“But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.”
Certainly, Madame Pelras herself showed a great deal of character in the courtroom of the Revolutionary Tribunal on the day of the martyrdom.
In order to force the Revolutionary Tribunal’s notorious Public Prosecutor, Antoine Fouquier-Tinville, into defining what he meant in applying the word “fanatic” to them, she dared feign ignorance of its meaning. Faced with his initial attempt to brush her question aside, she proved unrelenting.
In the name of her rights as a French citizen, she demanded that she be given his definition. Thus she obtained, from the lips of the Public Prosecutor of the Revolutionary Tribunal himself, a candid statement that it was because of their “attachment to their religion” that they were regarded as criminals and annihilators of public freedom.
As the tumbrels advanced towards the guillotine, Madame Pelras again demonstrated strong presence of mind.
A woman of the people, sympathizing with the nuns sweltering in the stifling heat under their heavy white choir mantles, kindly offered them water to drink.
One nun was about to accept when Sister Henriette [Madame Pelras], aware that community unity would be broken if any one of them accepted a drink on her own, intervened, admonishing her sister to wait just a little longer.
“In heaven! In heaven! We’ll drink long draughts in heaven!”Blessed Marie Henriette of Divine Providence Pelras
Finally, as we have seen, it was Madame Pelras who stood unflinchingly by the prioress to the end, voluntary witness to the beheading of her fourteen sisters, assisting each in turn up the steep scaffold steps before climbing them herself.
Fouquier-Tinville was challenged by the Carmelites’ young infirmarian, Madame Pelras, to define his use of the word “fanatics” she heard him use to describe them.
His admission that it was because of their attachment to their “religion” that they were classified as “fanatics,” was, as far as their martyrdom was concerned, a key statement.
Though not found in the official accusation, it did reveal, as Madame Pelras rightly grasped, the truth behind the legal proceedings not only against the Carmelites, but also against thousands of French Christians.
Chapter 4, The Last Prioress and Last Novice Class
Chapter 9, Enemies of the People
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.
Featured image: Christopher Enns (left) appeared in the role of First Commissioner, Irina Mishura sang the supporting role of the prioress, Mother Marie Lidoine (center), and Evan Boyer appeared as Second Commissioner (right) in the dramatic courtroom scene from the Canadian Opera Company’s 2013 production of Dialogues des Carmélites by composer Francis Poulenc. Photo credit: Michael Cooper / Canadian Opera Company via Flickr (Some rights reserved).