From the memoirs of the sole surviving member of the Carmel of Compiègne,
Sister Marie of the Incarnation, O.C.D.
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 here, 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 perfect storm
A perfect storm of events in 1788 and 1789 led to profound changes in the lives of French people everywhere.
Historians Jennifer Llewellyn and Steve Thompson state that booming growth in the French population, which increased by 40% from 1700 to 1780 nationwide and by 30% in Paris, led to severe strains on the food supply as the country suffered historic crop failures in the 1780s due to climate extremes. All of this led to starvation and death for many, from the rural areas to the cities.
In 1785, American diplomat John Adams could see the proverbial handwriting on the wall as he observed the increasing drought:
The Country is an heap of Ashes. Grass is scarcely to be seen and all sorts of Grain is short, thin, pale and feeble while the Flax is quite dead. You see indeed more green Things than in some of our sharp Drouths in America, but as the Heat of this Clymate is not sufficient to destroy vegetation so effectually as with us, it is not enough neither to produce so rapid a Revivication of the Universe, upon the Return of Rains, so that their Prospects are more melancholly than ours upon such Occasions. I pity this People from my soul. There is at this Moment as little appearance of a change of Weather as ever.
LETTER TO THOMAS JEFFERSON
MONTREUIL SUR MER, 22 MAY 1785
French weather historians on the infoclimat.fr website report that the 1780s were years of extreme weather in France. Besides the drought mentioned by John Adams, summer rains were extreme, as well. In the summer of 1788, on July 13 France was inundated with severe thunderstorms that pummeled crops and fruit trees with hail that was well above the average size.
Then, between St. Martin’s Day (11 November) and St. Catherine’s Day (25 November) the real misery of the deadly winter of 1788–1789 began, infoclimat.fr reports. Beginning in late November 1788, the mercury all across France took a nose-dive.
On New Year’s Eve, the thermometer in Paris plunged to -21.8 C (-7.24 F), where the Seine River was frozen for 56 consecutive days, until the 20th of January. In northeast France at Mulhouse, near the borders with Switzerland and Germany, on the 19th of December the thermometer registered a deadly, bone-chilling -31 C (-23.8 F).
In the wine country of southern France, the vintners were not spared, either. In the department of the Rhône near Lyon, the vines suffered from temperatures in early January 1789 that hovered near -15 C (-5 F).
For parishes, the deadly winter of 1788–1789 had other effects. Sacramental wine froze in sacristies and holy water froze in fonts and baptistries. Because the ground was frozen down to a depth of as much as 75 cm (29.5 in), interments of the deceased were nearly impossible. Many of the dead were buried beneath the stone floors of the churches, according to the meteorologists.
But if sacramental wine froze that winter, so did all the wine that was destined for consumption at tables all across the nation, from the simple to the sumptuous. Fruits and vegetables, jams and jellies, all foods that had been conserved were as frozen as the wine. Everything that once was liquid, was frozen.
It’s no surprise, then, that the infoclimat climate historians state that waterways across France were frozen solid and people crossed the rivers on foot with loaded carts. From Marseille on the Mediterranean to Lake Geneva in Switzerland, to Calais and Dover on the English Channel, there was ice everywhere.
The saving grace in the midst of so much loss was that the abundant snowfall protected the modest wheat crop that was in the ground. But the crop failures were remarkable:
- In Alsace, the vines froze over and had to be re-cultivated in the spring.
- In the orchards, fruit trees perished in large quantities.
- Walnut and chestnut trees were killed off in the north and central sections of the country.
- In the Mediterranean south, olive trees died.
The freezing of the waterways brought the grain mills to a halt, impacting the flour mills in particular. The poor, who had no flour reserves, were reduced to misery; the price of bread skyrocketed as supplies were low and consumer demand was high. Historians report that there were riots just to get a crust of bread.
When the ice broke up, the floods were even more devastating. Many bridges and mills were completely washed away. In Orléans, the home of Saint Joan of Arc, the ice cracked on January 18 and piled up to the parapets of the bridges and the top of the levees; the levees then gave way and in turn, the ice was carried into the valleys at Orléans where it ravaged the land and the vineyards. The same phenomenon occurred in Tours on January 22.
Most of the inhabitants of the cities no longer had wood for heat; firewood became just as rare as it was expensive in the cities due to the fact that the loggers who drove cut timber along France’s waterways were stopped by all the ice.
So, the French people banded together to care for themselves. In Lyon, the police lieutenant requisitioned the flour and brought in 800 skips of coal (coal stones as they called them then) per day to distribute them to the poor. Everywhere, fires were built in the streets to warm up the unfortunates, those people who John Adams pitied ‘from his soul’.
Soup kitchens were organized by parishes, too. For example, in Paris, the parish priest of Sainte-Marguerite (the parish of the faubourg Saint-Antoine, near the Bastille) set up 18 kettles, each making 125 soups, renewed four times a day. He thus provided a daily hot soup to 8,000 people. Women and infants were given rice with fat. Contributions were sought to collect money and clothes, charity committees were organized, and even the great lords and the royal family distributed alms. Queen Marie-Antoinette gave 12,000 francs a month from her personal account. The Prince of Condé, who was the governor of Burgundy, also sent 12,000 francs to the city of Dijon. Louis XVI himself visited the poor and distributed money.
“But is it a revolt? No, sire, it is a revolution!”Duke of La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt to King Louis XVI
The evening of 14 July 1789 at Versailles
But what can you do when the price of bread has tripled and the price of wine has doubled? Because of the very poor harvest of 1788, wheat, which had just reached 15 francs per setier—that amounted to 12 bushels in Paris—rose to 30 francs on Saint Martin’s Day, 11 November 1788; it was 37 francs at Easter Sunday, 12 April 1789 and 48 francs on St. John’s Day (24 June), as well as in the week beginning Sunday, 12 July 1789.
Compounding this was an economic crisis: historians such as Alexis de Tocqueville seem to indicate that the upper class nobles and privileged clergy no longer payed taxes and they say it was rightfully so, thus placing the burden of taxation on the bourgeoisie and underclass. If there was economic confusion and dissonance in the nation, one thing was as clear as a melting icicle in the Alps: the ordinary people, starving for food and starving for justice, were ready for drastic change.
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 fervor in Paris toward revolutionary insurgents and away from the crumbling administration of King Louis XVI. From Paris, soon the entire nation was ablaze with the spirit of rebellion.
New cause, new laws
Meanwhile, in the Constituent Assembly—a governing body created in June 1789—deputies were emboldened by the actions of the insurgents. Today, 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. Here we provide our translation of the daily acts (in italics) of the Wednesday Session, 28 October, and a brief commentary for clarity.
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 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, from 30 March 1789 to 30 September 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.
Here we continue our translation of the proceedings on that fateful day…
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 and they demanded the implementation of the rule that required three days of discussion for important matters.
The decree proposed by Mr. Target is adopted.
God makes the soul die to all that he is not,Saint John of the Cross
so that when it is stripped and flayed of its old skin, he may clothe it anew.
The Dark Night, Book II, chap. 13, no. 11
Stripped and flayed
Once the decree proposed by Mr. Target was adopted, sanctions against the Catholic Church in France swiftly followed. The nascent revolutionary government, which was strapped for cash, expropriated all of the assets of the Catholic Church and her patrimony. To this very day, the Church in France herself is virtually destitute. Here are a few examples…
To view the patrimony of the churches, such as photos of reliquaries, paintings, stained glass windows, and statues, one must view the Palissy national database managed by the French government’s Ministry of Culture. To care for her buildings, the Church also is reliant upon the government, from the smallest parish to the greatest cathedral in Paris, Notre-Dame de Paris.
And sadly, this also means that the local government decides when parish churches must make way for parking lots or newer buildings as part of neighborhood renewal. Journalist Stéphanie Le Bars reports that when upkeep for a local parish gets to be too expensive, mayors are tempted simply to bulldoze the buildings.
Dioceses have little say in the matter because they do not own their parish facilities; national and local authorities are the proprietors. The Institut Pèlerin du Patrimoine maintains a database of churches that have been demolished since the year 2000. As of 31 January 2019, journalist Benoît de Sagazan reported that 45 churches had been demolished and out of those 45, only six new parish churches were built.
Constance: a song of triumph
Sister 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 was filled with overwhelming joy as she climbed the steps of the scaffold. She emphatically exercised her voice as a professed nun, becoming a foundress of the Carmel of Compiègne as it transferred from the royal court of Compiègne to the heavenly courts on high. And in so doing, Constance of Jesus became the protomartyr of all Discalced Carmelite nuns; many more across the globe would follow in her train.
What words were on the lips and in the heart of Blessed Constance in her 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 in Spain and France, respectively:
Praise the Lord, all you nations!
Extol him, all you peoples!
For great is his steadfast love toward us,Psalm 117
and the faithfulness of the Lord endures forever.
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.
Behrens, B 1963, ‘Nobles, Privileges and Taxes in France at the End of the Ancien Régime’, The Economic History Review, vol. 15, no. 3, new series, pp. 451-475, viewed 16 July 2021, www.jstor.org/stable/2592919.
Bush, W. 1999, To quell the terror: the mystery of the vocation of the sixteen Carmelites of Compiègne guillotined July 17, 1794, ICS Publications, Washington, D.C.
de l’Incarnation, M 1836, Histoire des religieuses carmelites de Compiègne conduites a l’échafaud le 17 juillet 1794: Ouvrage posthume de la soeur Marie de l’Incarnation, T. Malvin, Sens. Accessed 16 July 2021, babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uc1.c041438717&view=1up&seq=117
Infoclimat n.d., Terrible vague de froid de l’hiver 1788–1789, l’Association Infoclimat, viewed 16 July 2021, www.infoclimat.fr/historic-details-evenement-1996-terrible-vague-de-froid-de-l-hiver-1788-1789.html.
Le Bars, S 2007, ‘Peut-on démolir des églises?’, Le Monde, 12 September, viewed 17 July 2021, www.lemonde.fr/societe/article/2007/09/12/peut-on-demolir-des-eglises_954168_3224.html
Llewellyn, J & Thompson, S 2020, Harvest Failures, Alpha History, viewed 16 July 2021, alphahistory.com/frenchrevolution/harvest-failures/
Sagazan, B 2020, Liste 2019 des églises et chapelles détruites en France depuis 2000, Institut Pèlerin du Patrimoine, viewed 17 July 2021, patrimoine.blog.lepelerin.com/2019/01/31/eglises-et-chapelles-detruites-en-france-depuis-2000/
“To Thomas Jefferson from John Adams, 22 May 1785,” Founders Online, National Archives, founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-08-02-0113. [Original source: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 8, 25 February–31 October 1785, ed. Julian P. Boyd. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1953, pp. 159–160.]
Vessillier-Ressi, M – 2019, L’Histoire en citations, Révolution, l’Histoire en Citations, viewed 16 July 2021, www.histoire-en-citations.fr/indexation/revolution?page=1.
Translation from the French text is the blogger’s own work product and may not be reproduced without permission.
Featured image: This photo of a page from Jean-Pierre Gilson’s exquisite 1989 coffee table book Les Carmélites de Compiègne illustrates the devotion of the author-photographer and Compiègne native as much as it illustrates the devotion of the Discalced Carmelite nuns who moved from the old monastery in Compiègne to their new home outside the city limits in the little village of Jonquières.