Remembering the Catholic Martyrs of the Commune of Paris
On the 150th anniversary of the Commune of Paris, a revolutionary and anticlerical government that took control of the French capital for 72 days, the Church is seeking to honor the memory of the clergymen arrested and killed in hatred of the faith during ‘Bloody Week.’
PARIS — May 28, 1871, ended the dark episode of the Commune of Paris, a bloody civil war that opposed the legitimate French government of the Third Republic to the socialist and revolutionary republicans who had controlled Paris for 72 days.
The terrible wave of repression that followed this period of insurrection, considered the most violent episode of the country’s history since the French Revolution (with approximately 6,500 deaths), tends to cover the ruthless exactions committed by the Communards on those they considered to be their enemies, including many clergymen.
One hundred and 50 years later, the parish of Our Lady of the Hostages (Notre-Dame-des-Otages) in Paris will commemorate the events of the Commune with several events, including news on the progress of the cause of beatification of the five clergymen who died at the hands of the Commune’s supporters, called the Communards.
The Commune started shortly after France lost the war against the Kingdom of Prussia at the Battle of Sedan, Sept. 2, 1870, resulting in the capture of Emperor Napoleon III and the collapse of the Second Empire. The humiliation caused by the defeat, in addition to the extreme poverty spreading across the country, exacerbated a growing anger among the population. The National Government of the newly created Third Republic, with a strong monarchist component, was highly contested by many Parisian citizens, especially workers and petty-bourgeois, who also blamed the head of the new government, Adolphe Thiers, for capitulating to Prussia’s demands.
It is in this context that, on March 18, 1871, a crowd supported by regiments of the National Guard launched an insurrection against the government, whose members left town and took refuge in the nearby city of Versailles. On March 28, the Commune of Paris — presented as a popular autonomous government against bourgeoisie and aristocrats and supported by some military units — was officially established. Karl Marx would later describe this political experience (toward which, still today, many anarchists and a significant part of the left continue to show their nostalgia) as the first example of the dictatorship of the proletariat.
One of the little-known facets of this fleeting dictatorship of the proletariat was its fierce anticlericalism, mainly because the Communards — true to their ancestors from the French Revolution — associated the Catholic Church with conservatism, aristocracy and imperial power. They were furthermore considerably galvanized by the militant atheism of one of their leading figures, revolutionary socialist Auguste Blanqui.
Shortly after being established, the Commune revoked the Concordat of 1801 that made Catholicism the “religion of the great majority of the French” and classified clergy members as civil servants. On April 2, the Communards then proclaimed the separation between the Church and the state, which implied the secularization of religious congregations’ properties.
According to historian Yves Chiron, during the Commune, two-thirds of the churches in Paris were closed, looted, vandalized or turned into prisons, workshops or meeting rooms for political clubs.
By virtue of a decree of April 5, 1871, which provided that “all persons accused of complicity with the Versailles government will be hostages of the people of Paris,” Archbishop Georges Darboy of Paris was immediately arrested. Many other priests and monks — around 300 in total — would soon follow him.
The same decree also specified that “any execution of a prisoner of war or a supporter of the regular government of the Commune of Paris will be followed immediately by the execution of three times the number of hostages held ... and they will be designated by lot.”
This measure, which shocked those even within the Communards’ ranks, would be called the “Cassock Razzia” by one of the first historians of the Commune, Prosper-Olivier Lissagaray.
After the Versailles government repeatedly refused to free revolutionary Auguste Blanqui in exchange for Archbishop Darboy, the Communards summarily executed the prelate at the La Roquette Prisons, May 24, together with four other priests.
The following day, while the Versailles troops were conquering back Paris, came the turn of five Dominicans from the College of Arcueil (in the nearby Val-de-Marne department), who were shot dead May 25 on the Avenue d’Italie, along with eight lay staff members of the college.
The murderous fury of the revolutionaries came to a climax with the so-called “episode of the Villa des Otages” in the Rue Haxo (20th arrondissement of Paris) that occurred on May 26, and during which no less than 50 hostages — including 10 clergymen, including the popular Vincentian Father Henri Planchat, four priests from the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, called Picpus Fathers, three Jesuit priests, the vicar of Notre-Dame-de-Lorette and one seminarian — were killed by firing squad or slaughtered by the crowd.
“The hostages were led through the streets of the 20th arrondissement under the insults and the calls to death of a hostile crowd,” Father Yvon Sabourin, postulator of the cause of beatification of the Martyrs of the Rue Haxo, said in an interview with the Register, noting that the leaders of the Commune were also present on the scene. “They allowed the soldiers of the National Guard, the armed Communards, to fire. ... The crowd took part in this indescribable massacre, and the priests were the last to be killed.”
Three other priests were executed the day after, including Msgr. Auguste-Alexis Surat, the archdeacon of Notre-Dame de Paris. A total of 23 clergymen were killed during this so-called “Bloody Week.”
Posterity and Causes of Beatification
“This hatred is difficult to understand, but it has its source in the wound that lies deep inside the heart of the humankind,” Father Sabourin said. “We know that our Servants of God who died in the Rue Haxo could confess to each other in prison and had been able to receive Communion with the consecrated Hosts that two Jesuits had hidden,” Father Sabourin continued, reporting that they also wrote letters in prison, forgiving and praying for their persecutors.
A chapel was first erected on the site of the martyrdom on 85 Rue Haxo in 1894, and the Church of Notre-Dame des Otages was built a few years later.
In the aftermath of the Commune, the Catholic martyrs became the subject of an increasing popular devotion among the faithful. Four causes of beatification were opened in the years following the insurrection — one for Archbishop Darboy and his four companions; one for the five Dominicans; one for the Jesuits; and one for Father Planchat and Picpus Fathers Ladislas Radigue, Polycarpe Tuffier, Marcellin Rouchouze and Frézal Tardieu.
But while the various causes slowly faded into oblivion in the 1970s, that of Father Planchat and his companions resumed its course in 2008 and is — according to its postulator, Father Sabourin — nearing completion. Their martyrdom could be recognized by Pope Francis by the end of this year.
In 2017, Father Planchat’s body was exhumed from the church of Notre-Dame de la Salette and was found intact — although riddled with bullets.
“As the first priest of the Congregation of the Religious of St. Vincent de Paul, he was a living contradiction for the communist ideologues, as he embodied the concrete commitment of the Catholic Church to the service of the most disadvantaged,” François Vayne, a French journalist and devotee of Father Planchat’s spirituality, told the Register. “This servant of the poor died without trial, with his eyes open and turned toward heaven, after devoting all his energies to the struggle for social justice, working alongside the workers and their families in the dechristianized working-class neighborhoods of Grenelle and Charonne.”
The progress of the cause of beatification of the five clergymen has generated a greater public awareness for the 150th anniversary of the martyrdom of the Commune of Paris, which will be the subject of several commemorations around the parish of Notre-Dame des Otages.
After a conference by Father Sabourin about Father Planchat and the Picpus Fathers May 27, a “March of the Martyrs” will bring the faithful to the path taken by the hostages from the former La Roquette Prisons to Rue Haxo, May 28.
Archbishop of Paris Michel Aupetit will then celebrate a solemn Mass in memory of the fallen priests of the Commune of Paris on May 30. A plenary indulgence was granted by the Holy Father to all the faithful who will take part to these days of pilgrimage, including virtually, by virtue of an April 15 special decree.
“These models of [what it means to be a] priest, this cause of beatification, are very timely, as we’re [as a society] trying to discredit the Church because of its current scandals and to prevent it from speaking,” Father Sabourin concluded.
“The loving hearts of these martyrs, following in the footsteps of Christ, absorbed the hatred generated by the Commune that wanted to build a new society based on rationalism, without reference to God.
“It didn’t succeed as a political movement, but its ideologies are still spreading, deceiving the young generations who are looking for the meaning of life.”
PRAYER FOR THE BEATIFICATIONS
Eternal and almighty God, you have always given many martyrs the strength to suffer for the sake of Christ; come again to the rescue of our weakness; may we imitate the courage of the Hostages and have the joy of glorifying you with our whole life.
Bless our community, that many may taste the greatness of your mercy and the depth of your peace, gained at the price of the suffering of Christ and his disciples.
Keep us under the loving protection of Our Lady of the Hostages, so that, through the torments of this life, we may all reach heaven, our homeland.
Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Source: parish of Notre-Dame des Otages, Rue Haxo