They Sang All the Way to the Guillotine


On January 26, 1957, the Teatro alla Scala in Milan was the site of a new opera by noted French Catholic composer François Poulenc. Le Dialogue des Carmélites (The Dialogue of the Carmelites) was based in part on a screenplay written by the Catholic writer Georges Bernanos and inspired by Gertrud von le Fort’s German novella, Die Letzte am Schafott (" The Last on the Scaffold"). The new work presented a seemingly odd choice for its subject—the execution of sixteen French Carmelite nuns from Compiègne during the darkest days of the French Revolution.

The opera was recognized immediately as one of the greatest of the twentieth century and opened to rave reviews both in Italy and France. At the heart of Poulenc’s opera is the harrowing approach of death for the nuns in the Carmelite cloister of Compiègne and the way that each of them makes her own spiritual journey to martyrdom, despite the chances to surrender her faith and so live. The opera ends, like the lives of the nuns, upon the scaffold in Paris, with the nuns singing a hymn. One by one their voices are silenced, but the power of their message sings on into eternity.

Poulenc’s effort remains a powerful and frequently performed work of classical opera. Its very success reminds us that the deaths of some French nuns during French Revolution have not been forgotten, and the examples of faith in the face of repression and anti-Catholic persecutions are eternal ones.

Faith under Fire

The facts surrounding the death of these women are straightforward. On July 17, 1794, in the final days of Maximilien Robespierre’s fiendish leadership over revolutionary France, fourteen Carmelite nuns and two female servants were guillotined at the Place du Trône Renversé (now called the Place de la Nation), in Paris. Their official condemnation listed assorted crimes against the state, and their remains were placed in a common grave along with the over 1,300 other victims of the guillotine.

In the wake of the French Revolution of 1789 and the establishment of the Revolutionary government centered in the Assemblée nationale (the National Assembly), the Church was placed in an increasingly difficult position. French Catholicism had long enjoyed a position of national prominence and possessed seemingly vast wealth. As such, the Revolutionary leadership sought both to strip the Church of her holdings and to curb the influence of Catholics in the new order.

The first to be targeted were the religious orders—the monks and nuns?who held extensive properties and who were condemned by the Enlightenment philosophers for serving no practical purpose for society. It was incomprehensible that monks and nuns, most so the contemplative orders, were of any benefit to the world as they did nothing but sit in their houses and pray. In his work, Georges Bernanos has the former prioress of the Compiègne Carmelites, Mother Henriette of Jesus, declare to her revolutionary captors: "We are not an enterprise for mortification or the preservation of the virtues, we are a house of prayer; those who do not believe in prayer cannot but assume we are impostors or parasites."

On October 28, 1789, the Assembly prohibited the taking of vows in France’s monasteries; on February 13, 1790, religious orders with solemn vows were suppressed. The religious men were then compelled to enter monasteries without regard to their former orders or were given paltry pensions. The women religious, meanwhile, were allowed at first to remain in their houses under severe conditions, including the requirement that they adopt secular dress.

The devastation of the monasteries?like the dissolution of the monasteries in England under King Henry VIII?was merely the start of even greater oppression, in the form of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, passed by the Assembly on July 12, 1790. This measure placed the Church in France entirely in the thrall of the state. Faithful Catholics opposed the harsh measures, especially the oath of loyalty to the state imposed on all clergy in November 1790. In the end, the Assembly and its increasingly radical leaders suppressed all religious orders, banished the priests who would not take the oath (the so-called "non-juring priests"), and even punished "juring" priests who ran afoul of local officials.

Far worse were the murders of priests and bishops, such as the 225 slaughtered in the September Massacres of 1792. The social and political chaos took its inevitable course with the rise of the infamous Robespierre as the most influential member of the Committee of Public Safety (the Comité de salut public), set up on April 6, 1793 to oversee the trials and execution of the growing lists of "enemies of the State." Under Robespierre, France sank into the Reign of Terror that lasted from September 1793 to July 28, 1794. The Terror led to the deaths of thousands at the guillotine, as well as fresh anti-Catholic outrages such as the adoption of the Revolutionary Calendar and the grotesque celebration that installed the goddess "Reason" in Notre Dame Cathedral in the form of a half-naked prostitute.

Evicted and Imprisoned

Such was the storm that engulfed the houses of religious women in France, and one of them, in the relatively small city of Compiègne in northern France, was a convent of Discalced Carmelites. The community at Compiègne had been founded in the spirit of zeal that followed the first arrival of the Carmelites in France in 1604. The sisters of the community at the time of the French Revolution came from a variety of backgrounds. Mother Henriette of Jesus (Marie-Françoise Gabrielle de Croissy) was the grand-niece of Jean-Baptiste Colbert, one of the most powerful ministers to King Louis XIV. Most of the nuns, however, were from humble families of cobblers, carpenters, and common laborers. They were thus far from being sympathizers of the ancien régime, even if authorities cited as damning evidence of their treason the presence in the convent of an old painting of the executed King Louis XVI.

In fact, as was the common practice for all houses of religious in France, the nuns took care to obey the letter of the laws being imposed upon the Church. At the same time, though, they found their own ways to practice resistance. When, for example, authorities arrived after the suppression of vows to encourage each sister to leave the community, they found the members uncommunicative and disinclined to accept their offer. In a foreshadowing of what was to come, the officials returned with soldiers to threaten the determined religious should they refuse to abandon their habits.

The darker events in the country continued apace, and soon the houses of religious were dispersed. The nuns at Compiègne were evicted from the convent on September 14, 1792, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. The nuns had anticipated this next development and had, at the prayerful suggestion of Sister Teresa of St. Augustine, made a collective act of consecration by which they offered their lives as a holocaust on behalf of the Church in an age of suffering.

Ostensibly in obedience to the law, the nuns lived outside of the house in four groups and dressed like simple French women. They met in common prayer and never wavered in their private fidelity to the rules of the Carmel, even if they had to live as exiles from the convent. Known and hated by the fervent anti-Catholics in the region, the nuns were watched. It was only a matter of time before their prayer life, their devotion to the Sacred Heart, and their acts of charity led to their arrest by the local Committee of Public Safety. On July 12, they were transferred to Paris, and the city beheld the spectacle of sixteen defenseless women being led to jail by a force of gendarmes and nine hard-bitten dragoons.

The procession reached its destination: the dreaded Conciergerie, the somber prison for those poor souls who had fallen into the hands of Robespierre’s Committee. The charges against the Carmelites were conspiracy and treason against the nation by supposedly corresponding with counter-revolutionary conservative elements, being royalists, and keeping in their possession the writings of the liberticides of the ancien régime. Ironically, the only member of the convent with royal blood, Sister Marie of the Incarnation, was away at the time of the arrests. She would later chronicle the events that followed.

Song and Silence

The trial was a pre-ordained condemnation, as the tribunal met without granting the nuns any lawyers or even witnesses. After a brief discussion, the judges found the nuns guilty, but to the list of "crimes" for which they stood condemned to death, Mother Henriette of Jesus demanded and succeeded in adding the charge of "attachment to your Religion and the King." She then turned to her sisters and declared proudly, "We must rejoice and give thanks to God for we die for our religion, our faith, and for being members of the Holy Roman Catholic Church."

On July 17, 1794, the sixteen Carmelites were led through the streets of Paris in a tumbrel, the traditional open cart that left condemned prisoners subject to the mockery, abuse, and jeers of the crowds lining the avenues leading to the guillotine. With utter serenity, the nuns made their way to the Place du Trône Renversé and were removed from the cart. Sister Charlotte of the Resurrection, who was seventy-eight and could barely walk, was tossed to the ground by one of her guards, but in response told him that she forgave him and assured him of her prayers.

The mob that had gathered for its customary fun, however, was soon reduced to stunned silence by the actions of the Carmelites. The women religious did not cower in fear before the blade of the guillotine. Rather, they sang as each one mounted the steps to her death. Some accounts declare that they sang the Veni Creator, others that it was the Salve Regina. In his recent work To Quell the Terror: The Mystery of the Vocation of the Sixteen Carmelites of Compiègne Guillotined July 17, 1794, William Bush argues that they sang Psalm 117: "O praise the Lord all ye nations! / Praise him all ye people! / For His mercy is confirmed upon us / And the truth of the Lord remaineth forever! / Praise the Lord!"

The first to sing as she ascended was the youngest of the Carmelites, Sister Constance. Called by the executioners, she knelt before her Mother Superior, asked her blessing and permission to die, and then placed herself beneath the guillotine without any need of assistance or force. Each of the remaining nuns followed in exactly the same manner. The next-to-last was thirty-four-year-old Sister Henriette. As infirmarian, she assisted her sisters up the steps. Finally, the venerable Mother placed her head in the device and waited for the blade to drop.

During the executions, no sounds could be heard save the singing of the sisters, their chorus reduced one by one, and the remorseless slicing of the guillotine. The customary drum roll did not take place, and no one in the crowd cheered, laughed, or mocked the victims. When it was done, the crowd dispersed in further silence, and a pervasive sense of unease settled over the city. The remains of the sisters were taken away from Paris and interred in a deep sand-pit in a cemetery at Picpus, where they joined the other victims of the guillotine.

The murder of the Carmelites was the climactic moment of the Reign of Terror and its apparently greatest victory over superstition and the Church. And yet, within ten days, Robespierre fell from power and died himself beneath the guillotine. The Reign of Terror was brought to a sudden and unexpected end.

A Lasting Witness

Sixteen victims of the thousands murdered by the French Revolution, the Carmelite Martyrs of Compiègne were from the time of their executions remembered with an intense fervor and revered for their holiness and courage. Indeed, credit for the shocking close to the Terror was given to the Carmelites of Compiègne by those in the Conciergerie who had come to know them well. As religious orders were still forbidden in England, English Benedictine nuns founded a home at Cambrai, France. Like the Carmelites, they had been imprisoned in Paris in October 1793 and had met the nuns from Compiègne in the Conciergerie’s dungeon. They loved and venerated the martyred Carmelites and preserved with devotion the secular clothes the women left behind. When the Reign of Terror halted so abruptly, the English Benedictines gave thanks for the holiness and the act of offering made by their beloved sisters. The Benedictines also took the few second-class relics of the Carmelites with them when they were permitted to go back to England in 1795. Because the Carmelites were buried in the common grave at Picpus, no first-class relics have ever been recovered.

Over the next century, the Carmelites were honored by the Carmelites of France, by the Benedictine nuns of England, and by St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the Little Flower and Doctor of the Church. The movement for their cause for canonization gained swift ground in France, and in 1902, Pope Leo XIII declared them venerable. A mere four years later, after the confirmation of several miracles, they were beatified by Pope St. Pius X on May 27, 1906, the first martyrs of the French Revolution to be so honored. Their cause for canonization continues.

For apologists today, the Carmelite martyrs—as with all martyrs for the faith—remind us that their example is not confined to a bygone age of suffering and war in a Europe gone mad with the Enlightenment. St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein) wrote with veneration of the Compiègne Carmelites. Like the Benedictine nuns before her, the future martyr g.asped the significance of their act of spiritual consecration and their willingness to be martyrs for the faith that evil was trying to expunge. Rather than being forgotten, the nuns inspired Catholics and artists over the next two centuries as Christians died at the hand of the Nazis, Communists in Spain and the Soviet Empire, and extremists the world over. As François Poulenc’s opera brings to riveting operatic life, the Carmelites of Compiègne demonstrate to all Christians that even as we should be willing to follow Christ in every way that we live, it is just as important to follow Christ in how we die.


Matthew E. Bunson is a former contributing editor to This Rock and the author of more than 30 books. He is a consultant for USA Today on Catholic matters, a moderator of EWTN’s online Church history forum, and the editor of The Catholic Answer.

This article appeared in Volume 18 Number 4.