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Martyred Daughters of Charity of Arras

Marie Madeleine Fontaine, Marie Françoise Lanel,Thérèse Madeleine Fantou and Jeanne Gerard are often referred to as the martyred Daughters of Charity of Arras, as they were stationed in Arras at the time of their arrest, though they were tried and executed in Cambrai. Arras is about one hundred miles almost directly north of Paris, and Cambrai is about twenty miles south east of Arras.

The Daughters of Charity came to Arras in 1656, four years before the death of Vincent. They were asked for because of the devastation of the town caused by war. Eighty years later, in 1736, they were still there and because their work had expanded they needed a larger house. The Vincentians were in charge of the seminary in the town at that time. Forty-three years later, in 1779, they needed a still larger house and the bishop purchased a site in the center of the town and a completely new house was constructed and opened in 1782.

At the outbreak of the Revolution in 1789 they had a dispensary and a free school for girls, and they made house visits to the poor. They received plenty of financial help from the townspeople. There were seven sisters in the house in 1789. Marie-Madeleine Fontaine was superior. Three of the other sisters were Marie-Françoise Lanel, Thérèse-Madeleine Fantou and Jeanne Gérard. There had been three other sisters in the community, but they had left by the time the revolutionary trouble reached its climax.

One of the principal men in power in Paris during the period of the Terror was Maximilien Robespierre. He was a native of Arras, so the revolutionary figures of that town were zealous for putting all his ideas into force in the town. As a result, Arras suffered more than any other country town in France during the revolutionary period.

This meant that the local leaders tried their utmost to get the clergy and religious of the town to take the various oaths, which were prescribed by the laws passed in Paris. In actual fact only one parish priest and one curate in the town took the oaths. Some others stayed and conducted an underground ministry, but many fled abroad. During the Revolution a large number of French clergy sought refuge in England, including many Vincentians. The bishop went into exile in Belgium, to the town of Tournai, which is only about forty miles from Arras. From there he tried to keep abreast of events in his diocese. The three vicars general stayed on. One of them was a Vincentian, and he was probably acting as director of the Daughters. The Daughters’ policy was to try to continue their work as normally as they could, and to avoid for as long as possible any direct confrontation with the revolutionary elements in the town administration. They had the full support of the ordinary townspeople.

The big change for the Daughters came in November 1793 when a man named Joseph Lebon arrived in Arras to organize things on the basis of total conformity to the instructions coming from Paris, in the spirit of Robespierre. In fact his brutality went far beyond what the laws actually permitted. He was a native of Arras, born there in 1765, so he was twenty-eight years old on his arrival. He was a former Oratorian, a member of the National Convention, and was appointed mayor of Arras and administrator of the department of the Pas de Calais.

Lebon took up his new post in Arras on 1 November 1793, and on the 14th he sent two officials to the Daughters’ house to ascertain whether the sisters had taken the prescribed oaths and conformed themselves to all other legal requirements. The sisters said that they had not taken the oaths, had no intention of taking them and therefore there was no point in giving them extra time to reconsider. When the two officials heard this they decided that they would have to inspect all the rooms of the house and make an inventory of the contents, so as to report back to the authorities on this. In their report they said that they were accompanied on this visit of the house by Citizeness Madeleine Fontaine, the directress. They avoided terms like sister, or superioress. They found that there were pictures in the house which were of Catholic religious significance, as well as others which reflected aspects of the former class of nobility. They ordered the bursar of the house to remove all these, but they selected some which they thought were of artistic value to be retained for the town museum.

On 23 November there was a new decree expelling from hospitals all religious women who had not taken the oaths. This applied to the dispensary run by the Daughters, and a new lay staff was brought in. At the same time they did not go as far as expelling the sisters. The reason for this was that they believed that the sisters had secret remedies and prescriptions for various illnesses, and they hoped that they would discover these secrets and then expel the sisters. The name was also changed, from the House of Charity to the House of Humanity.

Lebon travelled all through the area under his command, and in a report dated 26 November 1793 he wrote: “No twenty-four hour period passes in which I do not bring before the revolutionary criminal court in Arras two or three head of game for the guillotine”. The criminal court did not go along with Lebon’s thirst for executions and very often imposed prison sentences instead of the death penalty. Lebon put up with this until February 1794, when he changed all the court personnel and replaced them with persons who would do exactly what he wanted. One of these replacements wrote the following month that the guillotine “is never idle; dukes, marquises, counts and barons, men and women, fall like hailstones”. A second court had to be established to deal with all the new work.

In spite of all this increased revolutionary atmosphere in Arras the Daughters were left generally in peace. They continued to attend to the poor and sick in the dispensary and in their own homes, and the flow of alms to them never slackened. They also engaged in the dangerous enterprise of helping people to escape into Belgium, the border being only about forty miles away. They gave financial help to such people and helped also to provide disguises.

Marie-Madeleine kept detailed financial accounts, and her accounts for all 1793 and the first six weeks of 1794 are still extant. She had to avoid using terms like “sister”, and the sisters are now referred to as “the young ladies” who take up collections in the town. In November 1793 they are called “young citizenesses”. The mother general had advised this as a safeguard. Also, in 1794 Marie-Madeleine started writing the new names of the months and using the dates of the new calendar of the revolutionary period. In her accounts she lists very many anonymous donations, probably thinking it prudent not to put down the names of donors. The accounts show that even at that difficult time the people of the town continued to support the work of the sisters. Finally, the accounts also show that Marie-Madeleine did all that she could to ensure that all sums legally due to the house were paid up. Some years earlier she had written to the Arras municipality claiming the continuing right of the house to receive donations of wine and other gifts, which it used to receive in the pre-revolutionary period. In that letter, in 1791, she was still able to refer to the Sisters of Charity, describe herself as superioress and promise to pray for the municipal officials.

I mentioned earlier that at the start of the revolutionary period there were seven sisters in the house in Arras. At some stage one of these returned to her family.

In Paris there was a group called The Jacobin Club, a meeting-place for people who embraced all the revolutionary ideas of the time. It took its name from the fact that it met in the former Dominican priory on the Rue Saint-Jacques. Because of the location of their priory the Dominicans had been known as the Jacobins. Throughout France similar clubs were established, including one in Arras. At the meetings of the club all matters relating to the implementation of the various laws and decrees were discussed, along with specific plans for putting them into practice in Arras. Two wealthy Catholic men of the town, at considerable personal risk, used to attend all meetings of the club in order to learn what was being planned, and they passed on what they learned to persons who might be concerned. They tipped off the Daughters that it would be prudent to get the two youngest sisters across the border into Belgium as soon as possible. They brought to the house the sort of clothes two young local women would wear, and arranged for a trustworthy man, a merchant who supplied goods to the house, to escort them to the frontier. This was successfully achieved, and they continued their lives as Daughters of Charity first in Germany, later in Poland and eventually in the neighbourhood of Geneva. With their departure only four sisters remained in Arras, Marie-Madeleine Fontaine, aged 71, Marie-Françoise Lanel, 49, Thérèse-Madeleine Fantou, 47, and Jeanne Gérard, 42.

On 5 February 1794 a representative of the revolutionary administration took possession of the Daughters’ house, and assumed control of all finances. He was one of the people who thought that the sisters had been given too much freedom to continue their work, when every other female religious community in the town had been suppressed. Nine days later, on the 14th, the four sisters were arrested on the charge of not having taken the prescribed oaths. They were taken to a mansion in the town which had been confiscated and turned into a detention prison. Lebon had drawn up a very severe regime for the prisoners, but as always seems to happen in such cases, the persons appointed to administer the regime did not always do so with the severity intended. Some of the wardens permitted breaches of the rules, such as allowing prisoners to speak to each other and to communicate with people outside, and they also helped in the provision of proper food. One official connected with the prison had been involved in some way with the administration of the Daughters’ dispensary, and he did as much as possible to help the four imprisoned sisters.

At the beginning of March Lebon issued further decrees about the prisoners. They were to be divided into separate categories, and each category brought to a different place of detention. This meant that families were broken up, with men, women and children being put in different places. He also decreed that each detained person be allowed keep only what was absolutely necessary. This meant, in fact, that the officials were licensed to steal from the detainees anything which took their fancy, money, watches, books and articles of clothing. This was done over the two days of 8 and 9 March, in the fourth week of the sisters’ detention. They were also brought to a new prison, the former convent called the convent of the Good Shepherd, or of Providence.

This building had been designated as a place of detention for women who were under suspicion. Lebon even invented a category of “women under suspicion of being under suspicion”. Most of the detained women were from noble and rich families from all over that part of northern France. There were about five hundred persons in the building, resulting in gross overcrowding. Lebon drew up a set of rules for the house much more severe than any previous one, especially as regards the question of food. The detainees were not allowed visitors, and were also forbidden to send or receive letters. To make sure that the regime would be enforced Lebon stipulated very severe penalties for any prison officer who allowed any relaxation of the rules. The governor and vice-governor of the prison were two very cruel women who were in full agreement with Lebon’s ideas. The governor used to celebrate on the days when women were taken out to execution, and get blind drunk. She, in spite of Lebon’s decree, was ready to take bribes, provided they were large enough.

Several women who had spent time in that prison, but who were not executed, have left written accounts of what went on there. These were educated women who needed some form of intellectual relaxation to break the monotony of prison life. Some of them used to meet in small groups, around the bed of one of them, for intelligent and stimulating conversation, each contributing from her own background and experience. For variety, each meeting was held around a different bed. The Daughters of Charity were invited to take part in these meetings, and naturally their contribution was on religious matters. They were, in fact, exercising a much needed ministry, in view of the shortage of priests after so many expulsions.

On 4 April, after about three weeks in their first prison and almost four in the second, the four Daughters of Charity were brought before a tribunal. They were charged with having been in possession of counter-revolutionary printed material, found in the Maison de la Charité. There seems to be evidence that this material had been planted, and then conveniently found, hidden under some straw, by the daughter of the civil administrator of the house who had been put in charge before the arrest of the sisters. The entire transcript of the tribunal proceedings is still extant, in the archives of the department of the Pas de Calais. Marie-Madeleine was asked if she knew why she had been arrested, and she said she did not. Asked if she had any suspicion, she said she supposed it was because she had not taken the oath, but that as she was not a religious she was not obliged to take it. Asked if she read the local newspapers, she said she could not afford to buy them. She was shown the publications which, it was alleged, had been found in the house, and she said she had never seen them before. There were other questions as well, and at the end the transcript of the proceedings was read to her and she signed it as being accurate. The other three sisters answered in the same way, except that Marie-Françoise Lanel admitted, for the sake of absolute truth, that while she had never read such papers in the house she had, in fact, read parts of them elsewhere.

On the evidence presented there was really no case for the sisters to answer, but the administration of law at that time did not follow normal rules. The decision of the court was that there was a very strong presumption that the four accused had hidden the counter-revolutionary publications in their house, publications which “tended to excite revolt and ignite civil war in the départment”. They were sentenced to remain in detention, and the file of the case was to be forwarded to the civil authorities of the town of Arras. The next day they were moved into their third house of detention.

The new prison was named the prison of Les Baudets, because it was on the street of that name; the name means the street of the donkeys. The actual building in which the detainees were kept was formerly part of the town mansion of a wealthy family. Conditions were worse than in the previous prison. One of the added sources of suffering was the fact that this prison was regarded as the last stage on the road towards an appearance before the revolutionary tribunal, and therefore as the ante-chamber to the guillotine. Every day there were new arrivals, and equally every day there were departures of others to trial and execution.

The sisters were to spend twelve weeks there, and they realized that there was no real likelihood that they would escape the guillotine. In that realistic frame of mind they prepared for death. Thérèse-Madeleine Fantou managed to get a letter smuggled out to her family in Brittany, in which she urged them to remain loyal to their religion. Unfortunately the letter was lost later, and that would seem to be the only point remembered from it. It was an obvious point to put in the letter, as she and the three other sisters were doing precisely that in their own situation. There is a letter still extant, written from Arras by a friend of the Robespierre family to Robespierre’s sister on 24 April that year, in which it is stated that in the previous three weeks five hundred persons had been guillotined and about three thousand arrested. The writer added that other atrocious details were not being included in the letter because one had to be an eye-witness in order to believe they had happened. The three weeks mentioned were, of course, during the period of detention of the four Daughters of Charity.

In spite of that description of what was going on in Arras, Lebon was not certain that he could get a death sentence for the four sisters. They were too well known in Arras for their charitable work, and he knew that they still had the support of the majority of the people of the town. He was presented with the possibility of achieving his wish in April. His superiors wrote to him that the ideas of the revolution were still not being adequately implemented in his area and he was ordered to go to Cambrai, about forty miles from Arras, to alter that situation. He left on 5 May, and the following day started repeating in Cambrai what he had been doing in Arras. As well as arresting people in Cambrai he also brought prisoners from Arras for trial and execution in Cambrai, and all through the last month of their detention in Arras the four sisters saw the carts, known as tumbrels, loaded with prisoners leave for the neighboring town.

On 25 June a letter was received by the authorities in Arras that the four “former Sisters of Charity” were to be sent to Cambrai immediately. The letter ordered that they were to arrive in Cambrai very early in the morning, which meant a departure from Arras very late at night. The four sisters were to be the only persons in the cart, but at the last moment orders were received to collect another prisoner, a man, at another prison. There was a delay of one hour there, midnight to one o’clock in the morning, and this gave the sisters an unexpected chance to speak to a woman who used to be involved with them in their work, a Madame Cartier. It is not exactly clear how this was possible, but it is likely that the guards who were with the sisters, seeing that there would be a delay, confided the care of the sisters to some of the warders of the prison where the cart stopped, and this gave the sisters the chance to meet Madame Cartier and speak to her.

Madame Cartier and her family, imprisoned with her, survived the period of the Terror, and later told what had happened at that midnight meeting. First of all, Marie-Madeleine tried to give hope to her and strengthen her in her faith. She realized that she would be executed in a few hours, so she gave her rosary to Madame Cartier. Oddly enough, the sister had seven francs of personal money still in her possession, and she gave this money to Madame Cartier with instructions that when the two youngest Daughters of Charity, who had escaped from Arras some time previously, returned from exile and re-occupied the former house of the Daughters in Arras, they were to be given this money. Madame Cartier was, in fact, later able to do precisely that. The final memory she had of that midnight meeting was that Marie-Madeleine told her she was not to have any fears about the future, because the four Daughters of Charity would be the last persons to be executed. This also proved to be true.

When the tumbrils finally left for Cambrai they met, at a stop somewhere along the route, other tumbrels with prisoners destined for the tribunal there. Marie-Madeleine recognized one woman who had been a Lady of Charity in Arras. Once again she told her, and the others, to have no fear for the future, as the four sisters would be the last persons to be executed. She also gave another rosary to this woman. When the tumbrels started off again for the final leg of the journey to Cambrai, the one in which the sisters were was second in line. A prisoner in the first tumbrel managed to cause a wheel to break, which stopped further progress for that tumbrel. This meant that the one with the sisters became the first to arrive at the tribunal, and so the sisters were the first to be tried and condemned, and their execution was the final guillotining in Cambrai. The tradition has always been that the accident, which the prisoner provoked in the other tumbril, saved that group from being executed.

They arrived in Cambrai at about ten o’clock in the morning and were brought to a house of detention where they were to be kept until their appearance before the tribunal. However, the governor of that prison refused to accept them as it was overcrowded. While that point was being argued the sisters were able to mix with the prisoners already there, and once again Sister Marie-Madeleine encouraged them by repeating that the four Daughters of Charity would be the final victims of the Terror in Cambrai.

The governor got his way and the sisters had to be moved on, so they were brought straight to the tribunal, and were immediately put on trial, simply because they were the first to arrive. The tribunal held its sessions in the former seminary. The charge against them was that they had kept in their possession counter-revolutionary publications. They were interrogated about this, and apparently one of the four judges was of the opinion that this charge was hardly one meriting the death penalty, and he offered the sisters the chance of freedom if they would take the prescribed oath, which they refused to do. This meant that the death penalty had to be imposed, and it was. The refusal of the oath was, of course, what underlay all the other matters, and was the real motive for the arrest and condemnation of the sisters. Joseph Lebon, as an apostate priest, apparently regarded priests and members of religious communities who refused to take the various oaths as offending against one of the main aims of the revolution, namely the bringing of the Church under state control. He was right, of course, because it was precisely to prevent such a happening that so many refused the oath and remained faithful to the Church.

An eye-witness, who was present at the tribunal when the death sentence was passed, noticed one important difference between the attitude of the members of the public who were present on that occasion and the behavior of the public on previous occasions when the death sentence was passed. The normal routine was that when an aristocrat or someone else from the old regime was sentenced to death the public clapped and applauded. When the four sisters were sentenced there was complete silence in the courtroom. This silence of the crowd was maintained right up till the last of the sisters was guillotined.

In the courtroom the sisters kept saying the rosary. An official was ordered to remove these “charms” from the prisoners, but another one thought it would get a laugh if he twisted the rosaries around each sister’s head. The sisters accepted this as a symbol of the crown of martyrdom.

When they were brought out on to the central square of the town, where the guillotine had been erected, Marie-Madeleine Fontaine again repeated her assertion that they would be the final victims of the Terror. A letter written at the time, and still extant, says that as she mounted the platform of the guillotine she shouted out loud to the crowd: “Christians, listen to me! We are the final victims. Tomorrow the persecution will be over, the scaffold will be dismantled, and the altars of Jesus will rise glorious once again”. They were guillotined on 26 June 1794.

The following day an army officer was charged with having counter-revolutionary ideas, but was acquitted because it was alleged that this was inadvertence on his part. Such an acquittal would have been unheard of a few days previously. Two factors were at work here. The first was that the tribunal personnel had been very much surprised at the changed attitude of the townspeople towards the work of the tribunal in the case of the four Daughters of Charity. The second factor was far more significant. Word had come from Paris that three days previously Joseph Lebon himself had been denounced for what nowadays would be called crimes against humanity. Documentary evidence had been collected and submitted to the authorities in Paris showing how in his work he had gone far beyond what the law demanded or allowed. These two factors changed the whole atmosphere in Arras overnight, though arrests and imprisonments continued.

On one previous occasion Lebon had been in trouble, but had managed to defend himself successfully. He was quite sure he could do the same again, but he did have to give time to preparing his defense and this meant less time for his previous activities. Contrary to his expectations he was arrested on 2 August, six weeks after the execution of the sisters, and was imprisoned in Paris, Meaux and Amiens for the fourteen months during which his trial dragged on. He was guillotined eventually on 15 October 1795.

Other persons who had been prominent in revolutionary matters in Arras were also arrested and imprisoned for various periods. In the case of some, the townspeople looted and burned their houses. After release from prison some had tried to return to the town but the people would not have them, and they had to go and settle in places where they were not known.