On Ill-Gotten Gains

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. She is a host at Forward Boldly Radio, whose episodes can be found here: http://forwardboldly.com.