Chapelle de Picpus in Paris (Notre-Dame-de-la-Paix)

Many Catholic pilgrims who travel to Paris make a stop at Picpus Chapel to pray and visit the attached Cimetière de Picpus (Picpus Cemetery). This is a place of prayer where hundreds of martyrs of the French Revolution are entombed and where a venerable statue in the chapel draws the faithful to pray for peace and for the living and dead. In 2018 I was privileged to visit here for the first time.  

The Chapel and Famous Statue 

The small chapel is called Notre-Dame-de-la-Paix (Our Lady of Peace) or simply the Chapelle de Picpus, a quiet place in a busy city. The chapel dates from 1640. Today it is part of a large cemetery complex with gardens, green lawns, and a graveyard with tombs. 

The side transept of the chapel holds a true work of art, a small 15th-century sculpture of the Vierge de la Paix (the Virgin of Peace), reputed to have cured King Louis XIV of a serious illness in 1658. The wooden statue dates from about 1530. It is the creation of an unknown artist from the Languedoc region of France. 

The statue is small in size (33 cm). Mary is dressed in a Greek tunic. In her right hand she holds an olive branch. On her left arm rests the Child Jesus, with his arms outstretched, holding the cross in one hand and the world in the other. The statue was crowned in 1906 by the Archbishop of Paris, by order of Pope Pius X. 

Mass is offered on the altar in the sanctuary. In 1969 the previous altar was unfortunately removed and replaced when the sanctuary was refurbished with a new altar made in part of "comblanchien," an iconic Burgundy limestone. 

Place of Martyrs

One of the reasons this site is so holy and important is because it is the final resting place of martyrs of the Revolution. During the height and last phase of the Reign of Terror, 1,306 victims were executed near here between June 14 - July 27, 1794. 

These victims, most of them Catholic, were buried daily and by the cover of darkness for two months in two mass graves behind the chapel on the edge of the property (in the back corner on the right side). To this day the entrance door can be seen along the wall in the back on the left where the carts entered carrying the bodies who were stripped for burial. When the first mass grave filled, a second was dug and filled. 

The exact location of the guillotine was the Place de l’Île de la Réunion, a discreet square that abuts the Place de la Nation. Unfortunately, to this day no proper monument has been erected by the government on this spot to honor the dead. The site of the cemetery was chosen due to its close proximity to the place of execution. 

The names of those buried in the two common pits are inscribed on the marble walls of the side transept wall of chapel. These include priests and nuns, monks, people young and old. The Revolutionaries showed mercy to no one. Of the 1,109 men, there were 108 nobles, 108 churchmen, 136 monks (gens de robe), 178 military, and 579 commoners. The number of women buried there are 197, with 51 from the nobility, 23 nuns, and 123 commoners. The victims were between the ages of 16 and 85. 

Catholic Victims of the Revolution

The Martyrs of Compiègne are among the dead buried here. They were the 16 nuns taken from the Carmel in Compiègne, 72 km north of Paris. The nuns were killed by the guillotine and brought here in a cart for burial along with the rest of the martyrs. The nuns were 11, with 3 lay sisters, and two externs, ranging in age from 29 to 78. They died at the very end of the Reign of Terror on July 17, 1794. As they were led to the scaffold they sang hymns together and each asked first for permission to die, from the superior. In 1906, they were beatified as martyrs of the Faith. 

Ten days after their execution, the agitator and main instigator of these horrors met his end. He was the dreaded killer responsible for so many deaths with the help of his accomplices, Maximilien Robespierre, a member of the "Committee of Public Safety." He himself was also executed, effectively ending the Reign of Terror, when he was guillotined at what is now place de la Concorde and was buried elsewhere.  The massacre only stopped with his death, when his accomplices finally turned on him for fear of becoming the next victims of his murderous folly. 

In truth, countless thousands of Catholics were killed by the guillotine, as well as by mob violence, imprisonment, deportations, stabbings, and other acts of senseless brutality. The French state has yet to reconcile itself with the evils of the Revolution, a direct attack on Catholic life, human decency, and Western civilization. 

One of the victims buried in the cemetery was an nun, the Abbess Louise de Montmorency-Laval, who even though she was deaf and blind, was accused of having plotted "deafly and blindly" and was condemned to death by guillotine. The victims were of all social backgrounds and were nearly all condemned on petty, absurd, or imaginary grounds. 

The cemetery is one of only two private cemeteries in the city of Paris and it is the largest, located outside the city center. Before the French Revolution the cemetery was part of the walled garden of the convent of the Canonesses of St. Augustine of the Notre-Dame Congregation (Chanoinensses de Saint-Augustin), who had been there since 1640. 

In 1790, the French government passed the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, which outlawed religious life. In August 1792, the government ordered all women's monasteries closed. The property of the nuns, who were devoted to teaching, was confiscated by the Revolutionary government and the nuns were forced to leave in 1792. 

The cemetery was created during the Revolution from land seized from the convent. After the Revolution the property was sold to a commoner named Coignard, who turned it into a maison de santé — a sort of convalescent home that also served as a prison for those fortunate enough to be able to pay the rent. Several aristocrats rented rooms from him during the Terror where they were forced to live in poverty amidst the putrid vapors of the dead. 

It is unthinkable these crimes against humanity took place. The roots of the French Revolution were in the European Enlightenment. Harvard historian Christopher Dawson describes it thus: 

"By degrees the Enlightenment became transformed into a kind of counter-religion, and the spiritual forces which were denied their traditional religious expression found their outlet in the new revolutionary cult which was embodied in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and was inspired by an irrational faith in Reason and by boundless hopes for the progress of humanity when liberated from the age-long oppression of priests and kings. Political democracy and economic liberalism were the practical corollaries of these beliefs, and the attempt to realize them by a drastic breach with the past and the introduction of new rational institutions led to the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror and the Caesarian imperialism of Napoleon."  (Source: Christianity and European Culture by Christopher Dawson, pp. 145-146). 

The Years After the Revolution 

Some years after the Revolution, in the year 1802, a group of aristocrats that had fled France returned and formed a group of interested parties to buy up the land in order to create a memorial and a private cemetery that would include the mass burial site. They purchased the garden of Picpus by subscription in June 1802.

In 1805, nuns returned to the pre-existing convent. The new occupants were the Sisters of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, a new order founded in 1800. These nuns dedicated their lives to pray and perform other religious services in memory of the victims and to pray for the salvation of the souls of their executioners and the conversion of those responsible for the Revolution.

On May 6, 1806, the statue was returned to the chapel after the violence of the Revolution where it has remained since and has been revered by the nuns as the protectress of their Congregation. Before the Revolution, it was in the possession of the Capuchins in Paris. During the turmoil of the Revolution in 1791, a Capuchin friar hid the statue and entrusted it to a lady whose sister inherited the statue and later gave it to the nuns who arrived after the Revolution. The statue was returned to the Picpus Chapel on May 6, 1806 and since that time the Congregation celebrates the feast of Our Lady of Peace on July 9. 

On the initiative of Madame de Montaigu, the sister-in-law of General Lafayette (of Revolutionary War fame), some of the buildings of the former convent were purchased for the new nuns. The chapel was purchased by the Cemetery and Oratory Foundation of Picpus, but it is leased to the sisters who have maintained it, ensuring daily Mass and prayer in the chapel. 

In 1840-1841 the chapel was enlarged under the direction of the architect Frolicher. The nave was extended with the addition of a semi-circular apse and two side chapels. At that time the large white marble slabs were fixed to the wall with the names of the victims inscribed, never to be forgotten. 

Over the years many missionaries of the Congregation have gone forth from the feet of this statue, proving that the quickest way to find purpose is to serve others. This has included both sisters and brothers of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts, including the best known member of their order, St. Damien of Molokai, who ministered to the lepers in Hawaii where he later contracted leprosy and died in 1889 at age 49.  He prayed here in 1863 before his departure for the New World. He was never to return. The Congregation has been ministering in Hawaii since 1827. 

Sadly, the chapel was desecrated and lotted by rioters during the Paris Commune on April 12, 1871 during the political violence of the Paris Commune. Thankfully the statue escaped the vandalism through the quick thinking and courageous intervention of a Capuchin. At that time was also the massacre in the Rue Haxo, a mass execution of priests and gendarmes in May 1871. During this terrible event, 110 priests and gendarmes were executed over a period of several days, including 4 priests from Picpus, Fathers Ladislas Radigue, Polycarpe Tuffier, Marcellin Rouchouze and Frézal Tardieu.

Pilgrims Gather Today

Even though the Revolutionaries and their secularist heirs have tried to hide their crimes and consign these tragic events to oblivion, Picpus is a holy place, a burial ground open to all. Today, only descendants of the original victims buried here are eligible to be entombed here as well. 

While originally it was a place where the evil Revolutionary Tribunal sought a quick and relatively anonymous place to dispose of the murdered victims, today it is a place of pilgrimage and meditation and pardon for the excesses of men led astray by materialistic ideologies. 

And thanks to the presence of the sisters of the Congregation, who still to this day maintain a small convent on site, with a walled garden, it is a place of perpetual prayer for the salvation of the world with confidence in Our Lady of Peace. 

Some Americans also visit here to see the tomb of the Marquis de Lafayette (1757–1834), a Catholic hero of the Revolutionary War. An American flag flies perpetually over his final resting place. He his buried here because he had relatives on his wife's side killed and buried here (the grandmother, mother and sister of his wife, Adrienne de Noailles). Every 4th of July there is a little ceremony at his graveside, generally with the U.S. Ambassador in attendance.  

The walk from the metro stop to the Chapel/Cemetery and the Place of Martyrdom


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