Martyred Daughters of Charity
Thomas Davitt CM
Angers is a fairly large town just over 300 kilometres south-west of Paris. In a Pastoral Letter in May 1983 the bishop of Angers wrote:
On Sunday 19 February 1984, unless anything unforeseen happens, Pope John Paul II will proclaim to the whole Church that the priest Guillaume Repin and his ninety-eight companions gave up their lives because of the faith.
Two of these ninety-eight were Daughters of Charity who had been working in St John’s Hospital in Angers. They were Sisters Odile Baumgarten and Marie-Anne Vaillot.
Odile Baumgarten, whose family name is sometimes printed in a Frenchified form as Baugard, was born in Gondrexange in Lorraine in 1750. She was the fourth child of a miller; the three children born before her all died in infancy. At the age of 24 she became a postulant for the Daughters of Charity in Metz, the main city in her native province of Lorraine. Her first appointment was to a hospital in Brest, but seven months after her arrival there the hospital was destroyed by fire. She was then transferred to St John’s Hospital in Angers. She was put in charge of the pharmacy.
Marie-Anne Vaillot was born in Fontainebleau in 1734, the daughter of a stonemason. At the age of 27 she entered the Daughters of Charity in Paris. Her fourth appointment was to St John’s Hospital in Angers.
St John’s Hospital in Angers
This hospital was dedicated to St John the Evangelist. It was built towards the end of the 12th century by the representative of the English king, Henry II, in the province of Anjou. It was very generously supported financially by King Henry II as part of his reparation for the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket by the king’s knights. In 1639 the administration of the hospital was confided to the Daughters of Charity. It is historically important as being the first hospital ever entrusted to the care of the Daughters of Charity. It seems that the municipal authorities of the town of Angers decided to ask the sisters to come and take over the hospital as a result of a visit to the town by Madame Goussault. She had paid a visit to the hospital and had found that the conditions in it were very bad. The negotiations on behalf of the municipal authorities were carried on by Guy Lasnier, the Vicar General of the diocese. He also held the title of abbot of the abbey of Saint-Etienne de Vaux, and as a result he is usually referred to as the Abbé de Vaux. Many of the letters which he wrote to Vincent have survived, though we have only one surviving letter from Vincent to him. These letters are in the Coste volumes. About one hundred letters written to him by Louise de Marillac are also extant, and are printed in the 1983 edition of her Ecrits Spirituels.
Angers during the early years of the French Revolution
Up to the end of 1790 the revolution had hardly any effect on St John’s Hospital, though the sisters there received letters from Paris and learnt what was happening in the capital. But early in 1791 they began to feel the pressures exerted by the terms of the oath of loyalty to the civil constitution of the clergy. They were forced to close the chapel in the hospital in April and were forbidden to keep as their confessor a local Parish Priest, because he had not taken the oath. Sister Antoinette Taillade, the superior, made an official protest about this matter of their confessor, and the municipal authorities changed their mind and recorded in the minutes of one of their meetings that the sisters of the hospital might go to any priest of their choice as confessor. However, all priests who had refused to take the oath, with the exception of priests who were sick or who were over the age of sixty, were arrested and the law of deportation was applied to them. Two hundred and sixty-four priests from Angers were exiled because of this law. The municipal authorities appointed two priests, who had taken the oath, to be chaplains to the hospital. The sisters left it entirely to the patients in the hospital to decide whether they would accept the ministrations of these two priests or not. The sisters themselves, though, did not avail of their ministry. They were able, though not frequently, to meet two priests who had not taken the oath. One of these was Jacques Devaux, who had been formerly the Vincentian superior in Angers (and not to be confused with the Abbé de Vaux mentioned earlier). He was sixty-eight years old. The other was a diocesan priest named Gruget, aged forty. Both of these men risked their lives to provide this ministry to the sisters. Devaux died of natural causes in February 1793. Gruget managed to conduct a secret ministry all through the revolutionary period without being captured, and he did not die until 1840. He left much important written material about the revolutionary period in Angers.
The Mother General of the Daughters and the Revolution
From August 1792 a new oath was demanded by law, the oath to uphold Liberty and Equality. It was obligatory for everybody holding State employment, and refusal to take the oath meant loss of salary. After April 1793 the penalty was deportation to the penal colony in French Guyana, in South America. From 3 October 1793 the oath became obligatory for all members of female religious congregations. The wording of the formula of the oath was somewhat loose and a number of persons took it, giving themselves the benefit of a benign interpretation of the words. Others were permitted to take the oath after they had explained what they understood it to mean. Later on this tolerance was discontinued.
The Mother General of the Daughters of Charity, Antoinette Deleau, had already given some guidelines in circular letters to the community. Back in June 1791 she had written:
I strongly recommend you to show the greatest kindness to the poor and to act with the utmost, constantly maintained, prudence. Do not find fault with anyone, do not judge anyone. Freedom of opinion has been conceded, so let us make the best of this and not allow ourselves to criticise in any way other religions. Let us still be as straightforward as possible when we are involved in temporal matters with parish priests who have taken the oath, and with other priests in that category. I ask this of you in the name of the holy religion which we profess, and in the name of the God of Charity who lays this obligation on us… I hope that your commitment to religious principles, to the laws of the Church, to the duties of our state in life, and the respect which we owe to every class of person, will guarantee our freedom from any annoying consequences.
That final hope was, of course, too much to expect, and the Daughters were caught up in the on-going campaign against religion. On 9 April 1792 Mère Deleau wrote another circular announcing the legal suppression of religious communities, and saying that the Daughters of Charity were included in this legal suppression even though they were not specifically mentioned. Some of the points which she made in this letter were as follows:
Do not give up the service of your poor unless you are forced to… In order to be able to continue in the service of the poor fall in, as far as possible, with everything demanded of you in the present situation, provided it is not against religion, against the Church or against your conscience.
On a point of practical detail she also told them that if the law against religious habits was imposed on them they were to demand from the civil administration the expenses necessary for buying their new clothes.
Nine days later the Vincentian Superior General, Jean-Félix Cayla de la Garde, had a meeting with Mère Deleau and all the superiors of the Daughters’ houses in the Paris region in order to draw up guidelines for dividing up the material assets of the community houses, in the event of expulsion orders being served on the sisters. Roughly speaking the system which was arranged was that for each ten years of her vocation a sister got an incremental increase in the proportion of the material assets of the house assigned to her. However, this was not to be applied too rigidly, and if a sister needed more it was to be given to her.
On 12 June the same year, 1792, she wrote another circular letter, and acted on her own advice contained in her letter of 9 April and called members of the community “Madame” instead of “Sister”. She ended the letter like this:
Redouble your prayers and your trust in Providence, which will protect you. Violent storms cannot last long, and the fiercest gales calm down; experience shows this to be so. Take care of your health, keep up your courage, continue carrying out your service to the poor in your care… We still exist, there is no more talk about the habit, but whatever may happen do not let anything separate you from the unwavering commitment which you owe to Jesus Christ and his Church.
This letter was addressed to the Daughters in Carcassonne, but was obviously of universal application.
The official implementation of the law suppressing religious communities and the wearing of the religious habit came into force on 10 August 1792. Three sisters who were office holders in the motherhouse in Paris took it on themselves to send out a circular letter to all houses on 22 November. In this letter they said that a Daughter of Charity was obliged to live and die in the service of the poor. She was bound to this in virtue of her vows, but also in virtue of the oath of Liberty and Equality. For this reason all Daughters of Charity were obliged to obey the laws of the civil authorities. When Mère Deleau learned of this letter she sent out one of her own five days later saying that all houses of the community were to ignore the previous letter, which had been sent out without her authority and without her knowledge. In a postscript she said that no further effort should be made to contact her. She stayed on in Paris for another year and in November 1793 she left for Picardy.
Angers during the later years of the Revolution
During the first half of 1793 the country people in the provinces of Brittany, Poitou and Anjou were in revolt against the civil authorities because of their anti-religious activities. By July this revolt had been crushed, and afterwards the repressive measures were increased. Back in February some citizens of Angers wanted to have the “aristocratic women” who worked in St John’s Hospital brought before the civil courts. They said that these women showed a lack of care towards the sick and treated them with cruelty. Because of the local rebellion in the area nothing was done until this revolt had been crushed. In September the matter was again raised, under the heading of the oaths of Liberty and Equality and the wearing of the religious habit. On 2 September a military guard was placed on the hospital to prevent any of the sisters escaping, and at eight o’clock the following morning the civil administrators of the hospital had a meeting with the superior and three other sisters. The administrators raised the two matters of the oath and the wearing of the habit. The sisters said, according to the minutes of the meeting, that as they were neither civil servants of the state nor teachers they were not bound by law to take the oath. With regard to the religious habit, they said that it helped the patients to identify them more easily. Also, they said that a habit lasted twelve or fifteen years and was therefore more economical that lay clothes. If the thirty-nine sisters who worked in the hospital had to change to lay clothes it would be a matter of considerable expense.
The authorities decided to open a register of women who wished to devote themselves to “the care of humanity” in the hospital service, in place of the Daughters of Charity. However, they were realistic enough to realise that this idea was going to be very difficult to put into practice, so they pressed ahead in October with the law forbidding the wearing of the habit, as this was a law which could be put into practice very easily. The sisters, in accordance with what Mère Deleau had advised, obeyed all the legal requirements that were specifically laid down, except, of course, anything against religion, the Church or their conscience. The authorities encouraged the sisters to put their names on the new register of women who wished to devote themselves to “the care of humanity”. They were urged to reflect, and not to be influenced by any consideration other than “love of country, love of humanity, submission to the laws, and the desire to co-operate in the strengthening of the Republic”. The central authorities in Paris increased the pressure on the local authorities to act against the sisters, so on 9 November the municipality renewed their appeal to them to put their names on the new register. Later in the same month all the sacred vessels from the chapel in the hospital were confiscated, and on 15 December a list was made of all the contents of the sisters’ quarters in the hospital, including the library. In the library there were one hundred and thirty books bound in leather and parchment, including a twenty-five volume commentary on the sacred scriptures.
On 29 December 1793 the Convention passed a new law obliging all “girls or women belonging to the former congregations or religious orders of their sex” to take the oath of Liberty and Equality within the next ten days. Refusal to take the oath would mean being deprived of salary, being expelled from their place of residence and “being regarded as suspect, and treated accordingly”. This became known in Angers on 5 January 1794, and the authorities notified the sisters, and pointed out that refusal to take the oath would be “formal disobedience to the law and would perhaps bring down on them very severe penalties”. Officials went to the hospital on several successive days and interviewed the sisters in small groups. Three sisters promised to take the oath, and on 19 January they did so at a public ceremony. The minutes of the proceedings, after recording the oath-taking ceremony, go on to state that many more sisters would have taken the oath were it not for “the perfidious suggestion and evil resolutions of the afore-mentioned Antoinette, superioress, Marie-Anne and Odile”. And so, for the first time, Marie-Anne and Odile appear on the scene as named individuals. Up to this the sisters were usually mentioned as a group, and not as individuals. The minutes of the meeting recommend that these three be removed from the hospital. Antoinette Taillade, the superior, Marie-Anne and Odile were singled out from the other thirty-six sisters who worked in the hospital, because Antoinette was superior, and the other two were regarded as the strongest opponents of the revolutionary ideas, and were believed to have influenced many other sisters in the hospital to resist what the civil authorities wanted to do.
The three were immediately arrested, but there was a shortage of prison accommodation because of the huge number of persons who had been arrested under the various laws of the period. Almost all the religious houses in Angers had been confiscated and turned into prisons. The three Daughters of Charity were held in the Calvary convent until 21 January. On that date Marie-Anne and Odile were separated from Antoinette, and were moved to the Good Shepherd convent. In an account written at the time, and which has survived, it was stated that the authorities hoped that the superior, Antoinette, could be persuaded to take the oath and then encourage the rest of the community to do so. Marie-Anne and Odile were to be made an example of what refusal to take the oath would mean. Father Gruget, mentioned earlier, thought that perhaps the authorities felt that if the superior was executed the three sisters who had already taken the oath might publicly renounce the oath.
On 28 January Marie-Anne and Odile were interrogated in the Good Shepherd convent. The hand-written minutes of the interrogation of prisoners in the Good Shepherd convent on 2 Pluviôse of Year II of the republican calendar, which was 28 January 1794, devote nine lines to Marie-Anne and nine more to “Audile Bangard”. Marie-Anne stated that she was arrested because “she had not taken the oath, did not want to take it; she was not afraid of being disposed of, no matter how. From her answers it can be seen quite clearly that she is a fanatic and in rebellion against the laws of her country. She was never present at the Mass of a priest who had taken the oath”. In the left margin of the page there is the letter “F”, indicating that she was to be executed by la fusillade, the firing squad. Almost the same words are used about Odile, and she also has an “F” in the margin. The Good Shepherd nuns, who had taken the oath, were present at the interrogation and wrote a more detailed account of it later on.
The execution squad operated inside the enclosure of a former priory about two kilometers outside Angers, which is now known as the Martyrs’ Field. Executions had taken place there on the 12, 15, 18, 20, 21 and 22 January 1794. The condemned persons were tied in pairs to a central rope and were marched from the prisons to the place. Those who could not walk were taken in carts. Marie-Anne and Odile were scheduled for execution on 1 February. There were further executions on 10 February and 16 April, bringing the total number executed in Angers to more than two thousand. A contemporary account of the journey to the place of execution tells us that on the way Marie-Anne started the Litany of Our Lady, which was then taken up by all the prisoners as they went along.
The procession to the place of execution was accompanied by a military band, and some of the more ardent revolutionaries went to see the spectacle. They often referred to the execution days as the happiest days of their lives. At the place of execution the victims were lined up in front of the firing squad. There was only one single discharge of muskets by the squad, and those who were not killed by it were finished off by either sword or bayonet. Odile was hit by several bullets and died immediately. Marie-Anne received only a broken arm from a bullet, and she held Odile in her arms. There is nothing on record to say exactly how she was killed, but it would have been by either a sword or a bayonet.
At the ceremony in Rome on 19 February 1984 Pope John Paul II beatified ninety-nine persons who died for the faith in Angers. In his homily he had to speak in general terms because of this large number, but he did make mention of some of them by name. He said that Marie-Anne comforted Odile by saying:
We will have the happiness of seeing God and possessing him for all eternity…and we will be possessed by him without fear of being ever separated from him.