Sister Constance—baptized Marie-Jeanne Meunier—was born in St-Denis, near Paris, on May 28, 1766. She entered our community on May 29, 1788, and took the habit on the following 13th of December.
But the unhappy decree of the Constituent Assembly, which proscribed the profession of vows—of which the Reverend Mother Prioress had been notified—deprived our dear Sister Constance of the happiness of professing her own.
To this trial was added still another that was even more cruel to her heart. Her parents from whom she had (so to speak) extracted their consent to enter the monastery, having learned of the fatal decree [that proscribed the profession of vows], resolved to make her come home. Armed with their authorization, one of her brothers presented himself with the intention to use force if she refused to leave of her own goodwill. But because his attempts were unsuccessful, a police raid took place.
The young novice, without being disturbed by this sudden and threatening appearance, replied to the summons which was issued for her to leave in the name of the law:
Gentlemen, I have entered here only with the consent of my parents. If they only want to get me to leave here because their tenderness is alarmed at the dangers that I can run into while staying there, I thank them for it; but nothing but death will be able to separate me from the company of my Sisters. And you, my brother—whom I am most likely to see for the last time—testify to our dear parents that indifference does not enter into my refusal to yield to their desires, that it hurts my heart to give them cause for chagrin; but I also think that they cannot find fault in the fact that I am following the movement of my conscience. That is all I demand of this ‛liberty’ whose benefits everyone proclaims to high heaven.
The commissioner, the King’s attorney, and the others did not go farther; they left, admiring the courage of the novice who fulfilled so well, in her sentiments and her language, the meaning of the religious name that had been given to her when she was admitted to the number of the daughters of St. Teresa. She had the glory of dying as a Christian heroine, like her companions, at only 28 years old.
Sister Marie of the Incarnation, O.C.D.
What was this fatal decree?
Sr. Marie of the Incarnation tells us that Blessed Constance entered the Carmel of Compiègne on the 29th of May 1788 and was clothed in the habit of Carmel on December 13th.
Canonically, she should have professed her perpetual vows in the following December, 1789. Historian William Bush in his well-known book, To Quell the Terror, tells us that the prioress intended to permit Sr. Constance to profess her vows on the anniversary date in the following year.
The tumultuous events of 1789 changed everything. On Tuesday 14 July, revolutionary insurgents stormed the royal fortress in Paris called the Bastille. Their siege was successful; they captured the fortress, arrested the commander and turned the tide of revolutionary fervor in Paris toward the revolutionary insurgents and away from the crumbling royal administration. From Paris, soon the entire nation was ablaze with revolutionary fervor.
Meanwhile, in the Constituent Assembly—a governing body created in June 1789—deputies were emboldened by the actions of the insurgents. Thanks to the joint efforts of the French national library and Stanford University we can read the daily acts of the Constituent Assembly and learn exactly who and what created the fatal decree of 28 October 1789.
Mr. Rousselet gives an account, in the name of the committee on reports, of letters written by two male religious and one religious sister asking that the Assembly explain what it means concerning the profession of vows; he proposes to forbid the perpetual monastic vows.
Michel Louis Rousselet was a deputy from the bailiwick of Provins (Seine-et-Marne) southeast of Paris. He served only two years in the Assembly (30 Mar 1789 – 30 Sep 1791), but for the Catholics of France they were crucial. His report received the backing of Guy Jean-Baptiste Target from the bailiwick of Paris-Outside-the-Walls.
Mr. Target requests a postponement on the substance and presents the following decree:
Yes, the report …. the Assembly postpones the question concerning the profession of vows and however, as a provision, decrees that the profession of vows will be suspended in monasteries of either sex.
Several clergymen who were Deputies explained that the temporary suspension cast judgment on the matter; they demanded the implementation of the rule that required three days of discussion for important matters. Tragically, their pleas were ignored. The record of the Assembly states:
The decree proposed by Mr. Target is adopted.
Michel, Louis Rousselet
1746 – 1834
Guy, Jean-Baptiste Target
1733 – 1806
Sanctions against the Catholic Church in France swiftly followed as the nascent revolutionary government, strapped for cash, expropriated all of the assets of the Catholic Church and her patrimony. To this very day, the Church in France is poor, reliant upon the government to care for her buildings like the great Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris.
Sr. Constance, the native of Saint-Denis, did not return home with her brother after the commissioner, the King’s attorney, and the others left the monastery. She remained in ‘the company of her Sisters’ all the way to scaffold. She fulfilled the life of a Discalced Carmelite nun, but always remained a novice and canonically never was permitted to participate in any important decisions of the monastic chapter that required a voice vote.
It was only at the foot of the scaffold, six years after entering the Carmel of Compiègne that she finally professed her perpetual vows as a Discalced Carmelite nun. Her heart filled with overwhelming joy, she climbed the steps of the scaffold as she emphatically exercised her voice, becoming a foundress—the protomartyr—of the Carmel of Compiègne transferred to the heavenly courts.
What words were on the lips and in the heart of Blessed Constance in those ultimate moments on earth? She intoned Psalm 117, the psalm that Saint Teresa of Avila and Venerable Anne of Jesus chanted as they inaugurated each and every new foundation:
O praise the Lord, all you nations,
acclaim him all you peoples!
Strong is his love for us;
he is faithful for ever.
Concerning Blessed Constance’s chant, Professor Bush explains:
As their final song at the scaffold— for there were several— it was Psalm 117, Laudate Dominum omnes gentes, which proclaims the mystic truth couched at the heart of the Christian experience of salvation: God’s mercy is at the center of all things, even of being guillotined.
Bush, William. To Quell the Terror: The Mystery of the Vocation of the Sixteen Carmelites of Compiègne Guillotined July 17, 1774 (pp. 14-15). ICS Publications. Kindle Edition.
sœur Marie de l'Incarnation. Histoire des religieuses carmelites de Compiègne conduites a l'échafaud le 17 juillet 1794: Ouvrage posthume de la soeur Marie de l'Incarnation. January 1, 1836. (pp. 108-110) T. Malvin. Google Play Books edition. This English translation is the blogger’s own work product and may not be reproduced without permission.