The French Nuns

(1794 A.D.)

Perhaps the most widely acclaimed of contemporary operas is Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites. Opera buffs, in their love of music, have accepted many a libretto full of marital infidelity and melodrama. Why should they now applaud this story of sixteen nuns who died during the French Revolution in defense of religious chastity and obedience? I think it is because like all martyrs, the 16 were willing to die for truth - an act of courage that even the most worldly of us can still find thrilling.

The subjects of this opera were members of the strict Carmelite monastery at Compiegne, some 70 miles north of Paris: ten professed choir-nuns; one novice; three lay sisters and two “extern sisters”. During the “Reign of Terror” they rejected the political oath required by the French Revolutionary government, because they sensed its anti-Catholic implications. But it really didn’t matter whether they rejected the oath or not. The government, under Maximilien de Robespierre, aimed at deChristianizing France, and nuns were too vivid reminders of Christianity to be tolerated anyhow.

Arrested and carted off to Paris, they were arraigned before a panel of three judges without being allowed an attorney to speak on their behalf.

The key charge brought by Judge Fouquier Tinville was that they were religious “fanatics”. Sister Marie Henriette Pelras asked him what he meant by “fanatic”. “I mean by it,” he replied, “your attachment to childish beliefs and your silly religious practices.” The Sister turned to her companions: “You see, we are condemned for clinging to our holy religion. We have the happiness to die for God.”

The narrative that composer Poulenc used is a partly fictionalized account, but the essence of the drama is historical.

On July 17, 1794, they were beheaded one by one by the guillotine on the Place de la Nation in Paris. Old and young, they marched to death singing the Miserere, the Salve Regina and the Veni Creator Spiritus. As they died, the singing diminished and finally ceased.

That day the usually bloodthirsty crowd stood silent in the face of incredible bravery. The sixteen were beatified in 1906.

Another group of 32 nuns were executed during the same month at Orange in southern France. Sixteen Ursulines, 13 Sacramentines, two Bernardines and one Benedictine had been jailed together.

In jail they kept up a religious schedule as well as possible. Those who remained, prayed each day for the dying and sang the Te Deum as each was called out for execution. Throughout, they continued lighthearted. When Sr. Pelagia Bes was summoned, she shared a box of sweets with the others. “For my wedding”, she explained. Sr. Theoctiste wrote a song welcoming the guillotine. Sr. Martha Cluse, a pretty young woman, was offered release by one of the executioners if she would marry him. She gracefully declined. The sisters amazed even the coarse guards: “These dames die laughing!”

Spectators at their deaths found themselves in agreement that “religion alone could inspire so much courage and assurance.”

One of the Carmelites had prayed that her death might be an offering for an end of this bloody Reign of Terror that had sent hundreds to death. Actually, the tide turned that same July, and Robespierre and 22 accomplices were repudiated and beheaded by the very instrument of death to which they had condemned so many victims. The tribunal at Orange was discredited. Fortunately, the public prosecutor and two of the judges there were reconciled to the Church before their own executions.

The prayers and self-sacrifices of the nuns doubtless had a part in ending this mad, cruel episode and in saving the soul of at least some of its perpetrators. For the sisters had died, as Christ their model died, forgiving their enemies.

--Father Robert F. McNamara