HomeCommentaryMartyrs of love and compassion

Martyrs of love and compassion

Red is the symbol of courage. Red is the symbol of love. Symbols of two events we celebrate today — first, the four Daughters of Charity who were martyred in Arras. The sisters worked in Arras but they were made to go to Cambrai for their sham trial and execution on June 26, 1794, and the second event is the Silver Jubilee of Sr. Ana Amar.

What is the relationship between these two festivals? First, the martyrs of Arras. The context was the years following the French Revolution. You know the story: on the night before the French Revolution (July 14, 1789), the revolutionaries ransacked St. Lazare, the CM motherhouse including its wine cellars. [There is a story going on around the CMs that the revolutionaries might have been actually drunk from the wine of St. Lazare as they stormed the Bastille the next day].

Bastille was just a symbol. From then onwards, life has been difficult for the Church in France. The priests and the sisters were forced to pronounce the oath to the new regime or leave France and hide. Those who did not, were guillotined.

Do not get me wrong. The ideals of the revolution were good — liberté, egalité, fraternité — but the means with which they wanted to achieve their aims were violent and cruel — sowing another unjust and unequal society that left behind many victims in its wake. French Revolution is quite a far event. Think of Martial Law or Duterte’s War on Drugs! You will have some parallels.

This is the case of the four Daughters of Charity of Arras (Marie Madeleine Fontaine, Marie Francoise Lanel, Therese Madeleine Fantou, Jeanne Gerard). This community was an old community still founded by Vincent and Louise in 1656. Let me reflect on what happened to our four martyrs, and what we can learn from there, on this occasion of Sr. Ana’s Jubilee. Let me mention three things: (1) charity as a prophetic challenge to absolute power; (2) the persistence of charity; (3) the martyrdom of love and compassion


Arras is a hundred miles north of Paris. So, it is far from the mayhem in the city. But Robespierre, the great proponent of the post-revolutionary terror, came from Arras. So, he wanted to make Arras the model city patterned after the revolution’s ideals. Think of Davao as the model of a drug-free Philippines. Of course, it is a myth! But we can imagine the terror sown by the Davao Death Squad years ago. The authorities wanted to exact obedience on all peoples, especially the leaders in Arras. In order to do this, everybody has to do the oath of obedience.

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Where were the DCs then? They refused. The sisters who promised the vow of obedience refused to obey. So, they were considered reactionaries, “enemies of the State”, “subversives”, etc. — the same red-tagging lines we hear today. Their houses were raided and they were charged with rebellion because there were revolutionary materials found in the house. Some of those found were religious pictures; others were “planted” pieces of evidence. And the authorities did not stop.

But what were the sins of the sisters? They were doing charitable acts outside the authority and control of the State. This led them to the guillotine. Charity is always revolutionary; it is a threat to absolute power!


In order to continue to serve the poor and the sick, the Sisters were willing to let go of many structures in their community life. They did not call themselves “Sister” or “Superior”. They called themselves “Citizenness”. They let go of their habits and wore ordinary clothes. They let go of these symbols of religious life — quite important during the medieval times — in order to continually serve the poor

I can still remember going with Sr. Ana and the sisters on a boat to Tawi-tawi (1990s). No coiffes, no habits. We called all of them “Ate”. The habits do not help in this context of service. I still remember DCs in Indonesia who built a mosque inside their hospitals to serve the poor victims of the tsunami in Banda Aceh. These symbols are important but the Sisters did not hesitate to let go of them to serve the poor.

St. Vincent once said: “Charity is certainly greater than all rules. Moreover, all rules must lead to charity.” Please remember Arras was in 1794. We are in 2023. Almost 230 years ago. But sometimes, the sisters in Arras were more revolutionary than many of us today.

Whatever the situation was, the sisters remained. The bishop of Arras escaped to Belgium. One priest took the oath of allegiance to the regime. The others went into hiding. But the DCs remained; they remained to serve the poor. St. Paul writes somewhere: “There are three things that remained — faith, hope, and love. And the greatest of them is love, charity, compassion.”


The third point is our call to the martyrdom of love and compassion. Whether it is a violent death like in Arras or in the silent challenge to show love and compassion today, it is the same Christian call to martyrdom.

This is how I remember the life and service of Sr. Ana. One way to celebrate a Jubilee is to ask the people whom we serve. Have we served them well? Did we witness charity? How did they see us? One thing is how we proclaim ourselves to be. Another thing is how they look at us.

So, for this event, I did what millennials call “crowd-sourcing”. As you all know, all my nephews and nieces studied under the DCs in Cebu. They all knew Sr. Ana — the young sister — when they were growing up as small boys. Now some of them are married and have kids. One said: “Everytime makakita ko niya sa corridor, smiling kaayo siya. Dili pareho sa uban. Very approachable. Dali rang duolon.” “Simple ra ni nga young sister. Ganahan ni siya mokaon ug paklay.” “Ang uban mahadlok moduol sa Sisters’ Quarter. Pero tungod kang Sr. Ana nakasulod ko sa Sisters Quarters. Gipakaon ug budbod nga para unta sa mga madre.” “Siya tong madre moadto sa balay; makigdula ug table tennis kang Francis.”

Francis was my nephew who had cancer. I first met Ana, as a young DC Sister, in that event of our life as a family. She took care of Francis when our family was struggling how to deal with the disease just months after my mother died of the same illness. Ana was a healing presence to our family, even if Francis did not make it. During those times when Francis could no longer come to school, Ana and the Grade school adviser travel all the way to Consolacion from Gorordo — and that is not near — to bring his learning materials so that Francis could learn and take exams.

Today, I and my family would like to thank Sr. Ana for this. This is what I call the “persistence of charity”. These are just small acts, ordinary acts, but they are powerful and revolutionary. They have changed how my nephews look at the Church, how they look at God, and how people now care about other people because someone showed them care and compassion.

Of course, we do not wish Sr. Ana to become one of the martyrs of Arras. But we know that there is a martyrdom that we all need to live — the martyrdom of daily compassion. To borrow the words of the great Anglican theologian, Rowan Williams, “the quotidian character of martyrdom”, that is, “how to live our baptismal challenge in the martyrdom of our quotidian existence”.

When I lay down in bed each night, what comes to mind are the deep sufferings people experience, those whom I met during the day. It makes sleeping quite difficult. When I look at the eyes of beggars on the road, how can we ever fathom their pain? As I speak, I knew of someone whose child just died of a disease that could easily have been prevented; of someone feeling betrayed and crying all day; of a widow whose husband has been shot; of a young boy just infected with mental illness or HIV-AIDS; of a family without anything to eat whose text I just received before sleeping; of a friend slowly dying of cancer.

As Vincentians, where do we locate ourselves in this world of pain? This is the everyday character of our martyrdom.

Nais ng Diyos na isalang natin ang ating buhay, na itaya natin ang ating sarili, upang maibsan ang sakit at kahirapan na nararanasan ng ating mga kababayan, upang tulungang wakasan ang pahirap ng kapangyarihan. We place our lives on the line each day so that we can help ease the sufferings brought about by abuse and injustice.


While Madeleine Fontaine was walking to the guillotine on June 26, 1794, she told the crowd: “Christians, listen to me! We are the final victims. Tomorrow the persecution will be over, the scaffold will be dismantled, and the altars of Jesus will rise glorious once again”.

Itinaya nila ang kanilang buhay upang matapos na ang kahibangan ng mga makapangyarihan.

And she was right. Six weeks after their execution, Lebon, the ex-priest who assumed leadership in Arras and who red-tagged the sisters, was captured together with other leaders, and they were guillotined four months after.

To end, let us be reminded of what St. Vincent said during one of the Conferences to the Daughters of Charity:

“We should strive to keep our hearts open to the sufferings and wretchedness of other people, and pray continually that God may grant us that spirit of compassion which is truly the spirit of God.”

Father Daniel Franklin Pilario, C.M., is a theologian, professor, and pastor of an urban poor community in the outskirts of the Philippine capital. He is also Vincentian Chair for Social Justice at St. John’s University in New York. The opinions and views expressed in this article are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of LiCAS News or its publishers.

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