Rue Haxo in Paris, a white brick church commemorates dozens of Catholic clergy who fell victim to one of the bloodiest uprisings in modern Europe. Its 150th anniversary will be marked during the last week of May with a series of commemorative events.
“The Paris Commune was an attempt at revolution, and it was essentially anti-religious – seeking not only the separation of Church and State, but the confiscation of Church property”, explained Father Jacques Benoist, French theologian and historian.
“He sought to erase the Catholic Church from the public domain and to view its officials as mere private citizens, bound by unconditional loyalty to the ruling power. This is what caused such a conflict.
The proclamation of the commune in 1871, just four years after royal families from Europe came to Paris for an exhibition of modern fashion and business, shocked the continent. A negotiation offer from President Louis Adolphe Thiers was rejected by the rebels, and on March 18, in a fire of red flags, the workers’ commune was announced.
The town’s factories were turned into cooperatives, wages standardized and empty houses requisitioned for the homeless, while a column celebrating the victories of Emperor Napoleon was brought down.
Two months later, after the bombardment of Paris, French military forces crossed the Seine and entered the city.
It took them a week to rid Paris of the suspected Communards. The army summarily executed at least 20,000 people and arrested 43,000 more during what became the “bloody week” (bloody week).
The Communards had targeted the Catholic Church in France, abolishing religious education and using places of worship as political clubs. At the beginning of April, some 200 members of the clergy were held with other personalities hostage against the reprisals of the French army. They included Archbishop Georges Darboy of Paris.
“For 19 centuries, you have stifled free thought in the name of your Christic religion,” Raoul Rigault, 25, chief of security in the town, told him. “Now it’s the turn of free thought to take over you! “
The commune offered to exchange Archbishop Darboy for the revolutionary Louis Auguste Blanqui, who had been elected president of the commune from his government prison cell.
Thiers rejected the offer, thus sealing the archbishop’s fate. On May 24, the archbishop and five priests died against the wall of the prison of La Roquette; the archbishop would have blessed his executioners.
A group of 30 Dominican priests were shot a day later in rue d’Italie, while on May 26, 11 Jesuit priests and priests of the Sacred Heart marched with other captives to rue Haxo in the last bastion. northeast of the commune and were slaughtered in the same way.
“Atheism and internationalism were in the air, inspired by Karl Marx and others, so it made sense that the Communards chose to make an example of Darboy and other members of the clergy in order to appear strong and resolute, ”said Father Benoist.
“Marx himself, from the security of London, believed that the township had broken the power of the church and welcomed its anti-religious excesses as the glorious start of a new working-class society.”
The town crushed, Thiers claimed to have conquered the revolutionary cause forever, while photo-montages were used to incriminate the rebels as degenerates.
Archbishop Darboy’s body was recovered from a ditch and received a state funeral, while the Basilica of the Sacred Heart was built in Montmartre to symbolize the restored moral order.
With dozens of its clergy murdered, the Catholic Church has struggled to enact reforms.
Despite this, the radical agitators remain hostile to it; and in 1905, its properties were nationalized by an anticlerical government, and Church and State were declared definitively separated.
Echoes of old antagonisms are still being heard in France.
Although a marble plaque to the dead Communards was installed at the Père Lachaise cemetery in 1904, it took decades for separate tablets to commemorate those executed in other Parisian locations and until 2016 for a resolution of the National Assembly aimed at rehabilitating slaughtered civilians.
Last October, the French government declared the Basilica of the Sacred Heart a historic monument, eligible for state subsidies, but this decision was denounced by some leftist politicians.
It is hoped that the 150th anniversary will promote reconciliation.
Sympathizers of the commune will organize commemorative events at the scene of the massacres, while the Archbishop of Paris Michel Aupetit will celebrate a commemorative mass on May 30.
The church on rue Haxo, Notre-Dame des otages, was inaugurated in 1938 to preserve the memory of Catholic victims, including Father Henri Planchat of the Fathers of Saint-Vincent de Paul.
Notre-Dame des otages will host masses and conferences, as well as a pilgrimage retracing the final path of the murdered clergy of La Roquette.
A process of canonization of Archbishop Darboy is well advanced. The same goes for Father Planchet and four members of the clergy who toured rue Haxo with him, whose beatification as Catholic martyrs is expected this fall.
“For the heads of communes, it was necessary to eradicate all supernatural hope from the minds of the people, so that they can fully engage in the reform of the world”, noted Father Stéphane Mayor, rector of the Notre-Dame church, in a message on the website.
“That’s why they finally wanted to get rid of the priests. By dying for Christ’s sake, however, the martyrs bore a vibrant testimony that heaven and earth are not two separate realities. To love God means to love people, and to serve God means to serve his children.