The biography of St. Ursula, Virgin and Martyr, is notable for being strong in fable but weak in factuality. In Cologne, Germany, there is a church dedicated to her, in which an obscure Latin inscription dating from the fourth or fifth century states that a senator named Clematius had rebuilt the structure to honor a group of Christian virgins who had been martyred on that spot.
Legend took over thereafter. By the tenth century the story had it that she was a Christian princess who desired to remain unwed and who, to escape a proffered marriage, spent three years traveling on pilgrimage by sea and by land, accompanied by a number of unmarried young women. She and her companions happened to arrive at Cologne in 451, just after the pagan Huns had captured that city. Attila, their leader, executed all these young women out of hatred for Christianity.
The number of Ursula and her martyred companions was usually given as eleven, but a later development of the legend said there were 11,000! Some historians have guessed that this absurd figure could be the result of misreading of a Latin inscription: “The “M” in “XI. M.V”, meant to stand for “martyrs” (“Eleven Martyr-Virgins”) was taken for the Roman numeral “M”, which stands for one thousand.
What, now, of the Ursuline nuns of Valenciennes, martyrs during the French Revolution?
In 1535 St. Angela Merici established, at Brescia, Italy, a “Company of St. Ursula,” dedicated to teaching, especially Christian doctrine. She chose St. Ursula as their patroness because their primary occupation was to be teaching. Originally, the members lived in their own homes; but in 1585 a new rule was devised for those who wanted to live in community. The OSU (Order of St. Ursula) thus became a regular religious order. It gradually spread throughout the world (including Canada and the United States). Divisions of the community led to the establishment of several different jurisdictions, but the total number of members of all jurisdictions made the Ursulines one of the largest of all women’s religious families.
Ursuline nuns were particularly numerous in France: By 1700 there were 350 French Ursuline monasteries with 9,000 nuns.
At the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789, French Ursuline nuns had a monastery and school at Valenciennes, within the boundary of France but very close to the border of the Austrian Netherlands (the present Belgium). The Revolutionary government closed a larger number of religious houses and schools, including that of the Ursulines. Evicted, the Ursulines moved across the border to Mons in the Netherlands, where another Ursuline monastery gave them shelter.
In 1793 Austria invaded northern France to vindicate its sovereignty over the Austrian Netherlands. In doing so it also seized a strip of French territory that included Valenciennes. The evicted nuns therefore returned to Valenciennes, now Austrian, and reopened their school. But the French retaliated and recaptured Valenciennes. What were the poor nuns to do now? They decided to continue with their school in their old home.
Shortly thereafter, the French government arrested and jailed the Ursulines of Valenciennes. On what charge? That they were emigrees who had returned to France without permission and were illegally conducting a religious school! Five of them were brought to trial on October 17, 1794. They stated frankly that they had returned to teach the Catholic religion. For this crime they were condemned to death by the anti-Christian French authorities.
As the nuns were being led out to the guillotine in the marketplace, one of them, Marie Augustine Dejardin, said to the mother superior (who had not yet been sentenced), “Mother, you taught us to be valiant, and now that we are going to be crowned, you weep!”
Five days later the same superior, Marie Clotilde Paillot, and the other five nuns were condemned to die in the same manner. Mother Paillot made the public declaration, “We die for the faith of the Catholic, Apostolic Roman Church!” This time the victims were transported to the guillotine in a tumbril or dump-cart.
Now, the commissioners had overlooked a lay sister of the community, Cordule Barre. Cordule would not be separated from her sisters. Hurrying over to the cart, she climbed in of her own accord, and was executed with the rest. As they moved on to the scaffold, all six sang the Litany of Our Lady.
Pope Benedict XV beatified these eleven women in 1920 as the “Ursuline Martyrs of Valenciennes.” Once again, eleven virgins bearing the name of St. Ursula had laid down their lives for the Faith; but the story of their heroic death is not clouded by the mist of fancy that enshrouds the martyrdom at Cologne of St. Ursula herself and her young companions.
-Father Robert F. McNamara