In Praise of Holy Women - Seton Shrine

In Praise of Holy Women

Elizabeth Ann Seton was twenty-years old when the Blessed Carmelite Martyrs of Compiègne were executed during the French Revolution. A century and a half later Francois Poulenc would tell the world their story in his sublime opera, Dialogues des Carmelites.

And there they are, invoking the Blessed Mother of Christ, as one by one they approach the scaffold and the guillotine which will end their mortal lives with a single swipe of the blade. “Salve Regina,” Hail Queen of Heaven,” they are singing now, all sixteen of them, members of the French Carmelite Order from Compiègne, forty miles north of Paris, forcibly transported to a Paris prison and condemned to death for treason by the so-called Committee of Public Safety of the National Convention of Revolutionary France.

Name them. Give these women their living names. Eleven Carmelites, three lay sisters, two tertiaries, all paraded in peasants’ clothes (their habits having been outlawed and confiscated), as they are trundled by cart through the streets of Paris for two hours this evening of July 17th, 1794.

A quick trial, with no legal defense allowed, the nuns singing hymns of praise the entire time to keep up their courage, including the Miserere, evening Vespers and Compline, Psalm 116—the “Laudate Dominum.” And, most touchingly, the Salve Regina.

They range in age from the mid-twenties to nearly eighty years old. There’s the prioress, Mother Teresa, age forty-two, highly educated, her convent dowry once paid for by none other than Marie Antoinette herself. Then there’s the sub-prioress, Mother St. Louis, also forty-two. Then Mother Henriette of Jesus, ex-prioress for two terms, and now novice mistress, age forty-nine. Then Sisters Mary of Jesus Crucified and Charlotte of the Resurrection, both seventy-nine. Then—look—there’s Sister Euphrasia of the Immaculate Conception, fifty-eight, Sister Teresa of the Sacred Heart of Mary, fifty-two, Sister Julie Louise of Jesus, fifty-three, and Sister Teresa of St. Ignatius, fifty-one. Then Sister Mary-Henrietta, thirty-four, and Sister Constance of St. Denis, a twenty-eight-year-old novice and the youngest, who—barred from making her final vows by the anti-clerical laws of the French Republic, professes her vows now to Mother Teresa, even as she is led to the guillotine.

Add to these three lay sisters: Sister St. Martha and Sister Mary of the Holy Spirit, both fifty-one, and Sister St. Francis Xavier, who is thirty. Then, finally, two tertiaries, Catherine Soiron, fifty-two, and Thérèse Soiron, forty-six, both of whom have served the community for the past two decades.

One by one they walk, bravely or stumbling, heads all held high, looking for whatever consolation they can find in the eyes of each other as they call out to the Blessed Mother. Journeys leading to the final no or yes, journeys each of us must take.

And here’s the thing: nothing captures that scene like Francois Poulenc’s opera, Dialogues des Carmelites, especially in that final scene, as one by one by one they exit the darkened stage, calling on Mary, that sweet Mother, with the time-smoothed verses of the Salve Regina.

Regina, mater misericordiae:

Vita, dulcedo, et spes nostra, salve.

Ad te clamamus, exsules, filii Hevae….

Hail, Holy Queen, Mother of Mercy,

our life, our sweetness and our hope!

To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve.

To thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping

in this valley of tears!

Turn, then, O most gracious Advocate,

thine eyes of mercy toward us,

and after this, our exile, show unto us

the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus.

O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary.

Georges Bernanos, that extraordinary Catholic novelist, wrote the original libretto for the opera, which was subsequently modified by Poulenc. The Dialogues premiered at La Scala in an Italian version in late January 1957, though it has been subsequently translated and performed to appreciative audiences in French, German, Spanish and English in Paris, San Francisco, New York, Madrid, and Sydney, Australia.

After this, our exile…. As powerful as the opera (and the film adapted from the opera) and the novel are, it’s that final scene which stays with you, as one by one by one the nuns walk offstage (guarded by two soldiers) to meet the guillotine and we are jarred again and again by the swish of the guillotine’s blade dropping, momentarily disrupting the orchestra and the singing of the nuns, their voices diminishing one by one. And then we are left only with the silence, as one by one the soldiers too depart…for the next round of executions. And then it’s the crowd—those stunned witnesses—leaving the stage, leaving behind two intersecting streets that form a glowing cross.

Earlier, in Act 1 of the opera, we witness the former Mother Superior suffer an agonizing death, believing that—despite her having given her life to what she believed, she has been abandoned in the end by God.

A young aristocratic woman named Blanche, who has recently joined the Order out of fear and to avoid the anti-aristocratic sentiments and the anti-clericalism of the mob, is told that that is not how the Order works, but rather by freely giving oneself to God. Later, those same Carmelites take a unanimous vote to suffer martyrdom, if necessary, rather than abandon their vows. Blanche, it turns out, leaves the convent and returns home, following the death of her father, who has been guillotined. But now, as the nuns process toward their deaths, Blanche—despite those very human fears we can all understand—voluntarily joins them, singing the final stanza of the Veni Creator Spiritus—Come Holy Spirit—as she too offers her life to God.

And here’s the thing. Anyone watching this final scene unfold, no matter how that scene is performed, would have to ask where we would stand given those same circumstances. Would we have the courage to stick by our deepest convictions? Or would we turn away, recant, and say the whole thing was a delirium, a fiction really, and go on living for however long or short our lives turned out to be?

Or do we give ourselves over as witnesses to Christ and his Mother?

And isn’t that what that other Mother, Elizabeth Ann Seton, did with her own witness? An Episcopalian from a well-to-do family in New York City, who would step by step follow the path she felt called to, converting to the Catholic faith in spite of the fractures it caused in her own family and among many of her friends?

She was twenty-years old when the Carmelites of Compiègne were martyred. As it turned out, Robespierre himself—that mastermind of the Terror—would himself be guillotined just ten days later, and there were many at the time who believed that the sacrifice of those sixteen nuns was a major force in finally quelling the insanity of the Terror.

Twenty. And married only six months earlier to William Magee Seton. But living in a society that at least allowed religious toleration and pluralism in the wake of the American Revolution, though Catholicism still remained suspect among many citizens of the American Republic at the time.In another half dozen years, Elizabeth would lose her husband to tuberculosis in Italy, and be left to raise their five children.

In time she would convert, losing many of her wealthier connections, and finding herself struggling to make ends meet by teaching the poor and abandoned in New York, before moving down to Baltimore, then Emmitsburg, Maryland, where she would found a new order, the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph’s, and establish the first free Catholic girls’ school led by religious women in the new nation.

Despite illness and fatigue, Elizabeth continued to care for the sick and the destitute, writing eloquent letters of encouragement to so many. In time she even came to work with several French priests who had witnessed the Reign of Terror themselves. In time too she would lose two of her beloved daughters to early deaths and lose her own life to illness at forty-six. And in time—150 years on—she would become the first American born here to be declared a saint by the Catholic Church.

Listen. To this day you can hear those chants in the keeping of the hours by the Carmelites as well as by the Sisters and Daughters of Charity, as they carry on their work. You can even hear echoes of the Salve Regina, voices crying out to that sweet woman, our Queen of Heaven, that we too, might be shown after this our exile, the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus.

PAUL MARIANI is University Professor of English emeritus at Boston College. He is the author of nineteen books, including biographies of, among others, William Carlos Williams, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Wallace Stevens. His previous volumes of poetry include Epitaphs for the Journey, The Great Wheel, and Salvage Operations. He is also the author of Thirty Days: On Retreat with the Exercises of St. Ignatius and The Mystery of It All: The Vocation of Poetry in the Twilight of Modernity.

Image: Francis Poulenc’s opera “Dialogues des Carmelites” at Theater an der Wien in Vienna, April 13, 2011 / REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo 

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