The spirit of belief in God, tolerated at the beginning of the French Revolution, was gradually abandoned under the pressure of radical revolutionaries. As the movement progressed, therefore, Christians were more and more persecuted. Religious orders merited the special disapproval of the radicals.
During the 1790’s there was a convent of the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul at Arras, France. It had been established in 1656. The Sisters kept a school for girls and took care of the sick of the town. Seven Sisters were occupants in 1789, and continued their work up to 1793.
In that year an apostate priest, Joseph Lebon, who was now a government official, took over the Arras convent and all its property. He placed a lay person in charge there, changing the name of the convent to “The House of Humanity”. The Sisters were allowed to continue in residence so that they could keep ministering to the sick; but they were forbidden to wear their religious dress – the famous blue habit and winged linen cap.
Lebon was not content to tolerate them for long, however. Anticipating such a development, the superior, Sister Madeleine Fontaine, sent two of her colleagues to Belgium for safety. A third left the convent when her annual vows expired. Thus only four remained in the community: Sisters Madeleine (aged 71), Frances Lanel (49), Teresa Fantou (47), and Joan Gerard (42).
In 1792, the French government ordered everybody in France to take the oath, “I swear to maintain with all my strength, liberty and equality, or to die in the defense.”
This replaced the oath of 1790 which required all Frenchmen to support the “Civil Constitution of the Clergy” That oath upheld the establishment of a national church no longer subject to the pope, so Catholics could not conscientiously take it. Many were executed or exiled for their refusal. Since this new “oath of liberty and equality” said nothing of this schismatic church, many Catholics thought it was acceptable. Others disagreed, holding that it was objectionable. The Arras Sisters asked their bishop what he thought. He replied that he did not think it could be taken in good conscience. That was enough for Sister Madeleine and her companions. They refused to take the oath.
Unable to break their decision, Lebon now planned to destroy the Sisters. Before seizing them in 1794 for “subversive activity”, he was careful to plant in the convent some incriminating documents. On the basis of the “discovery” of these papers, he sent the nuns to Cambrai for trial. Here the aged Sister Madeleine was charged with being a “pious counter-revolutionary”, with the other three as her “accomplices”. They were all sentenced to death.
The four nuns were taken off, without delay, to the guillotine. They went in good cheer, singing en route the hymn “Ave Maria Stella.” Sisters Frances, Teresa and Joan were beheaded first. When Sister Madeleine’s turn came to mount the scaffold, she turned to the crowd in a surprise move. “Listen, Christians! “ she said. “We are the last victims. The persecution is going to stop; the gallows will be destroyed; the altars of Jesus will rise again gloriously.”
What she foretold soon came true. Faced with the mounting opposition of the citizenry, Lebon had to call a halt to the slaughter. Indeed, some five weeks later his own fortunes changed, and this debased ex-priest who had sent the Arras nuns to the guillotine for their faith, was himself beheaded by that awful blade.
In 1920, Pope Benedict XV officially beatified as martyrs the four Daughters of Charity of Arras and eleven Ursuline nuns from Valenciennes. They were victims of the Revolution’s so-called “liberty, equality and fraternity”.
–Father Robert F. McNamara