Joy at the Guillotine

By Cara Magliochetti

The following essay was selected as the second-place winner of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ religious liberty essay contest on the theme “Witnesses to Freedom.” The essay contest was co-sponsored by the OSV Institute for Catholic Innovation. For her essay, Cara Magliochetti was awarded a $1,000 scholarship.

Imagine this: it is 1794, the middle of the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror. For every public execution at the guillotine, the Place du Trône Renversé in Paris is packed with people who cheer for the criminals who are about to face death. However, today is July 17, and something is different about this execution. Instead of shouting, a silence comes over the crowd. Part of the group being executed today is sixteen members of a Carmelite community. The group is made up of eleven nuns, three lay sisters, and two servants. They are singing hymns as they are being brought to their public death. Then, the women are guillotined in front of the crowds one by one until the singing diminishes.

The famous motto of the French Revolution was "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity," which seems ironic for a revolution known for something called the Reign of Terror. One might assume there was freedom and unity in France during this time based on that motto, but there was actually the opposite. More than 10,000 people lost their lives to the guillotine during the French Revolution, including Louis XVI and Marie Antionette.  Anyone who was found guilty of being an enemy of the state was executed if found appropriate by the courts. Some trials, like the one of the Carmelite sisters, were subject to pre-ordained condemnation and resulted in unfair trials that often ended in death. The Carmelite sisters were not granted lawyers or witnesses during their trial, and Mother Henriette of Jesus surprisingly demanded the addition of a charge of "attachment to your Religion and the King" because they saw beauty and joy in dying for their faith.  Religious orders were targeted from the beginning of the French Revolution, and this time would be no different.

The Carmelite sisters lived in a convent of Teresian form, meaning they lived their lives entirely cloistered. They never intended on leaving the convent once they joined, and their days consisted of praying for the sake of the world outside. On October 28, 1789, the Assembly prohibited the taking of vows in French monasteries, and on February 13, 1790, religious orders with solemn vows were suppressed.  This meant women religious were allowed to stay in their houses under severe new conditions, such as taking on secular dress. The religious men were forced to enter monasteries without regard to their former orders. These attacks on the monasteries were like the ones that occurred in England under King Henry VIII when he split from the Catholic Church. However, these attacks were just the beginning. On July 12, 1790, the Assembly passed the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, which put the Catholic Church under the authority of the French government.  All clergy were forced to take an oath of loyalty to the state starting in November 1790. The Assembly's goal was to suppress all religious orders, and it would not stop until that was accomplished.

Maximilien Robespierre, a leader of the Revolution, wanted to de-Christianize France, despite its Catholic history. Robespierre started rituals “to honor the Cult of the Supreme Being,” a deist ideal that he intended to become the state religion of France. After the Assembly’s new orders were passed, members of religious life were offered monetary pay to leave their orders, and then the group was removed from their housing. The Carmelite sisters were no different, so when none of the women accepted the financial award given to those who left the convent, they were thrown out of their cloister on September 14, 1792. Instead, the sisters now had to live in small groups and continue their usual routine of prayer. This was seen as an act of defiance, and when one of their new “convents” in Compiègne was found to have a portrait of King Louis XVI and a prayer to the Sacred Heart of Jesus for the king inside, this was enough evidence for the sisters to be arrested.

Even so, why would a seemingly harmless group of women be executed? It is rather simple; they were seen as counterrevolutionaries. Robespierre and other leaders wanted to de-Christianize France. Anyone who opposed that effort was seen as an enemy of the state. The small group of Carmelite sisters was no exception to this opinion. The women just wanted to "remain true to their vows to pray, live, and work together in a cloistered community." Even a peaceful desire such as this was seen as a tremendous threat to the French state. Their trial was held in June 1794, and the group of Carmelite sisters was accused of treason and sentenced to death at the guillotine.

The execution took place on July 17, 1794 in the square of Place du Trône Renversé in front of a crowd of people, as was the custom of executions. Most executions consisted of three major parts: the criminal, executioner, and a cheering crowd. Except for this execution, one part was different: the crowd was silent. The people were stunned by how the sisters carried themselves with dignity, like brides presenting themselves to marriage, as described by an onlooker. The silence of the crowd was only broken by the singing of the sisters on their way to the guillotine. They sang the hymn "Veni Creator Spiritus," and one by one asked the Mother Superior for permission to die for the faith. They were beheaded in order from youngest to oldest, but even their deaths were an act of rebellion against the anti-Catholic Assembly. The very last act of their lives was an act of obedience not to the state, but to their Mother Superior. These Carmelite sisters are the perfect role models of people who resisted the forces against religious freedom and ultimately were victorious.

The French Revolution is not truly about religious freedom; it is about freedom from religion. It was supposed to be a time of free thinking and personal opinion, but in actuality, people’s opinions were monitored and either approved or disapproved. At that time, one had to hide to be equal. One could not openly express their opinions and be equal. The Carmelite martyrs of Compiègne were the ideal opposing forces for this. They stayed true to their faith and showed the value of religious freedom in all aspects of their lives. As a result of their bravery and dedication to the Catholic faith, they were beatified by Pope Saint Pius X on May 27, 1906.  The group of sisters are true witnesses to freedom and show all people what it means to be truly free.

Cara Magliochetti writes from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.