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In its broad outlines, the story of the sixteen Carmelite nuns martyred at Compiègne during the French Revolution is quite well known. Gertrud von Le Fort based her novel The Song at the Scaffold on the event, and the great French Catholic novelist Georges Bernanos took it up again with great power and spiritual insight in his final work, Dialogues of the Carmelites. The Dialogues were later adapted in the equally powerful modern opera of the same name by Francis Poulenc that has dazzled audiences since it was first produced in 1957.

But in a recent bookTo Quell the Terror: The Mystery of the Vocation of the Sixteen Carmelites of Compiègne Guillotined July 17, 1794 (Institute of Carmelite Studies, 244 pp., $11.95 paper)—William Bush takes us even deeper into this compelling story. Not only does he provide the first English-language narrative of the actual events, he shows how the nuns’ dramatic martyrdom, like all true Christian martyrdoms, constituted a conscious, willing offering of their lives in response to a divine call to help “fill up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ for the sake of his body, the Church” (Colossians 1:24).

Professor Bush originally became engaged with this story through his literary work devoted to the writings of Georges Bernanos. An emeritus professor of French literature at the University of Western Ontario, he is one of the foremost Bernanos scholars writing in English today. In editing the original manuscripts of the Dialogues of the Carmelites in the early 1980s, Bush became caught up with the actual history of the original Carmelite martyrs. He found that their real history differed in important ways from the dramatized versions of it. Nearly two decades of careful research, sometimes conducted with the help of various Carmelite houses, have now resulted in this book, which henceforth has to be considered the definitive account of these famous victims of the French revolutionary Terror.

Bush establishes in fascinating detail that these sixteen religious sisters were no casual, accidental martyrs. Quite the contrary: in the atmosphere of the French Revolution, they found themselves consciously offering themselves “to quell the Terror,” as the book’s title proclaims. It began when an earlier member of their Carmelite religious house had a mystical, prophetic dream “to follow the Lamb.” On the basis of that dream, the prioress and mother superior of these sixteen, Madame Lidoine (“Mother Teresa of St. Augustine”), had led the community in adopting an act of consecration that they renewed daily as a community during the Terror, and by which they specifically offered themselves up in response to it and to the atrocities of the Revolutionary Tribunal.

The unjust arrest of these innocent sisters, their condemnation by the kangaroo court headed by the notorious Fouquier-Tinville, and their execution on the guillotine thus constituted a true martyrdom in the classic Christian sense. These nuns even improvised a hymn which they sang to the tune of the Marseillaise, according to which the day of their execution was to be their own jour de gloire, “day of glory.” Before mounting the scaffold, each sister kissed a small terracotta statuette of the Madonna and Child held by the prioress; then each asked her, their legitimate religious superior:

“Permission to die, mother?”

“Go, my daughter.”

Each sister then mounted the scaffold in turn. The first to go, the young Sister Constance, began to intone Psalm 117, Laudate Dominum omnes gentes, “Praise the Lord, all you peoples!” The others took up the chant, “singing at the scaffold” in truth. The psalm goes on to affirm that, in the translation used by the author, “His mercy is confirmed upon us,” thus placing the martyrdom of these sisters in the context of God’s mercy.

All the historical sources testify to the unusual silence that prevailed in the crowds during the sisters’ journey to the guillotine and their execution. It was usually the case that the crowds mocked and jeered the victims of the Terror, but this execution was very different. One of the remarkable facts Prof. Bush uncovers is that these nuns went to their deaths wearing their religious habits—even though the revolutionary government had long since strictly prohibited them by law. This martyrdom was, the author makes clear, a moment of grace; contemplating it, we cannot fail to understand why “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”

As things turned out, Maximilien Robespierre fell from power just one week after the execution of the Carmelites, and the Terror itself then came to an end. Some have believed, then and since, that it was the willing self-sacrifice of these sixteen nuns that helped to bring about the cessation of the Terror.

In few narratives of the French Revolution will readers find the vivid and sometimes wrenching detail (as in the description of how the guillotine actually functioned) that is in this book. Yet the effect, far from being depressing or morbid, is moving and even exalting. And rarely do the raw facts of history find themselves as well explained and illuminated by religious and theological truth—the “mystery of vocation,” for example—as they do in this telling. It is notable that the author is a member of the Orthodox Church. And it is perhaps not too much to hope that his tribute to the heroic sanctity of these Carmelites, who were beatified in 1906, will help advance the cause of their canonization.

Kenneth D. Whitehead, a writer living in Falls Church, Virginia, has translated more than a dozen books from the French.