A group of eleven nuns of the Ursuline Order who were arrested by authorities of the French revolutionary government and guillotined between October 17 and 23, 1794, at Valenciennes. Their crime: they reopened a school in contravention to the government decree prohibiting unapproved educational institutions from functioning. The nuns were: Sr Clotilde Paillot, OSU, superior; Sr Marie Louise Ducret, OSU; Sr Marie Magdalen Desjardin, OSU; Sr Marie Louise Vanot, OSU; Sr Françoise Lacroix, OSU; Sr Margaret Leroux, OSU; Sr Anne Marie Erraux, OSU; Sr Anne Joseph Leroux, OSU; Sr Gabrielle Bourla, OSU; Sr Jane Louis Barré, OSU; and Sr Jane Rievie Prin, OSU. The prioress, Sr Clotilde Paillot, OSU, tried to take the entire blame on herself for any illegal actions but the tribunal refused to agree and all were condemned to the guillotine. Sr Marie Erraux, OSU was utterly terrified and Sr Clotilde comforted and supported her, promising to stay close beside her.
Valenciennes is within the boundary of France but very close to the border of the Austrian Netherlands (present day Belgium). The Revolutionary government closed a larger number of religious houses and schools, including that of the Ursulines. Their property seized and confiscated, 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.
One of the sisters, Sr Marie Augustine Dejardin, OSU, 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, Sr Marie Clotilde Paillot, OSU, 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. What do Catholic martyrs do facing their immanent death? They sing!
-“Les onze Ursulines de Valciennes” the execution of eleven Ursuline nuns on 17.and 23.10.1794, by commissar Jean-Baptiste Lacoste following Robespierre’s Reign of Terror, wood engraving, 1921, from: Almanac du Pelerin de 1921 Maison de la bonne Press, Paris. No. 3997.
Litany of Our Lady
Lord have mercy.
Christ have mercy.
Lord have mercy.
Christ hear us.
Christ, graciously hear us.
God, the Father of Heaven, have mercy on us.
God the Son, Redeemer of the word, have mercy on us.
God the Holy Spirit, have mercy on us.
Holy Trinity, one God, have mercy on us.
Holy Mary, pray for us.
Holy Mother of God, pray for us.
Holy Virgin of virgins, pray for us.
Mother of Christ, pray for us.
Mother of the Church, pray for us.
Mother of Divine Grace, pray for us.
Mother most pure, pray for us.
Mother most chaste, pray for us.
Mother inviolate, pray for us.
Mother undefiled, pray for us.
Mother most amiable, pray for us.
Mother most admirable, pray for us.
Mother of good counsel, pray for us.
Mother of our Creator, pray for us.
Mother of our Savior, pray for us.
Virgin most prudent, pray for us.
Virgin most venerable, pray for us.
Virgin most renowned, pray for us.
Virgin most powerful, pray for us.
Virgin most merciful, pray for us.
Virgin most faithful, pray for us.
Mirror of justice, pray for us.
Seat of wisdom, pray for us.
Cause of our joy, pray for us.
Spiritual vessel, pray for us.
Singular vessel of devotion, pray for us.
Mystical rose, pray for us.
Tower of David, pray for us.
Tower of ivory, pray for us.
House of gold, pray for us.
Ark of the Covenant, pray for us.
Gate of heaven, pray for us.
Morning star, pray for us.
Health of the sick, pray for us.
Refuge of sinners, pray for us.
Comforter of the afflicted, pray for us.
Help of Christians, pray for us.
Queen of angels, pray for us.
Queen of patriarchs, pray for us.
Queen of prophets, pray for us.
Queen of apostles, pray for us.
Queen of martyrs, pray for us.
Queen of confessors, pray for us.
Queen of virgins, pray for us.
Queen of all Saints, pray for us.
Queen conceived without Original Sin, pray for us.
Queen assumed into Heaven, pray for us.
Queen of the Most Holy Rosary, pray for us.
Queen of Peace, pray for us.
Queen of the Church, pray for us.
Lamb of God, You take away the sins of the world; spare us O Lord!
Lamb of God, You take away the sins of the world; graciously hear us, O Lord!
Lamb of God, You take away the sins of the world; have mercy on us.
Pray for us, O Holy Mother of God. That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.
Let us pray. Grant, we ask You, Lord, that we, your servants, may enjoy lasting health of mind and body, and by the glorious intercession of the Blessed Mary, ever Virgin, be delivered from present sorrow and enter into the joy of eternal happiness. Through Christ our Lord. R/ Amen
At these killings the crowd was usually out for entertainment jeering and shouting insults and making a great noise. But as the sisters were led to the guillotine the crowd fell utterly silent and still. Sr Clotilde thanked the soldiers, calling it the most beautiful day of their lives. They were not allowed any religious symbols, but she had hidden a crucifix on her person, and when she reached the guillotine, she threw it out into the crowd.
Two hundred years later, at a service commemorating the bicentenary of their death, the family of Sr Clotilde brought this crucifix to the Ursulines and asked them to keep it in the convent chapel at Valenciennes in memory of the martyred sisters.