Saint Julie Billiart and the persecution of the Church at the time of the French Revolution
In Cuvilly, Julie becomes such an example of confidence and steadfastness in the faith that the revolutionary forces see her as a threat. In 1791, persecuted because of her stance with respect to “constitutional priests” (those who took the oath of allegiance to the nation), Julie was forced to flee from her village and hide, first to Gournay-sur-Aronde, then, in Compiègne and, later, in Amiens.
Julie is in Compiègne at the time of the height of the politics of dechristianization (September 1793 – September 1794). Dechristianization, during the French Revolution has for its goal to suppress Christianity in the daily life of the French; priests are deported or assassinated, religious are forced to renounce their vows, churches are closed or transformed into temples of Reason or of Liberty (as in Compiègne), crosses and pious images are destroyed, religious holidays forbidden, programs abolished, public and private worship is prohibited.
In order to deal with the many counter-revolutionaries and French monarchists, Robespierre implemented exceptional measures that would later be called the “Terror.” The most well-known is the terrible Law of Suspects which required the identification of all those who served the Revolutionary cause. Nearly 20,000 people, suspected of sympathizing with the counter-revolutionaries, were executed. It is in this context that 16 Carmelites are guillotined in July of 1794.
Relations between Julie and the Carmelites of Compiègne
- Julie living in CUVILLY is in contact with the Carmelites of Compiègne.
Julie, living in Cuvilly, knew the Carmelites of Compiègne whom she visited in order to provide them with cloth and embroideries. Let’s study the General Archives of the Congregation in Namur.
The two older biographies of Julie written by Father Charles Clair, in French. (1895) and by Father James Clare, in English, (1909) mention Julie’s visits to the Carmelites of Compiègne.
Father Charles Clair based his book on the “recollections of her first companions” of which we keep copies in the Namur Archives.
- On October 7, 1881, Sr. Marie Victoire Carez writes : « […] At the height of the Revolution, she [Julie] sought refuge in Compiègne; there she was looked upon as a saint. She was in contact with the saintly Carmelites, who died on the scaffold. […]. “
- In her deposition of January 25, 1883, taken at Chimay, Sr. Marie Claudine (in the world as Julie Godefroit) notes: “She [Julie] was in contact with the saintly Carmelites, who died on the scaffold.”
As for Father James Clare, he finds information in the Annals of the Congregation written in 1844 by Sr. Stephanie Warnier: “Around the age of 18 […], she [Julie] visited at that time the Carmelites of Compiègne who instilled in her heart the love of God and zeal for the salvation of souls.”
Father Charles Clair and Father James Clare add interesting details that are not found in written sources:
- The reasons for Julie’s visits with the religious of Compiègne: “with respect to the sacred vestments that she had embroidered put her in contact with the Carmelites of the city” (Father Clair)
- The talent of this girl. Her skill in church embroidery, to which we have already alluded, took her from time to time to the Carmelite Convent of Compiègne, renowned at that time through all the countryside for its strict observance and the holy lives of its inmates. Thus she formed an intimacy with that band of noble women who, a few years later, were one and all to win the martyr’s palm; and the annals of her life note that their saintly conversation fanned to yet brighter flame her ardour in the service of God. Surely it was not a mere chance, but rather God’s eternal seal upon that friendship, that eight days after the hand of Pius X had placed the coronet of the Blessed on the brows of the Virgin of Cuvilly, it was lifted again to set it on those of the martyrs of Compiègne.” (Father James Clare, pp. 20-21)
Here is another proof of the relationship between Julie and the Carmelites of Compiègne.
Abbot A. Odon (pastor of Tilloloy) written around 1887:
“When circumstances permitted, it was for her a sweet recreation, on Sundays and holidays, to go to visit the Carmelites of Compiègne. Julie was so happy to speak with an open heart to the holy daughters of Saint Thérèse through their blessed grilles! What a joy for her soul to pour out her feelings to these seraphic souls, so well formed to understand her! Could she have drawn from a better source the desire of perfection, the attraction for the religious life, and this robust faith, this valiant love for Our Lord, this generous ardour, this ardour […] that came to be the distinctive character of her holiness and a mark of the profound imprint on the work that she was called to found?”
2. Julie, refugee in COMPIÈGNE, has connections with the Carmelites by means of her niece and Abbot de Lamarche.
Julie is in contact with the Carmelites through her niece, Felicity, who accompanied her on the road of exile. We know this thanks to a letter written by Mother Henriette de Croissy. This note from the Carmelite, written between 1792 and 1794, unsigned and undated, but recognized as authentic, is interesting and delivers some details on Julie’s life: the room that she will soon occupy permits her to receive visits. We learn that Felicity did the Carmelites laundry (or that Julie and Felicity’s laundry was done in the Carmelite convent). A name is evoked by Mother Henriette de Croissy: it’s that of a certain Madame Gabriel to whose home Julie would be transported. She suffered at the time from rather violent toothaches.
“[… ] Felicity had just come to get the laundry that she thought was here but she was not able to take the time to go to your place as it was necessary that she go to the druggist. Julie has a very bad toothache and tomorrow she will be transported to Madame Gabriel’s home; she would not be able to keep the (?) crippled without suffering from her great sensibility. The surgeon thinks that she will have a rotten fever; in her new dwelling she could be visited but she will not be able to keep anyone. This happy inconvenience is not frequent… […] Felicity will gladly see that you send her the laundry through Thérèse, if that can happen.”
Julie is in contact with the Carmelites also by means of Abbot de Lamarche, priest at Compiègne. He met Julie in 1793 when “he ministered to some of the faithful and, notably, to the Carmelites. It is he who, disguised as a workman, will bless each Carmelite going to her death. The testimony left by Abbot de Lamarche expresses his admiration for the faith and strength of soul of Julie in spite of her paralysis and the threats associated with the “Terror.”
“February 2, 1820. It was not until 1793 that I made the acquaintance of Julie. She had left Cuvilly, her native place, and taken to Compiègne for greater safety in the troubles which at that time agitated France. I was ministering to the spiritual needs of some faithful souls who dwelt there, notably the Carmelite nuns. Julie was living in retirement in a small room with one of her nieces who took care of her. I went to visit her; she did not speak or rather she only spoke by signs. When she went to confession, I had to give her an hour’s notice. She then prepared herself with intense fervor and obtained, as she owned to me, the grace of articulating distinctly. It was only after absolution that she fell back into speechlessness. It seemed clear to me that it was by no effort by nature that she was able to express herself in confession, but that she obtained this favor by her lively faith. I saw her from time to time for about a year. I was more and more astonished at her progress in perfection. She offered herself continually to God as a victim to appease His anger. Her resignation was perfect; always calm, always united to God. Her prayer was so to speak unceasing… […]”
It is through Father de Lamarche that Julie must have learned that the Carmelites of Compiègne offered themselves as a holocaust to appease God’s anger, so that peace might return to the Church and to the State.
When the Carmelites were guillotined in Paris in 1794, Julie had been in Compiègne for two years. The news of their death was without doubt very painful for her. As Sr. Roseanne Murphy (SNDdeN) says: “their heroic deaths made a profound impression on Julie; she often referred to them years later. She felt the loss of her friends for they had been a prayerful support for her since she was a child.”
The Martyrdom of the Carmelites of Compiègne
In the context of dechristianization, on September 14, 1792, the Carmelites are expelled from their convent by the civil authorities. They then lived their vocation in different houses in Compiègne, where they were separated into 4 groups. They pronounce each day a “vow of total consecration to the Divine Will” – even were it at the price of their life – to obtain the end of the massacres of the Terror and peace for the Church and the State.
They were arrested on June 22-23 1794 and incarcerated in a former convent of the Visitation, converted into a prison. The Reign of Terror is then at its apex and affects, notably, religious orders. Thus, at Arras, on June 26, four religious of the Daughters of Charity are executed and in July, 32 religious, Ursulines, Sacramentarians, Bernardines, as well as 30 priests are guillotined.
On July 12, 1794, the 16 Carmelites are transferred from Compiègne to Paris, where they are judged on July 17 under accusation of “plotting against the Revolution.” The act of accusation is drawn up by Fouquier-Tinville. They are condemned to death and executed that very day as “fanatics and insurrectionaries.”
On July 17, while walking toward their martyrdom, they pray and sing the Miserere, the Salve Regina and the Te Deum. At the foot of the scaffold, they intoned the Veni Creator and renew their baptismal promises and their religious vows. Sister Constance de Jésus (Meunier), a novice, is called first. She asks the Mother Prioress, Thérèse de Saint-Augustin Lidoine) for her blessing and her permission to die. She then climbs the steps of the scaffold while singing the Laudate Dominum omnes gentes. The same scene is produced for the other sisters. The prioress is sacrificed last. They are then buried in a common grave in the cemetery of Picpus. On May 27, 1906, they are beatified by Pope Pius X.
“What happiness to die for one’s God!” cried out one of them. “Let’s be the last to die.” In effect, ten days after this sacrifice, the turmoil, which during two years had spread on French soil the blood of France’s children, ceased. (Decree of Beatification)
The Carmelites of Compiègne were beatified two weeks after Julie had received this honor on May 13, 1906.
Like the Carmelites of Compiègne, Julie, humbly, participates in the mystery of love of a God wounded by the world’s suffering. In spite of the danger of the troubles tied to the French Revolution, her deep conviction in the Goodness of God, is unshakeable. Entirely paralyzed and not able to express herself, she gives meaning to her life by offering herself as a victim and by presenting to Christ her life as a woman dispossessed of all activity and of any possibility of service. This abandonment leads her to an absolute confidence. She will later write:
A sign was given to Julie, as a response and also as a call to an absolute gift (see the theme for May): https://snddensjb50.org/2019/05/01/compiegne-theme-la-vision/
If the cross is present, Julie knows that it is the expression of the infinite goodness of God and his immeasurable love.