook.
To the Guillotine
With a roll of drums, the cart bearing the condemned nuns to execution emerged from the prison courtyard. It was the last cart in the cortege. Along the route the nuns were heartened to see among the onlookers their faithful and devoted chaplain Fr. de la Marche. As he raised his hand in blessing Mother Teresa intoned the Miserere and the nuns took up the chant. After the Miserere the prayers for the recommendation of the dying were recited together with other hymns and prayers. These included the Te Deum and the Salve Regina. Finally as the cortege turned into the Barriere de Vincennes (the modern Place de la Nation) where the platform with the guillotine was erected, the Veni Creator was intoned.
The Final Scene
In the hush that had fallen on the onlookers beside the guillotine the only voices to be heard were those of the praying nuns. Fr. de la Marche later related how one of the nuns remembered that she had not finished the Office of the day and said to Mother Teresa, “Have no worry,” the latter replied, “we shall recite the Office together when we get to heaven.” At the foot of the scaffold the nuns in turn knelt before their Prioress and asked her permission to die. They kissed her scapular and a little statue of Our Lady she held out to each one as they renewed their vows for the last time on earth. As they awaited there turn to be executed they chanted the Laudate Dominum, the Salve Regina and the Magnificat.
The soldiers had no need to help Constance, the novice, up the steps of the scaffold, for she ran up the steps like a young bride eager to meet her bridegroom. She placed her head willingly on the block and was the first to die a martyr’s death. The two eldest sisters aged seventy-nine and seventy-eight had to be helped on to the scaffold. They thanked their executioners for their help and assured them of their prayers when they came into the presence of the Lord.
The Prioress was given the option of being the last to die. After she had encouraged each of her community and received their vows she knelt down and renewed her religious profession in a clear voice, kissed the statue of Our Lady as the others had done and handed it for safe keeping to a friend who years later returned it to the French Carmelites. With the heroic courage of the mother of the Macchabees she then mounted the scaffold chanting the Salve Regina until her voice was silenced on earth and began the eternal canticle in heaven. It was around 8 pm on a dark dull evening and soon the place was hushed in silence as darkness fell over Paris.
A Sign from Heaven
Later that evening the brother of one of the martyrs, Sr. Anne Pelleras, a notary, returned home. As he entered the dark hall he noticed a light shining on the wall, a light that followed him up the stairway. As he entered the room where his wife awaited him she asked what was the light that surrounded him. He turned round to see a bright globe that faded gradually. The next day, when he heard of the execution of his sister, he realized that she had been permitted to give this sign of her entry into glory.
The Roll of Honor
From existing documents and from the precious testimony of the three nuns who escaped martyrdom we can make an authentic list of the sixteen martyrs with their religious in the world:
Sr. Teresa of St. Augustine, Prioress (Lidoine)
Sr. St. Louis (Brideau)
Sr. Anne Marie (Piedcourt)
Sr. Charlotte (Thouret)
Sr. Euphrasia (Brard)
Sr. Henriette (de Croissy)
Sr. Teresa (Hanisset)
Sr. Teresa (Trezel)
Sr. Julia Louise (Neuville)
Sr. M. Henriette (Pelleras)
Sr. Constance (Meunier)
Sr. Mary (Roussel)
Sr. St. Martha (Dufour)
Sr. St Francis de Xavier (Verelot)
Sr. Catherine (Soiron)
Sr. Teresa (Soiron)
The bodies of the sixteen martyrs, along with their heads, were taken by carts during the night and thrown into the common pit in the Garden of Picpus, a former Franciscan monastery. Here with thousands of others, the martyrs of Compiegne found their last resting place. Later the area was surrounded by a wall and became the cemetery of Picpus. In time it was bought by a company formed by the relatives of the victims and handed back to the Church. Today marble plaques there carry the names of illustrious and noble families but none more glorious than the sixteen blessed women of Compiegne.
Escapee and Witness
When Sr. Mary of the Incarnation reached Doubs with her family she had no passport and found the frontiers blocked. It had taken her a month to make the long journey. She retraced her steps and arrived back at Besanson where she overheard in a small hotel where she stayed that her sixteen colleagues had been executed. She was still being sought after because of her royal connections and she sought refuge in the lower regions of the French Alps. Later on, when peace was restored, she returned to France and sought hospitality with the Carmelite nuns at Sens, but was never reinstated as a member of the community. She lived on until 1836 and her Memoirs plus the testimony of the other sisters who escaped death provided Fr. Bruno, O.C.D, the French Carmelite, with authentic documentary evidence which he used to the full in his book entitled Le sang Carmel, ou la veritable passion des seize Carmelites de Compiegne. (Paris 1954)
It is of interest to note that St. Therese of Lisieux helped with great zeal to prepare for the centenary celebration for the martyrs in 1894 when the Carmel of Lisieux supplied special decorations for the liturgical events. Madame Catez, mother of Elizabeth of the Trinity, of the Dijon Carmel, was present in Rome when Pope St. Pius X beatified the martyrs of Compiegne on May 13, 1906. Their feast has since been celebrated by the whole Carmelite Order and by the Archdiocese of Paris on the 17th, the day of their entry into glory.
More recently the sixteen blessed martyrs have attained unexpected publicity due to the literary work of Gertrude Von Le Fort (1931) in her novel entitled Song on the Scaffold. Gertrude was of Huguenot extraction, a close friend of Edith Stein and like her a convert to Catholicism. It is a pity that this novel departs considerably from historical truth and at times gravely distorts the true facts as Fr. Bruno is at pains to demonstrate.
The work of fiction however inspired Fr. R. Bruckberger to produce a film on the subject. In 1937 he entrusted the writing of the dialogue to the well-known writer George Bernanos. Ten years later Bernanos (1947-48) composed a literary work that death prevented him from perfecting. This work, Les Dialogues des Carmelites, met with enormous success when published in 1949.
Because of the success of the work of Bernanos, it was soon adapted by A. Beguin for theater and when staged encountered unexpected success. In 1957 Les Dialogues des Carmelites was set to music bt Francis Poulence and produced in La Scala, Milan, thus further extending the work of Bernanos. Finally in 1959 Fr. Bruckberger was able to realize his dream of putting the work on screen under the direction of Philip Agostini. Thus, in quite an unforeseen way, the epic story of the sixteen martyred daughters of St. Teresa was made kown to the whole world.
It is worth noting that within ten days of the execution of the Carmelites many of those who sat in judgment on them and had them condemned to death were themselves brought before a tribunakl and sentenced to death. On July 28th, the head of Robespierre rolled beneath the knife of the guillotine. Others like Foquier and Tinville met a similar fate in due course amid cries of “down with the tyrants, down with the murderers”
By the end of August the reign of the guillotine had come to an end. Can we doubt that the brave women of Compiegne had a hand in it? There is nobody so much alive as a dead saint. The death of the Carmelite community, which was so pointless, was by no means futile or in vain. Their victory is the victory of love over hatred. As Mother Teresa of St. Augustine was wont to say: “Love will al;ways be victorious. The one who loves can do everything.” The events which took place on July 17th, showed once again the insuperable power of the love of Christ.