13 January 2008

Les Aumôniers de la Guillotine Part I

One of my Christmas gifts was a compilation of essays by French Catholic authors, among them Jacques Hérissay, president of the association of French Catholic Writers, and honorary president of the International Committee of Catholic Writers. His essay, The Chaplains of the Guillotine, includes a chapter on Fr. Magnin, who had the distinct honor of hearing Marie-Antoinette's last confession before her end on the scaffold. I offer my translation of his essay below.

M. Magnin, Confessor to Marie-Antoinette.


Marie-Antoinette, deferred to the revolutionary tribunal, was taken to the Conciergerie August 2nd, 1793 at two in the morning; she had left at the Temple her children and Madame Elisabeth, whom she would not see again. From this moment her end was fixed, and there was no more illusion to be made: sooner or later she would submit to the same end as Louis XVI.

In these royalist surroundings, one knew the immense joy there had been for the king to have the assistance in his last moments of a non-juring priest [priest who had refused to swear the oath to the Constitution]. Now, one didn't dare dream of a comparable grace for the queen: only the juring priests could still show themselves--and how timidly!--the refractory priests, pursued, were constrained to an absolute retreat, risking death at each moment. Despite everything, certain priests awaited a miracle from Providence, even making novenas toward this end. No one doubted the miracle would be realized.

The queen had been enclosed in the old room of the Council, which, before her, had been occupied by Custine--a room on the ground floor, big enough, receiving its only light through a low window, almost at the level of the lady's courtyard.

On the next day of this incarceration, August 3rd, Mr. Emery [a non-juring priest working secretly to minister to souls in prison] is, in his turn, transferred to the Conciergerie, coming from Carmel; immediately he learns of the presence of Marie-Antoinette and does not delay in corresponding with her: if he does not find means to approach her, he succeeds at least in having a terse note sent:

Prepare to receive absolution; today, at midnight, I will be outside your door and will pronounce over you the sacramental words...

At the hour said, in effect, the priest was able to descend from his chamber, situated on the upper floor, to approach the queen's cell and, through the door, hear her sighing, speak some moments with her, and finally give her absolution--after which he left without disturbance.

This event, without doubt, seems strange, but the superior of St. Sulpice [seminary], whose word one must trust, himself later recounted the story of this ministry, and we will see from what remains what very great liberties he enjoyed in the jails where he had to spend his time.

No one outside, however, suspected that the sacrament of penance had been, so auspiciously, brought to the detainee in the interior of the prison. Some faithful and pious souls dreamed on their part of obtaining this comfort, and perhaps also that, more precious still, of the Holy Eucharist.

Onto the scene enter Miss Fouché and Father Magnin--two figures as one only finds in times of profound social chaos.

(To be continued)

(Tea at Trianon has a related post here.)