The exactions of the Commune

The sacking of Our Lady of Victories

IN MAY 1871

150 years ago, tragic events took place in this church, which was not yet a basilica.

« Grateful to Mary who allowed me to save her venerated statue at Our Lady of Victories on May 17, 1871.

A little historical reminder to put the events of the Commune into context

We are in 1870. France is governed by the emperor Napoleon III. On July 19 of the same year, France declared war on Prussia. On September 2, the army surrendered at Sedan and the emperor was taken prisoner. On September 4, the Republic is proclaimed in a peaceful way. On September 19, Prussian troops besieged Paris.

This siege lasted 138 days until the armistice was signed on January 28, 1871. A provisional government was formed with Adolphe Thiers at its head. It settled in Versailles. In Paris, the National Guard was organized into a federation, which became known as the Federals.

The events of March 18, 1871, set the world on fire. Guns were stored on the hill Montmartre, where the Sacred Heart Basilica is located today. The government tried to take back these guns from the Federals.

It is the revolt in Paris, the Commune begins. It will last 9 weeks and will end in a bloodbath with the resumption of the capital by the government troops.

During the Commune, the Catholic Church was the focus of the Federals’ hatred. The priests of many parishes in Paris were forced into hiding. Churches were requisitioned, transformed into clubs or even closed; 300 priests and religious were arrested, including the archbishop of Paris.

At Our Lady of Victories, the parish priest was also threatened and forced to leave. Before fleeing, he took care to hide the precious treasures that were in the church. At least he thinks so…

On May 17, at 4:45 p.m., the day before the feast of the Ascension, a battalion of Federals entered the church and blocked the exits. The chaos became total. The Federals chased the faithful and tried to expel them. The parishioners gathered at the feet of the statue of the Virgin to protect it, making a rampart with their bodies at the risk of their lives.

Some Federals wanted to break it. A priest interferes, kneeling at the feet of Our Lady of Victories.

Witnessing the scene, James Libman, a Jewish convert to Catholicism, steps forward and manages to protect the statue by a huge bluff (more information on this rescue can be found at the feet of the statue of the Virgin). 

The Federals retreat, the statue is saved. 

But the church will be ransacked for 3 days. It is a looting without name. 

The Federals searched for the precious objects that the parish priest thought he had put away and found them mainly in the family vault of the musician of King Louis XIV: Jean-Baptiste Lully. The family vault was located where the Our Lady of Sorrows chapel is today.

The vault is opened: the Federals shout with joy because they find the treasures of the church (ciboriums, monstrances, crowns including those offered by Pope Pius IX in 1853 for the statue of the Virgin, precious jewels, etc.).

The sacristy was completely looted. All the chapels were devastated and the altar of the Virgin became an abyss. The relics of Saint Aurelia were taken from the altar and the tomb of Father Desgenettes, whose plaque you see at the foot of the altar of the Virgin, was desecrated. His head was even walked on the end of a pike. 

The bones extracted from the tombs are taken out and piled up in the square. Some Federals even play with them. The Our Lady of Victories Church is accused of having committed crimes: if there are so many bones, it is because bad things happened there.

During that tragic week, the Federals set up oil barrels in the courtyard next to the church. Plans were made to blow up Our Lady of Victories on May 24. 

But on May 21, government troops entered Paris, and on the morning of May 24, Our Lady of Victories was liberated. At that time, May 24 was a Marian feast: the feast of Our Lady Help of Christians, so dear to Saint John Bosco, an illustrious visitor to this church.

Our Lady of Victories is saved, but it is in a terrible state. It was one of the most damaged churches in Paris. On June 3, a service of repair was held and the church was reopened for worship the next day. However, it would take several years to repair the considerable damage caused by the Commune.