The Martyrs of Arcueil

The Martyrs of Arcueil[The following narrative of the imprisonment and execution of certain Dominicans, by the Paris Commune, in May 1871 is translated from an account drawn up in French, under the eyes and, in a measure, at the dictation of witnesses who shared the captivity of the martyrs, and survived their fate only by a providential interposition which seems little less than miraculous. It was written merely to preserve, in the archives of the order, an authentic record of the circumstances which it, commemorates; but it glows with examples of Christian heroism and charity which ought not to be lost to the world at large. The branch of the Dominicans which gives this company of martyrs to the church was founded by Father Lacordaire shortly after the passing of the law of 1850, which, by abridging the exclusive privileges of the university of Paris, conferred upon the religious orders in France the right of opening schools and colleges, a right for which Lacordaire and Montalembert had battled for twenty years. Father Captier was one of the original company of four novices with whom Father Lacordaire founded, in 1852, the new order of Teaching Dominicans.]

In the spring of 1863, eighteen months after the death of Father Lacordaire, certain religious of the Third (Teaching) Order of Dominicans, having as their head the Rev. Father Captier, were sent to establish, in the house formerly belonging to Berthollet, a college under the name of the Blessed Albertus Magnus. It was a difficult task, and from the outset was met by the government with an opposition equally obstinate and hypocritical. In order to prevent the virtual abrogation of the law of 1850, to which France is now indebted for such a gallant multitude of faithful instructors, the contest opened by Father Lacordaire, in 1831, in the matter of the free schools, had to be commenced anew. Deprived of their religious habit, and harassed by incessant and discreditable vexations, Father Captier and his companions nevertheless stood bravely at their post of honor. At last, after two years of labor and experiment, they were permitted to enjoy in peace the protection of the law, and to speak freely to their pupils according to the inspiration of their hearts and their faith.

The establishment at Arcueil, founded in trouble, thenceforward prospered without interruption, and grew apace under the watchful and affectionate care of Father Captier. He seemed to know every member of the community to his inmost heart. He cared for every one with a religious and at the same time manly tenderness. There was not one to whom he failed to do good. With the performance of these duties he combined an active interest in all questions relating to the education of youth, and opposed with all his might the encroachment of the system of godless schools which has since been so audaciously imposed upon Parisian families. Appointed a member of the Commission d’Enseignement Supérieur, as the most thorough representative of the free schools, he brought to the service of that board the experience of twenty years, the devout aspirations of his holy community, and the enthusiasm of a spirit earnest in the cause of enlightenment and holy liberty. When he returned to his cell, he resumed the cares of a soul which aimed to be wholly and profoundly immersed in the religious life. He concerned himself about the progress of all his brethren and pupils in observing the rules of the community, well knowing that the best means of doing good to souls is to draw from God the courage and the light which one needs in order to serve them.

Such was the state of affairs at Arcueil when the war broke out. The school then contained nearly three hundred pupils. In an establishment where religion and patriotism were both so warmly cherished, the first thought of every one was to do his utmost to aid France in her struggle against the foreigner. The pupils raised a large contribution for the relief of the victims of the coming campaigns. The religious gave their persons. Three of them joined the ambulances and passed the winter on the fields of battle, while the others devoted themselves in the college premises to taking care of the wounded victims of the siege of Paris. About fifteen hundred sick and wounded soldiers were thus treated in the college ambulance; and it was a devotion all the more meritorious because Arcueil, situated on the French outposts, was constantly under the fire of the German artillery.

After the siege, the school of Arcueil reopened its doors to pupils, and in March resumed its classes and its regular life. Then came the civil war. Placed between Fort Montrouge, Fort Bicêtre, and the redoubt of Hautes Bruyères, the school found itself within the lines of the Paris Commune. Instead of abandoning their house, the fathers resolved to continue their services to the wounded. They displayed on the front of the building the flag of the Geneva Convention, and, with the aid of the assistant masters whom the peace had collected around them, they began to traverse the battlefields on the south of Paris, gathering up the wounded and burying the dead. Within the college, the poor soldiers, whether regulars or federals, were tended by the charitable hands of the Sisters of Saint Martha. At first the communists respected this self-sacrifice. The less violent of them were pleased to be so well cared for by the Dominicans of Arcueil. Many requisitions, nevertheless, were made upon the institution, and the house was ransacked from top to bottom, but nothing was found in it except the evidence of a charity which no rebuffs could discourage. The religious continued with unremitting zeal to relieve the wounded on the field of battle, and awaited patiently the triumph of justice and liberty. A number of battalions of the National Guard were thus brought into contact with the school. Several of them showed gratitude and even a sort of sympathy, but so far as that went everything depended upon the officers. Thus, the 101st Battalion, commanded by one Cerisier, a convict “who had been three times sentenced to death, and believed neither in God nor in man,” far from showing any good-will, seemed hardly willing to forgive the religious for their charitable labors in its behalf.

On the 17th of May, several events happened which greatly excited and alarmed the insurgents. A cartridge factory exploded in the Avenue Rapp, that is to say, within the enceinte of Paris, and at least six kilometres from Arcueil. Several posts in the valley of the Bièvre were surprised and overpowered at the point of the bayonet. Finally, a few paces from the school, the château of the Marquis de Laplace, occupied by the federals as a barrack, was burned. It was determined that the communists of Arcueil should be held to an accountability for these wholly unconnected occurrences, and the federals required nothing more to justify them in ordering an arrest.

On Friday, the 19th of May, between four and five o’clock in the afternoon, the school of Arcueil, which then contained twenty wounded brought in the night before from the field of battle, received a visit from Citizens Leo Meillet and Lucy Pyat, envoys from the Commune of Paris, and wearing the red scarf; Thaler, a Prussian, sub-governor of the Fort of Bicêtre; and Cerisier, commander of the 101st Battalion of the Paris National Guard. While these gentlemen were entering at the main door, the 101st and 120th Battalions surrounded the premises, broke down the enclosure, and forced their way in at every entrance, leaving sentinels here and there with orders to shoot anybody who attempted to go out. At the demand of Leo Meillet, Father Captier presented himself. An order from the Commune was shown him, setting forth no complaint or legal excuse, but commanding all the members of the community, from the prior down to the last of the kitchen servants, to submit themselves to the commands of the delegates. Half an hour was granted them for the necessary preparations. The bell was rung to call the household together, and Lucy Pyat, taking this for a suspicious signal, threatened to shoot the child who had committed such a crime. One by one, the religious, the assistant teachers, the sisters, the domestics, and the seven or eight pupils remaining in the house gathered around Father Captier. When the word was given to depart, they all fell down upon their knees, and with tears in their eyes asked his blessing. “My children,” he said to them, “you see what has happened. No doubt you are going to be questioned; be frank and sincere, as if you were speaking to your parents. Remember the counsel they gave you when they trusted you to our care; and whatever happens, bear in mind that you must be men who can live and can die like Frenchmen and like Christians. Adieu! May the blessing of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost descend upon you, and remain with you always, always!”

Then the fatal journey was arranged. The horses and wagons of the school were seized, and the vehicles were first filled with the sisters and female domestics. They were forbidden any communication with each other by word or gesture, or any signal of farewell, under penalty of being shot. They were taken first to the Conciergerie and afterwards to Saint Lazare (the prison for abandoned women), whence they were released on the Tuesday following by the arrival of the Versailles troops, before the miscreants of the Commune could execute the horrid threats of which they were the objects during these four days. The pupils were also to have been carried off, but, thanks to a misunderstanding on the part of the federal chiefs, their arrest was suspended. Later it was proposed to convey them to the Hôtel de Ville, and even to the barricades, but nothing was done, and they remained tolerably at ease in a remote part of the house, under the signally intelligent and devoted care of the young Jacques de La Perrière, whose conduct in these trying days was above all praise.

When all the others were gone, the fathers, the professors, and the male servants were brought down into the first court, and surrounded by the men of the 101st and 120th Battalions. The door opened, and the sad cortège began its march towards the Fort of Bicêtre, situated three kilometres from the school. They first passed through the streets of Arcueil. The inhabitants looked on in silence, though their sympathies were all with the prisoners. “When they passed our door,” said a poor woman, “and I saw Father Captier and all these messieurs, who had done us so much good, marching in the midst of the muskets, I imagined it was Jesus Christ with his disciples going to Jerusalem to be crucified.” At Gentilly, which they were next obliged to traverse, the popular feeling was very different, and the most outrageous language was used towards the prisoners.

It was seven o’clock in the evening when the column arrived at the fort. The captives were first locked up in a small room where, insulted in the grossest manner, they were forced to wait their turn to appear before the governor of the fort, and go through the formality of registering on the books of the prison. These formalities lasted a long time, the number was so large. Each man was submitted to the pretence of an examination, though there was no question of any crime or misdemeanor, nor any indictment whatever. Then they were searched, and stripped of everything they carried (even the breviaries were taken away), and conducted to Casemate No. 10, which faces the entrance to the fort.1 It was nearly midnight when Father Captier and the other religious were placed here. Their companions followed in small parties, and about two o’clock the door closed upon the last of them. It was never to open for them again till they went out to their death.

This first night was very severe. The casemate contained only a few remnants of damp straw, already spoiled and broken up by some Bavarian soldiers, and each man had to grope for a clean spot on the bare floor. When morning came, they sought for some alleviation of their wretched condition. By dint of earnest representation, they got some bundles of fresh straw, and after a few days the breviaries were restored to the religious. Father Captier succeeded in obtaining paper and pencil, and addressed a communication to the governor of the fort. He thus secured the liberation of two lads, Emile Delaitre and Paul Lair, who had been imprisoned with the other servants of the school. He had more difficulty in obtaining the favor of a serious examination, for thus far the twenty-five prisoners were absolutely ignorant of the cause of their arrest. Something, at any rate, was granted: on Sunday afternoon, Fathers Captier and Cotrault were led before Citizen Lucy Pyat, who, after a long conversation, informed them that they were to be considered neither as condemned nor accused, nor even prisoners, but they were merely held as witnesses. He was a prophet, though he did not know it; for God had chosen them to bear witness, with their blood, to the glory of his holy name.

It was hoped that the examinations would be resumed on the following day (Monday), but this was not done. On the contrary, the officers in command at the fort held no further communication with the prisoners. It is probable that in thus keeping away they yielded to the wishes of their men; for, while the officers preserved an appearance of civility in the presence of the fathers, their subordinates constantly redoubled their outrages, and took all pains to render them more and more gross. Drunken and infamous creatures showed themselves every few minutes before the windows of the casemate, jeering at the prisoners, loading them with unmentionable epithets, or reading aloud, with infinite gusto, the most shameless articles from the Communist newspapers. One day, they saw the sub-governor of the fort, cap in hand, ushering Father Captier into his prison after some sort of an examination. This mark of respect so exasperated the federal soldiers that they raised a great disturbance at the door of the casemate, and thenceforth the provisions for the prisoners were regularly plundered or intercepted on the way; for two days the captives were denied even a cup of water. On Wednesday, the 24th, an execution took place in the courtyard of the fort, directly under their eyes. It was made the occasion of redoubled menaces and heartless allusions. The same day, the Abbé Féron, chaplain of the Hospital of Bicêtre, went in search of the governor of the fort, and asked to be entrusted with the custody of the members of the Arcueil community, offering to answer for them with his life until they could be judged. This generous effort was unavailing. The Commune had already settled everything. The school was to be pillaged and burned.2 As for the prisoners, they belonged to the 101st Battalion and its commander, who would dispose of them according to circumstances.

What were the thoughts of the victims during this long week of agony? Their companions in captivity tell us that a gentle cheerfulness never ceased to prevail in that wretched dungeon. With the exception of some of the servants, married men and fathers of families, whose attitude and manner were somewhat gloomy and dejected, every one pursued his ordinary way of life – not that they forgot or despised death, but because they had offered to God the sacrifice of their lives for France. The religious redoubled their usual devotion, encouraged each other and exhorted their companions. Every evening they said the rosary together, adding the usual mementos for their absent brethren. From time to time, Father Captier, though completely broken down by fatigue and privation, roused himself to give a pious reading, or to address the words of life and salvation to those who looked up to him as their chief. Outside, the federals gathered around to mock at their prayers. One morning, when the horizon was red with flames in the direction of Paris, Father Captier was pacing to and fro, saying his office, and some one cried to him through the window, “Oh, yes! you had better pray God not to let the torpedoes that the city is full of explode!” “I am doing it,” answered the good father sadly and quietly; and then, finishing his breviary, he asked his companions to pray with him.

On Thursday, the 25th, at daybreak, an extraordinary activity was observed inside the fortress. Guns were removed and spiked, and the bugles blew the assembly. At one time, the prisoners believed that the fort had been wholly evacuated, and they had only to wait the arrival of the Versailles troops to secure’ their liberty.

But this hope was of short duration. A body of armed men appeared at the door of the casemate in considerable confusion. As they had not the keys, they forced an entrance with blows from the butt-ends of their muskets, and ordered the captives to start immediately with the column, which was retiring into Paris. “You are free,” said they, “only we must not leave you in the hands of the Versaillists. You must follow us to the mairie of the Gobelins, and then you will go to Paris, or wherever you like.”

The march was long and painful. Every instant the prisoners were threatened with death. The women showed themselves especially furious, and eager to witness the death of these men who wore a sacred garb. They moved down towards the gate of Ivry, and on the road a few rifle-shots from Bicêtre caused a little disturbance, of which Father Rousselin took advantage to slip away and return to Arcueil. The others continued their journey towards Paris. Arriving at the mairie of the Gobelins, in the midst of cries of “death!” from the crowd maddened at the approach of the regular army, it was in vain that they reminded their guard of the liberty promised them. They were told, “The streets are not safe; you will be killed by the people; remain here.” They were taken into the court of the mairie, and made to sit on the ground, exposed to the falling shells. Here the federals brought the corpses of their victims, to show “ces canailles” how the Commune served its enemies. At the end of half an hour an officer appeared, and took them to the prison disciplinaire of the 9th secteur, No. 38 Avenue d’Italie. As soon as they entered, the captives of Arcueil recognized the 101st Battalion and its chief, Citizen Cerisier, that is, the same who had made their arrest. It was then ten o’clock in the morning. About half-past two, a man in a red shirt threw open the door of the hall, and cried out, “Get up, soutanes; they are going to take you to the barricade.” The fathers went out, and, with the Abbé Grancolas and the others, were conducted towards the barricade thrown up in front of the mairie of the Gobelins. There they were offered muskets to fight with. “We are priests,” said they, “and, besides, we are non-combatants in virtue of our service in the ambulance. We shall not take arms. All that we can do is to relieve your wounded and bear away the dead.” “Is this your fixed purpose?” asked the officer of the Commune. “It is.” Then they were taken back to the prison, with an escort of federals and women armed with muskets. Once locked up, they thought of nothing but preparations for the last journey. They all knelt, made a final offering of the sacrifice of their lives, confessed, and received absolution. They were not to have the dying Christian’s last consolation, the divine viaticum. God did not judge this grace necessary for them; and, besides, from the prison to heaven the journey was to be so short!

About half-past four, a new order came from Citizen Cerisier. All the prisoners filed out into the lane which leads up to the prison, while the federals of the 101st Battalion loaded their muskets with significant noise. Already every man was at his place. Platoons were stationed at the corners of all the neighboring streets. It is said that Citizen Cerisier sat in a carriage on the avenue, with a woman by his side. This is the manner in which he presided over executions under the Commune of Paris. Then the word of command was heard: “Go out into the street, one by one!” Father Captier turned half round towards his companions, and said, “Come, my friends; it is for the good God!”

The massacre began at once. Father Cotrault went out first, and fell mortally wounded. Father Captier was hit by a ball which broke his leg, and was struck down by another ball at a distance of more than a hundred metres, near the spot where the insurgents of June, 1848, massacred General Bréa. Father Bourard, also, after receiving one wound, was able to go a few steps in the same direction before he fell under a second discharge. Fathers Delhorme and Chatagneret were shot down instantly. M. Gauquelin fell with them. M. Voland and five of the servants (Aimé Gros, Marce, Cheminal, Dintroz, and Cathala) went out of the lane behind the fathers, and had time to cross the Avenue d’Italie, but were killed before they could find shelter.

The other prisoners managed to escape.3 The Abbé Grancolas, barely touched by a bullet, got into a house, where a woman disguised him in her husband’s clothes. M. Rézillot was only slightly wounded. MM. Edouard Bertrand, Gauvin, Delaitre, Brouho, and Duché found shelter in some of the houses or neighboring caves, and afterwards in the ranks of the national army. How impenetrable are the designs of God! If he had permitted our soldiers to arrive only one hour sooner, all the martyrs of Arcueil would have been saved.

The fury of the assassins was not sated by the massacre. They fell upon the bodies of the dead, tore off their clothing, pierced them with bayonets, and with their axes broke their limbs and crushed their bleeding heads. The soldiers of the 113th Regiment, who passed this spot in triumph after surmounting the barricades, comprehended the glorious fate of the martyrs, and, bending over them, took the rosaries from their girdles, and divided them, bead by bead, as sacred relics. But after they had gone their way, the work of profanation was resumed, and for more than fifteen hours the bodies remained exposed to every imaginable outrage.

The next morning the Abbé Guillemette, a priest of that quarter, came across the corpses, and, noticing that they wore a religious habit, made inquiry into the circumstances of the assassination. He caused the sacred remains to be immediately collected, and taken to the house of the brethren in the Rue du Moulin-des-Prés. There a professor from Arcueil, M. d’Arsac, identified the bodies, indicated the name of each, and claimed for them the respect due to martyrs in a holy cause. At the same time, M. Durand, curé of Arcueil, and M. Eugène Lavenant, the Mayor, were informed of the death of the Dominicans, their friends and their companions in the hour of danger. They both came together to ask for the remains of the victims, and removed them to Arcueil. It was desired to bury them within the enclosure of the school, where Father Rousselin awaited them, with Jacques de La Perrière, and the pupils who had remained faithful to the house. But it would have been necessary to submit to long formalities, and the bodies were so dreadfully bruised that there was no time even to make them coffins. The hearse, followed by a great crowd of people deeply agitated with grief and anger, was driven to the common cemetery. There the martyrs lie side by side in one grave, with no shroud but their blood-stained vestments.

This undistinguished tomb ought not to be the last resting-place of the martyrs of Arcueil. Father Captier and his companions will sleep in the shadow of the school which their labor founded and their blood renders henceforth illustrious. Not only the religious who were the brethren of the victims, and the pupils who were their children, but all who care for religion and country, will come to pray at their sepulchre, and meditate upon the lessons of their death.

– text taken from the article “The Martyrs of Arcueil”, author unknown, published in the February 1872 edition of The Catholic World magazine
  1. The following is a list of the prisoners: In the Fort of Bicêtre. – Father Captier, prior of the school of Arcueil; Bourard, chaplain; Delhorme, regent of studies; Cotrault, procurator; Rousselin, censor; Chatagneret, professor – all professed religious of the Third (Teaching) Order of Saint Dominic, except F. Bourard, who belonged to the Order of Preaching Friars; MM. Voland, Gauquelin, L’Abbé Grancolas, Edouard Bertrand, Rézillot, Petit, and Gauvin, assistant masters; MM. Aimé Gros, Marce, Cathala, Joseph Cheminal, Dintroz, Simon Brouho, Duché, Bussi, Schepens, Delaitre (father and son), and Paul Lair, servants of the school. In the Prison of Saint Lazare. – Mother Aloysia Ducos, superior of the Sisters of Saint Martha; Sisters Elisabeth Poirier, Louise Marie Carriquiry, Louis de Gonzague Dorfin, and Mélanie Gatineaud; Mmes. Angèle Marce, Marguerite Cathala, Clara Delaitre, and the widow Guégon; Miles, Gertrude Faas, Catherine Morvan, and Louise Cathala (aged 8 years).
  2. In point of fact, the school was plundered on the 25th of May. There was no time to burn it.
  3. To this day the fate of M. Petit is not positively known. There is reason to believe that he escaped the first fusillade, but was recaptured by the federals and shot by them at one of the barricades. It is apparently of him that the Abbé Lesmayoux speaks in a letter to the Univers.