One October morning in the year 1793, twenty English nuns and one novice were turned out of their monastery in the Rue des Anglaises, Cambrai, by French Revolutionaries. They were Benedictines who had lived quietly in the city since 1623, because the Penal Laws of the time forbade the establishment of monasteries in their home country. They had known what was likely to happen, but they kept hoping it wouldn’t. They stayed on as Revolutionary fervour made their position more and more insecure, fretting about their diminishing income and worrying about the future. D. Ann Teresa Partington wrote a spirited account of the nuns’ travails during this period while another, D. Anne-Joseph Knight, sent a series of letters to her family after her return to England which suggest the shock and horror of events. It was night when the knock on the door finally came.
I had the keys of the great door at the time, and when I opened the door, I saw three great men with clubs in their hands. I never was so frightened in my life. They told us we were to go out just then. We begged for a small space of time, but could only obtain half-an-hour at most. All our linning (linen) was in the water for the wash, and our bread in the oven, and you must imagine in the bustle we were then in we could not do much.
They were hurried away in a coach and two open carts to Compiègne, where they were imprisoned for eighteen months, part of the time with the sixteen Carmelites whose martyrdom we celebrate today. The English nuns were nearly starved and lived in daily fear of being executed. Without Mass and the sacraments for the most part, they nevertheless maintained a community life — but at what cost. As D. Anne-Joseph remarked:
. . . our heads are safe, but I really think it has ruined our constitutions, at least hurt them very much, and I for my part am an old woman.
She was then fifty-one. But she was right about the strain imprisonment had imposed. Four of the nuns died in prison, including D. Anselma Anne*, the cellarer, so that only seventeen returned to England in May 1795; and of them, one found the strain so great that she transferred to the Cistercians, being in need of a more regular form of life than was possible during the forty years of wandering that ensued after the return to England. From this small group of tired and weary nuns came Stanbrook Abbey, the many Benedictine foundations in South America which look to Stanbrook as their origin, and, last and least, ourselves.
The Carmelites, who were locked up in the same prison, went boldly to their deaths, wearing their monastic habits and leaving their lay clothes to the English nuns, who were subsequently able to escape to England wearing them and whose successors still treasure some of them as relics today. The two communities were unable to speak to one another, but we are told the Benedictines waved their handkerchiefs at the window and prayed for their sisters as they were taken away. Bernanos and Poulenc have given their version of events, but personally, I like the simple, homely accounts of the English nuns, who recognized heroic virtue when they saw it and knew that they themselves had come close to being asked to share the same fate.
Red martyrdom or white, both are forms of witness that take more courage than most of us think we could ever muster, but grace is given when we need it, not in advance. Today, as we ask the prayers of the Carmelite martyrs of Compiègne, I think we could also ask the prayers of those Cambrai nuns, don’t you?
* Our families were related, so she is my ‘jailbird connection’ 🙂
Note: None of the Benedictine monasteries of women in South America is actually a foundation of Stanbrook, nor are we, although the founding nuns came from the Stanbrook community.