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On Ill-Gotten Gains Print E-mail
By Christine Niles   
Thursday, 12 June 2014

There is a curious museum in the heart of Dijon, France: Musée d’Art Sacré – the Museum of Sacred Art. A more accurate name would be The Museum of Illegally Confiscated Church Property.

The building originally housed the city’s first community of Cistercian nuns, transferred from the city of Tart to Dijon in 1623. The convent was completed in 1708, and the nuns enjoyed approximately ninety years of order and tranquility – until the Jacobins arrived.

In the summer of 1792, 270 priests who had refused the oath to the Civil Constitution of the Clergy – which would have required them to renounce papal authority – were arrested in Dijon and deported. The same happened to other non-juring clergy throughout France, although a number of them remained in the country and went into hiding.

Much like the Jesuits under Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, these French priests went about in disguise, pretending to be street vendors, laborers, or patissiers, offering secret Masses to the faithful by night, in secluded woods or candle-lit attics. Those caught were imprisoned in the Conciergerie, where they continued their ministry in secret, offering the consolation of the sacraments to those awaiting the guillotine – until  they in turn fell under the blade.

The guillotine was not the only fate that awaited refractory priests. In Nantes, in two mass drownings intended to put down resistance in the Vendée, more than 200 priests were gathered onto barges that were set adrift on the Loire River, and then sunk. Only one, a Fr. Landeau, escaped and lived to tell the story of these atrocities. At least one account tells of a priest and nun stripped naked, bound together in an obscene posture, and thrown into the water. These spectacles were mockingly called “republican marriages.” Catholic laity in the hundreds – men, women, and children alike – met the same deaths.

Clergy who swore the oath to follow the Civil Constitution – five bishops and half of all priests in France – went into schism. They were given comfortable positions and could serve in an official capacity as priests – as long as they remained loyal citoyens and did not criticize the Republic. These juring priests were permitted to minister to the imprisoned – but not every Catholic would accept their services.

Marie-Antoinette, for instance, curtly refused to confess to a non-refractory priest. Instead, in a little-known account, a non-juring priest by the name of Abbé Magnin was smuggled into the queen’s cell the night before she died and heard her last confession. And he offered one final Mass for her before she was taken by cart in the morning to the place of execution.

Monasteries all over France were overtaken, their sacred riches confiscated, and many turned into prisons or garrison houses. The Cistercian convent in Dijon was turned into a military base.


        Musée d’Art Sacré

You can find the convent by its green copper cupola and gold cross, which rise above the surrounding rooftops. Inside the square cloister are the heavy wood doors of the museum entrance. The cloister is largely taken up by the Museum of Burgundian Life, complete with cheesy wax figures in eighteenth-century settings: sweeping floors, tending to animals, conversing in the cobblestone streets.

To think that the hallowed halls where the spouses of Christ once gathered, worked, and prayed together, their lives wholly consecrated to Him and every moment offered as a holocaust for the salvation of souls, is now taken up with rakish wax dummies in forced postures – it’s almost too much.

Emerging from the cloister to the rotunda, which houses numerous side chapels, you see a marble High Altar above which stands a stunning marble depiction of the Visitation, St. Elizabeth’s hands outstretched in greeting to Our Lady. The side chapels hold holy artifacts: venerable statues and images, embroidered vestments, and holy relics. Each relic is carefully accompanied by a little plate with a description: 

  • The skulls of St. Bartholomew, St. Victor, two of the 11,000 virgins murdered with St. Ursula by the Huns, and St. Lucy.
  • Reliquary of early Roman martyrs.
  • Bones of St. Bénigne (patron saint of Dijon).
  • Bust and relics of St. Bernard of Clairvaux.

Saint Bernard was born in Dijon on August 20, 1091, and went on to found seventy-two Cistercian monasteries in France during his lifetime. On the 850th anniversary of his death, the reliquary containing one of his ribs was processed from the museum to St. Bernard’s birthplace several kilometers away. There a basilica was built in his honor, where the relics were venerated by the faithful. Instead of remaining there – where they rightfully belong – the relics had to be returned in short order to the museum, to be put back in their sterile glass display case under the state’s watchful and miserly gaze.

The museum’s greatest treasures lie in the nave, now pewless, in clear glass cases stacked high – ornate golden monstrances, ciboria, and chalices that once held the Sacred Body and Blood of Our Lord, now ensconced behind rows of sparkling panes, to be gawked at as if they were little more than interesting decorations from some bygone era. My reverence as I walked past these sacred articles was tinged with not a small amount of anger at the thought of this ill-gotten plunder, plunder that has yet to be acknowledged, much less apologized for, by the state.

The museum website describes these riches as “objects which make up an integral part of our cultural patrimony.” Indeed, a patrimony that comprises the very heart and soul of France, one which has sanctified the soil of this country with the blood of her many sons and daughters who willingly went to their deaths rather than renounce the Faith, forgiving their persecutors as they did so, and surely now interceding from Heaven for the “eldest daughter of the Church.”

 
Christine Niles graduated from Oxford University and Notre Dame Law School, and is currently a stay-at-home mother. She is a host at Forward Boldly Radio, whose episodes can be found here: http://forwardboldly.com. 
 
 
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Comments (21)Add Comment
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written by Deacon Ed Peitler, June 12, 2014
Perhaps since the USCCB is currently in session, the bishops can vote to petition all museums - public and private - to have all religious artifacts gracing the halls of American museums returned to the Catholic Church - their rightful owner.

The profanation of things religious is a metaphor for what our current government is trying to effect.
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written by Randall, June 12, 2014
France both inspires and repulses me. I love all that is great about France. But her greatness is largely from her past. Rebecca West provides an image of modern Europe as 'aphids feeding on a rose bush that's been cut down and laid on the compost heap'.

France - the Church's eldest daughter. If only this prodigal would turn back - how the Father would rush to great her!
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written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, June 12, 2014
The Basilique Saint-Bernard at Fontaine-lès-Dijon is also state property, along with its contents – Loi du 9 décembre 1905 concernant la séparation des Eglises et de l'Etat.

In other words, the reliquary was moved from one public building to another. The only legal difference between them is that the state permits an association cultuelle to worship in one, but not the other; a permission terminable at will.
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written by Mack, June 12, 2014
"Europe is the Faith, and the Faith is Europe." - Hilaire Belloc

Yes, but at the present, which faith? The state? Islam? Euroness?
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written by Jack,CT, June 12, 2014
Sadly informing and I find myself angry and
sad as it seems we should at least have our
sacred relics that held our Lord!
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written by Schm0e, June 12, 2014
It's only a building. Get used to it.
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written by Paul, June 12, 2014
"the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord." It's hard to say and harder to put into practice.
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written by Myshkin, June 12, 2014
Well, the Jacobins are long gone, but the Roman Catholic Church is bigger than ever. We must be thankful to the Lord for he has used what seemed like total defeat under the French Revolutionaries, as a rebirth of his world-wide flock. As Tertullian observed centuries ago, blood of the martyrs really is the seed of the Church. Examples like these 18th century French priests, nuns and lay-faithful must give us hope as we face our daily struggle to witness to the truth of the Gospel entrusted to the Roman Catholic Church. We should not be angry or bitter about their suffering, but give thanks to God for such wonderful human persons, martyrs for God's Church.
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written by Benedict Augustine, June 12, 2014
These are not just buildings and artifacts from the past; they were the sacred vessels of a living faith, cut down and abolished by the State. Turkey has done the same with its Christian artifacts, converting all the great churches, like the Hagia Sophia, into "museums". In doing this, these inheritors of something truly amazing and life-giving relegate themselves to the status of mere observers, living life vicariously and pointlessly. Watch their worlds ossify as time passes. Anyone who visits France can attest that they are a civilization of the past, and that, in converting churches into museums, the whole country itself has the feeling of a museum.

The failure to recognize the abuses of the past only prolong their dehumanizing effect. In ignoring the violence inflicted upon Catholics, many Frenchmen effectively kill a part of themselves, the noble part, the religious part. They now only have the state, led by the utterly uninspiring philandering Francois Holland, to take care of them. This is what the state can offer in a very limited way. Thus, they traded away the riches of eternal life and the beauty of the faith, for Cobusian rabbit hutches in the banlieus of Paris and a few weeks of extra vacation.
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written by Christine Niles, June 12, 2014
Michael Paterson-Seymour,
Thank you for pointing that out. The old Cistercian monastery built on the grounds of St. Bernard's birthplace was destroyed during the Revolution, its stones sold off one by one, and the place seized by the government. The only part of the monastery left remaining is a stone archway leading to the woods and a little grotto.

The church itself was used a flea market for a time--until 2001, when it was re-consecrated and an FSSP priest invited to offer Sunday Mass there: Abbé Xavier Garban, who, from what I understand, remains there to this day.
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written by girasol, June 12, 2014
In a similar museum in a European city I spent my stroll through the "artifacts" saying "St. So and So, pray for us" in front of each saint's relic. One can sneak some devotion into such places!
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written by Jack,CT, June 12, 2014
"shm0e" on you,,,,it is not as much the
building (Sacred as it is) but what
the building houses,it pains
me to hear a statement like
the one you author, shame!

(If the body and blood of your)
Fr rested there you would
most likely be more
sensitive,I Hope?)
God Bless
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written by DS, June 12, 2014
It is good to preserve culture and not to forget history: the objects discussed above, Hagia Sophia, etc.

On the other hand, these things are secondary to faith in Christ, which lives with or without these objects. So to focus the Church's money, time and talent today on repatriating them or asking for restitution or apologies, risks distorting the faith and diverting resources from evangelization.

The Church still has plenty of sacred worldly treasure to work with.
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written by Manfred, June 12, 2014
The biography of Jean-Baptiste Marie Vianney relates how he, as a young man, was taken by his aunt and uncle to a Mass in a country barn with blankets fixed over the openings and lighted only by candles. This was in France at the height of the Revolution. There a true priest, his faced lined from the stress of being pursued, said Mass for the benefit of the Catholics in the area. Young Vianney was so moved by that priest that he became in time a priest and served for many years as the Curate of Ars (le Cure d'Ars) where his reputation as a confessor spread so far to the point where he would hear confessions all day long, often reminding the person in the confessional of sins they had omitted or forgotten.
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written by Jack,CT, June 12, 2014
DS, your statement ONLY true if these were
simply ""Holy Object"", they are far
more than what you have reduced.
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written by Myshkin, June 12, 2014
We often fear the evil of our own place and time, little realizing that in other times and places, things were (and are) far worse. Yet God keeps making good come out of evil. Our often short sighted view may make us question how good can be brought out of our own evil circumstances. Yet we can be assured that, though we may not see it, God will do it. The past is full of examples ...
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written by Rosemary, June 12, 2014
The Cloisters in NY are a collection of five cloisters that were found in France (one was being used as a stable). All brought back and re-assembled, stone by stone. Sort of a metaphor for what we have to do in the Church.
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written by Marie, June 13, 2014
Many priests were deported to the islands of Aix and Madame not far from the French coast and the seaport of Rochefort. There they nearly all died from typhus, malnutrition, and exhaustion. 245 are buried on Ile Madame
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written by Philippe Guy, June 14, 2014
Mrs Niles does not give any source for her contribution, and it is very sad for someone who graduated from a university I love and admire so much.

Unfortunately there are many mistakes in the text and we feel rather offended, as French, as catholics, of the many false accusations.

Just a details but the nave, now pewless, has always been pewless: this was not a parish. Even Notre-Dame de Paris has always been pewless before the 19th century.

The museum was created by Canon Marillier, from the chapter of Dijon cathedral, with help of the municipality. He was a close friend and I did collaborate a bit. He was a scolar and had the mission to protect the rich patrimony.

The objective was to give a new life to this beautiful chapel, to open it to the public. Anyone who knows Dijon would agree that there are too many chapels and churches for the need of the diocese.

The other objective was to preserve from the thieves, from natural degradation, to save all the vestments, vessels, statues from the many little chapels, country churches, sme of them being used only once a year.

There has been an enormous work to evaluate, sort, restore. The museum does not display all its collections. It is hard to say, but in my own little village parish church, 30km from Dijon, we have several 17th century "batons de procession", small statues once carried in processions, too fragile to be used (we are so few we would not organise processions either) and we ask the museum to store them to protect them. The museum cannot accept any more lending.

If Mrs Niles knew the Basilique de Saint-Bernard, she would admit there is no safe place to store the relics there. She would know as well that the pontificalia stored in the museum are better protected and cared of than at the cathedral. She would know as well that those objects can be used by the church at will.

Moreover, the display of these collections had the advantage to sensibilise people to the interest of objects they had in their own parishes.

So I feel a bit offended, as a catholic, as a French by this contribution. I just add something. The curator of the museum is a practising catholic much involved in the diocese. She must be offended as well.
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written by Christine Niles, June 14, 2014
Mr. Philippe Guy--Thank you for your note. From what I gather from your comments, the State lends to the Church the relics and sacred vessels it stole from her.

How generous.
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written by Tom Wingate, July 01, 2014
An interesting piece. Thank you. You might want to get hold of a complementary article from the British Jesuit Catholic school, Stonyhurst, in Lancashire? They have the best repository of Catholic relics / history in the UK. Also, I understand it is one of the oldest museums of its kind in the western world.
On as personal note, I have had an article on "Dickens and Roman Catholicism", plus another on "Queen Victoria and Roman Catholicism" published by the UK magazine, "Catholic Life". Both in 4 parts. With their permission, would you be interested in seeing them and publishing them, too? TMJW

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