The September Massacres in Paris and Versailles

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The law of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy formed part of a larger agenda to subordinate the church to the state in France. Even under the old regime, the Church had traditionally exercised a subordinate role, and the revolutionary government continued and codified this in the Civil Constitution.

Previous to this law, several other steps had been taken that affected the status of the church, principally the abolition of tithes (4 August 1789); the nationalization of property used to generate revenue (2 November 1789); the abolition of monastic vows (13 February 1790), which did not, however, affect those taken in the Congregation of the Mission; and the transfer of the administration of all other church property to the state (19 April 1790).

These decisions need to be viewed in the context of the time, in which the government was nearly bankrupt, but the church was deemed to be enormously rich. Besides, the popular culture had strong strains of anticlericalism, even atheism, and many of the educated classes regarded the church as the opponent of enlightened change. When debate began in the national assembly concerning the proposed reorganization of ecclesiastical life, some clergy supported it, especially those with Jansenist leanings, while the majority did not. Nonetheless, the assembly approved the Civil Constitution of the Clergy on 12 July 1790. In general, it provided one diocese for each civil department, with the bishop and the pastors to be elected locally. Being a Catholic was not a requirement for the electors. The role of the pope was reduced to the right of being informed of their election.

The pope, of course, steadfastly rejected this infringement on his authority, even after several attempts to abridge or change the meaning of certain elements of the text. What made matters more serious was the law of 27 November 1790, requiring the clergy to sign an oath of loyalty to the Civil Constitution. This was to be done in the first months of 1791. At the beginning, only seven bishops and about half the diocesan clergy agreed and took the oath. Not surprisingly, the pope repudiated the juring clergy, but the damage was done, and a true schism began. French Catholics generally followed the lead of the pope and shunned the constitutional clergy. They preferred to seek out their old pastors for the celebration of the sacraments.

The non-juring, or refractory, clergy lived principally in the countryside and in the west of France. The Assembly then had to determine how to deal with them. After violence occurred on both sides toward the clergy of the other side, the assembly permitted the non-juring to continue in their ministry, but on 29 November 1791, the new Legislative Assembly, which had replaced the National Constituent Assembly, decreed the arrest of refractory priests. Those detained could be subject to deportation or even prison if twenty citizens of a canton requested it.

On 10 August 1792, the king was arrested after an ill-conceived attempt to flee the country in the direction of the Austrian troops, and his Parisian residence, the Tuileries palace, was seized by a radical group in a bloody uprising. Calling themselves an “Insurrectional Commune,” they seized the city of Paris from its regularly elected officials and then, the next day, called for the imprisonment of non-juring clergy. The arrests began in the follow days.

Although not strictly connected with the subsequent massacres, the suppression of the Congregation of the Mission was decreed by the Legislative Assembly on 18 August along with that of others: the Oratorians, the Priests of Christian Doctrine, the Eudists, the Congregation of the Holy Spirit, and the Priests of Saint Sulpice.

To increase the tension, Prussian armies were also marching toward Paris at the same time, and this led to an inevitable sense of panic. It was this atmosphere that led to the events commonly known as the September massacres of 1792.

Paris Massacres

To this day it is unknown how the massacres of prisoners began, many of whom were priests. The most convincing opinion holds that it was a sort of collective insanity, based on the fear of “traitors” in their jail cells, who might engineer an escape and help the enemies of France. Another common feeling was that the city had to be purged of the non-juring clergy and those supporters of the deposed king who had not yet been condemned. The decision to eliminate the prisoners was not taken by the central government, that is, the National Assembly, or by any national ministry, principally since such matters as local prisons were in the hands of the commune of Paris. Neither were the massacres planned well in advance. Rather, the passion of the moment led to an act of popular justice, very likely coming out of the “Great Fear” that spread over France after the seizure of the Bastille.

In the version of events presented by Joseph-Mansuet Boullangier, the Vincentian treasurer of the house and probably a witness of the event, someone made a motion during a political meeting held in the dining room of Saint Firmin. (Its old name was the College des Bons Enfants, the first house of the Congregation of the Mission.) The motion was to lock up the non-juring priests of the neighborhood at Saint Firmin. It carried, and beginning 13 August, groups of armed officers began to round them up and bring them through the unruly crowds, some of whom yelled “String them up!”

In the days and weeks preceding the events of September, many non-juring clergy had already come to stay at seminary of Saint Firmin, since they had studied there. The bulk of the detainees, however, came from the seminary of Saint Nicolas du Chardonnet, the house of the Nouveaux Convertis and the monastery of Saint Victor, all in the vicinity. Much of what took place at this time is unclear, including the number of those imprisoned. One list held ninety-four names, but not all of these would be killed. Those in charge of their imprisonment, the commissioners, were ordinary citizens, but they gradually let it be known to the detainees that they were in the gravest danger from others. The news spread, and the prisoners at Saint Firmin prepared themselves for death by prayer and the sacrament of reconciliation.

In terms of chronology, on Saturday, 1 September, the names of the clerical prisoners were drawn up, and a decree for their deportation was handed down the next day. However, the wholesale slaughter of criminals imprisoned at the Concergerie and of the clergy at the monastery of the Carmelites had already happened, and so deportation ceased to be an option. In the Bernardins prison, dating from the time of Vincent de Paul, and destined for those condemned to the galleys, sixty common criminals were killed by crowds of ordinary citizens who had burst into the precincts. For several reasons, such as confusion, fear and lack of precise information, local authorities and the assembly did nothing effective to stop the slaughter.

Louis-Joseph François

For members of the Congregation of the Mission, the most notable victim at Saint Firmin was its superior, Louis-Joseph François. He was born 3 February 1751 in Busigny, a town north of Paris. It is unknown what had attracted him to the Congregation, but it might have been a mutual decision taken with Jean-Jacques Dubois (1750-1817), also a native of Busigny. The two of them entered the internal seminary in Paris, 4 October 1766. François was only fifteen and a half. After completing his internal seminary, he had to wait until his eighteenth birthday to take his vows. The date of his ordination to the priesthood is unknown.

Two of his brothers, Jean-Baptiste (1753-1839) and Jean-Jacques (b. 1760) likewise entered the Congregation. By a strange coincidence and in contrast to the principled stance of their older brother, both took the constitutional oath. Jean-Baptiste did so at Chartres and became the superior of the constitutional seminary there. Jean-Jacques was assigned to Metz in 1791. He is thought to have become a parish priest and then married. Their sister Marie-Louise followed them into the Double Family of Saint Vincent, entering the Daughters of Charity 15 January 1775.

After Louis-Joseph’s ordination, he spent eighteen years in seminary work, during the last of which (1781) he was the superior of seminary at Troyes. Following the resignation of the secretary general of the Congregation, Father Antoine Jacquier, the Superior General, appointed François secretary general, sometime between 15 July and 1 October 1786. He already had a reputation as a gifted preacher, and he received invitations to give important sermons, such as the eulogies of Madame de Maintenon, 26 July 1786, and Madame Louise de France, a Carmelite and daughter of Louis XV, 15 April 1788. He was also on call to give clergy retreats for priests and to speak at the Tuesday Conferences, still being held after more than a century at Saint Lazare.

After Jean-Félix-Joseph Cayla de la Garde was elected superior general, he appointed another secretary general and sent François to Saint Firmin, whose superior had just died. There, he would face great challenges: repairing the old buildings, building up the number of students and securing the seminary’s financial future. Cayla and two unnamed assistants fled to safety with François at the moment of the sack of Saint Lazare. After this, François would no longer be able to count on help from the mother house, and he would have to live from income from the rental of houses and the fees paid by students. He instituted severe economic measures, such as letting go some personnel, but his debts grew. All of his efforts to redress them, however, were for naught, because of the massacres.

When the time came for him to take the oath, he determined that he could not, since it was unclear what one was to swear to. In the face of threats and insults to force him, he studied its ramifications and, in January 1791, published his best-known work, Mon Apologie. This began his veritable war of pamphlets over the oath demanded by the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. In this pamphlet he sought to explain to other clergy why he did not take the oath. He refuted various claims and objections, but for him the central point was that the appointment of the clergy depended on the church and not on the state. He concluded presciently: “To die of hunger is an evil, but there is a greater unhappiness living as an apostate or unfaithful to one’s religion.” Mon Apologie went through seven reprints and had a major influence on the clergy.

During his four years at Saint Firmin, he composed several other pamphlets for and against certain other topics, all on the issues of the day and published anonymously, including one against the pretensions of his confrere, the constitutional bishop Gratien. All this made him famous in clerical and political circles and sealed his doom.

The killing of the clergy had begun during the afternoon of 2 September at the abbey of Saint Germain des Prés and continued at the monastery of the Carmelites. To preserve a sense of order, however, so-called revolutionary “tribunals” were established at the scenes of some massacres, but they were a parody of justice.

Massacre at Saint Firmin

Various attempts were then made to save those confined at Saint Firmin. The best-known example in the Congregation was Father Boullangier. A butcher’s delivery boy, about eight in the evening of the second, knew of the massacres at the Carmelites. He came to warn Boullangier, but he suspected a trap of some sort. He consulted with François, who sought to get more information. When that failed, the young man and two friends escorted Boullangier through the crowd to safety. In later years, he composed an important account of what he had gone through, but he never wanted to speak about the events of that terrible day.

Another case of escape was the result of repeated attempts by Etienne-Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, a medical student living at the adjacent College of Cardinal Lemoine, and later a renowned naturalist, to save some of his professors incarcerated at Saint Firmin. He had tried various means to secure their release, including disguising himself as an official and entering the seminary buildings. He finally succeeded by bringing a ladder to the walls during the night by which twelve priests escaped, including the Vincentian Etienne de Langres (b. 1724). Poor Langres had taken the oath and, after escaping the massacre, reportedly abandoned his priesthood, married and had two children.

By 5:30 in the morning of Monday, 3 September, a mob had arrived at Saint Firmin. Once inside the compound, they began to round up the prisoners, taking some of them out to the streets for their execution. The atmosphere was such that the priests were brought back inside the courtyard and slaughtered in the most brutal fashion, with pikes, sabers and clubs. Those found on the upper floors were generally killed on the spot. A Vincentian, Nicolas Gaumer (1746-1819) ran to warn François, but he could not. He succeeded in climbing to safety over a back wall, avoiding gun shots as he ran.

There is scant information about how individuals met their death. It is known, however, that François and two other were hurled from third floor windows to the ground below. There women beat them to death by employing large bats used to stir and harden plaster. Other victims who were thrown landed on pikes. Some were held dangling out the windows by their feet until dropped to their death. Boullangier reported that some women gouged out the eyes from some cadavers with their scissors. Luckily, a few of the prisoners escaped or hid, for example, behind furniture, in the attic or in the toilets. Among them are counted four other Vincentians, Philippe-Bernard Adam (b. 1749), a guest in the house at the time of its closure, and three lay brothers, Louis Danois (b. 1771), Jean-Baptiste Ducroux (b. 1740) and Pierre-Joseph Leroy (b. 1761).

Jean-Henri Gruyer and others

Jean-Henri Gruyer, another Vincentian victim, was an accidental martyr. He had been somewhat obscure in the Congregation and his death was nearly forgotten, as seen by the fact that Boullangier did not mention him, and his name was often misspelled in accounts of the massacres, Guillier, Griller or Gouyer. In addition, early records confused two men, Jean-Henri Gruyer and Jean-François-Henri Grillet, visitor of Picardy, who died 1802.

Gruyer was born in Dole, the east of France, on 13 June 1734 and ordained a secular priest for the diocese of Saint-Claude. For some reason, he applied to enter the Congregation in 1770, doing so on 23 January 1771. After a year of formation, he was assigned to the mission house in Angers, where he took vows 24 January 1773. His next posts were Notre Dame of Versailles, about 1774, and, after ten years there, its companion parish, Saint Louis of Versailles. When the constitutional clergy took it over on 27 April 1791, he had to leave, and returned to his native region.

Thanks to information in a travel document of 1792, it is known that he was five feet four inches tall (162 cm), with white hair, balding in the back. He had deep-set grey-blue eyes, a round face and narrow chin. The same document relates that he was coming to Paris where he intended to resume his residence. He arrived in June, visited his old parishes in Versailles from 8 to 12 or 13 August and returned to the city to lodge at Saint Firmin. He was killed there with the others, but there is no information about his death or the disposition of his remains.

Two other Vincentians were also slaughtered at Saint Firmin, Jean-Charles Caron (1730-1792) and Nicolas Colin (Collin) (1730-1792). Caron entered the Congregation in 1747, but from about 1770 he was pastor of Genevrières, in the diocese of Langres. Some sources say that he left the community, but he always signed his name as “priest of the Mission.” Worn out with the work in his diocese, he came to stay with his confreres in Paris. Nicolas Colin’s story is similar. A renowned preacher, the bishop of his native diocese called him to take a parish. He became pastor of Collégien, in the diocese of Meaux, but was imprisoned at Saint Firmin for some reason. He too signed his name officially as a missioner. Although he took the oath of fidelity to the nation, he added so many qualifications as to render the original declaration meaningless.

Another victim with a Vincentian connection was a retired soldier, Jean-Antoine- Joseph de Villette, one of ten retired laymen living at Saint Firmin. Doubtless because he was a relative of Jean-Humbert Cousin (1731-1788), François’s predecessor at Saint Firmin, he retired there, spending his days in prayerful service. In his six years or residence, he became known as “the blessing of the house.” He had been warned of his possible fate, but said: “I am well enough. I am happy to remain where I am.”

The problem of the disposition of corpses and body parts was huge. When possible, the victims were stripped of their clothes and their naked bodies thrown into carts for disposition in the Vaugirard cemetery or elsewhere, leaving behind trails of blood on the ground as they rumbled along. Some of the dead were even tossed into wells or buried in shallow graves where they fell.

The church beatified François, Gruyer, Caron and Colin, with Villette, in 1926. In fact, the attention given to the cause of beatification was what saved Gruyer from obscurity. Probably because of their uncertain relationship with the Congregation, Caron and Colin have not been included among the beati of the Vincentian Family.

The totals are not certain, but about seventy-five were killed at Saint Firmin (seventy-four priests and one layman, Villette). Those massacred there were the third smallest in number, above Saint Germain des Prés (called the Abbaye), with thirty-two priests out of a total of between 156 and 196, and the Salpêtrière, which had no priests but mainly women. They were principally prostitutes, criminals, the mentally ill and orphan girls, who were raped and slaughtered there on the following day in the same murderous orgy. In all of Paris, the total of those killed is estimated at 1400. Rumors later circulated that the killers had been hired. It is more probable, however, that they were paid after the fact, although the issue is obscure. The events were so hideous, soaked in blood and shameful that the citizens of Paris are supposed to have drawn a veil over the deaths. Judicial killing of prisoners, carried out in public, was normal in the old regime, after all, and so for various reasons the events soon slipped out of common consciousness.

Nonetheless, one effect of the massacres was a rapid increase in waves of emigration. Another was the search for those responsible. The core was possibly a group of volunteer soldiers from Châlons who had already been brutalized by war. The largest group consisted of local people, including hotheads and criminals. None were ever punished for their activities. It is instructive to ponder whether the women on the streets at Saint Firmin, described by contemporary witnesses as tigers and cannibals, who stripped their victims of their clothing and dismembered them, had been peaceable churchgoers in previous weeks.

Massacre in Versailles

A related effect of the Paris massacres was a series of killings in Versailles. These are less well known since there were many fewer victims, but the slaughter claimed three Vincentians lives.

Practically since its foundation, the Congregation of the Mission had been in close contact with the royal family, first with the regent, Anne of Austria, then her son Louis XIV. These had engaged the Vincentians as parish priests and chaplains for the royal establishments at Fontainebleau, Versailles, Saint Cyr and Saint Cloud. Their service in Versailles began in 1672, when the king summoned them there. By the time of the Revolution, the Congregation was providing pastors and clergy for its two most important parishes, as well as chaplains for the hospital and the palace.

After their expulsion from the parishes in Versailles, the majority of the Vincentians fled. Some remained, however, and were arrested for refusing to take the oath. All were soon released except for the sacristan of the royal chapel, Jean-Paul Galoy (or Galois) (1727-1792). Following immediately upon another massacre of prisoners then being transported through Versailles, the mob, motivated by the massacres in Paris, broke in to the prison set up in the queen’s stables. Seven or eight men examined superficially the jailer’s record book and condemned “this monster, sold to the court, . . . an aristocrat.” They took Galoy to the kitchen, where his legs were broken with an iron bar and his skull smashed. The next day, the mob returned to the prison and dispatched thirteen prisoners, including two other Vincentians, Mathieu Caron (1739-1792) and Alexis-Jean Colin (1755-1792). Both had been stationed in Versailles. It is thanks to his confrere, Jean-André Jacob, that we have many of these details.

A further death took place in Versailles, that of Jean-Joseph Avril (1720-1792). He was the last superior of the Vincentian house in Saint Cloud. The circumstances surrounding his death, however, are not known.

The blood lust of the crowd may have been satisfied momentarily in early September, 1792, but these senseless murders accomplished nothing, apart from permanently staining the Revolution and inaugurating a new and bloody chapter in its development. The event gave two new words to the French language, septembrisades, and septembriseur. The first was simply chosen to mark the events, whereas the second referred to anyone who had taken part in the massacres, but later came to mean anyone involved in an act of savagery.

The church began the lengthy process of investigation of the deaths of the clergy in these massacres. A group of them, for whom there was sufficient documentation demonstrating death through hatred of the faith, were beatified 17 October 1926.

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