“This wall against which a great number of priests were killed, and still stained with the blood of the martyrs, has been transported here to be offered for the veneration of the faithful.”

By Karen Ullo

In my forthcoming novel, To Crown with Liberty, the dedication page reads, “To the Holy September Martyrs. Pray for us.”

Like most of my saint friends, the Holy September Martyrs found me, rather than the other way around. When I started work on a novel set during the French Revolution, I had never heard of them. I had heard of the more famous Carmelites of Compiègne, whose martyrdom is often credited with ending the Reign of Terror, and I considered writing the book to somehow include or culminate in their martyrdom on the guillotine. But as I did my research, another group of martyrs nudged me and said, “No. Not the end of the Terror. The beginning.”

The Holy September Martyrs are a group of 191 priests, bishops, religious brothers, deacons, and seminarians who were slaughtered during the September Massacres on 2 and 3 September 1792. They were beatified by the Catholic Church in 1926 under Pope Pius XI. One has been declared a saint: Nicolas Leclercq, in religion Brother Salomon, canonized by Pope Francis in 2016. And hundreds if not thousands more found their way to paradise on those days by refusing to worship a human institution above the one true God.

In the summer of 1792, the combined armies of Austria and Prussia were marching against Revolutionary France and appeared to be on the verge of breaking through to Paris. The prisons of Paris were crowded with thousands of political prisoners, most of them arrested since 10 August, when the king and the royal family were imprisoned following a bloody battle at the Tuileries Palace. The revolutionaries feared the enemy forces would throw open the prisons and allow these thousands of prisoners—most of whom had been held without trial—to join their ranks. So a group of men made up of minor city officials, National Guardsmen, and ordinary citizens, took matters into their own hands. They slaughtered between 1200 and 1600 people, roughly half the total population of prisoners in the city.

Among the victims were some convicted criminals, but a great many more ordinary citizens, including women, who had been jailed for suspected treason. The victims included an inordinate number of clergy and religious who had been imprisoned for refusing to take the oath to the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, a law that severed Roman authority over the Catholic Church in France. In other words, the Revolutionary government demanded that priests forego allegiance to Christ and His Church in order to worship the state. The so-called Constitutional Church of France later forsook all pretense of Christianity as it evolved into the Cult of Reason and the Cult of the Supreme Being.

The Holy September Martyrs stood up to this idolatry at the cost of their lives. The majority of the beatified martyrs—114, to be exact—were slain at Saint Joseph des Carmes, a former Carmelite monastery that had been closed by the Revolution. It became one of the most infamous places of squalor and torture throughout the Terror. Thousands of innocents would later spend their last days at the Carmes before being brought by tumbrel to the guillotine. Although Robespierre’s declaration of the phrase, “Reign of Terror,” came later, the policy truly began at Saint Joseph des Carmes on 2 September 1792, before spreading to the other prisons of Paris.

The September Massacres were so bloody that they sparked a great many apocryphal tales of brutality beyond even that which really occurred. Later reports included hideous but false accounts of the death of Princesse de Lamballe, Queen Marie Antoinette’s chief lady-in-waiting, who was in fact killed but was not dismembered and her body desecrated in lewd ways as some reports would hold. There is no evidence that the mob dipped their bread in the blood, or that any of the other, similarly outlandish reports that circulated in the aftermath were true.

The bones of the martyrs in the crypt of Saint Joseph des Carmes

The bones of the martyrs in the crypt beneath Saint Joseph des Carmes

But it is true that for at least two days, throughout Paris, a mob hacked prisoners to pieces with swords. It was considered unpatriotic to use bullets, which were in short supply and ought to be sent to the front for the use of French soldiers. Though the guillotine had been introduced about a month previously, it was not yet in nearly constant operation. Most accounts say that the prisoners, especially the priests, were given one last opportunity to renounce their faith and swear their allegiance to the Nation, but I have read no accounts of anyone who chose that path. In 1792, the prisons of Paris quite literally overflowed with saints. They turned away from the empty dreams of liberty the Revolution offered, and instead, won the crown of true freedom promised to the children of God.

Holy September Martyrs, pray for us, that we may have the courage to do the same.

To Crown with Liberty will release 1 May 2024 from Chrism Press.