If you are into the slightly macabre then next time you are in Paris you should make the effort to visit the little known crypt of the beautiful but often overlooked Church of Saint-Joseph-Des-Carmes in the 6th Arrondissement. It is open to groups of five or six people on a Saturday afternoon at 3pm.
Before the French Revolution, there stood on the site of the Church a Carmelite Monastery. The Eglise Saint Joseph des Carmes was constructed for the Carmelites from the reform by Saint Terese of Avila when they came to France after the death of King Henry IV, at the request of Pope Paul V.
They were greeted by Marie de Medici in an open area by the Rue de Vaugirard, and the queen laid the first stone for the new church here on 20th July, 1613, however, the work was not completed until 1620. It was a peaceful place, known for lemon balm (Eaus des Carmes) that was distilled there by the monks. It is still on sale today under the name of Eau des Carmes Boyer. The monastery church was also famous for its cupola, which had been the first in Paris.
A law passed on 17 August, 1792 ordered the closure of all monasteries and convents. The Carmelite monastery was converted into a prison, holding some 160 clerics, including three bishops, among its inmates. Having refused to take the oath of allegiance to the Republican Constitution, which the Assembly had introduced for the clergy in 1790, these clerics would ultimately be massacred in the prison. You can still see the steps to the garden, where summoned on Sunday 2 September 1792, these so-called réfractaires were killed by the pikestaffs and bayonets of a mod led by Commissaire Maillard.
When rue de Rennes was laid out in 1876, it sliced through the monastery garden and resulted in the destruction of the Martyrs Chapel and the well where the bodes had been thrown. Subsequent excavation recovered their remains, and these are now preserved in the church crypt. Aligned in rows, a number of the skulls bear clear traces of the murderers’ blades.
The model of the demolished garden chapel also brings to mind the horrible scene that took place here and some of the blood stained flagstones survived.
The visit to the crypt ends with a message that Josephine de Beauharnais, herself imprisoned here during the Revolution, wrote on the wall of her cell: “Liberty, when will you cease to be an empty word? It’s seventeen days now that we have been locked up. They tell us we will get out tomorrow. But isn’t that just a vain hope?”
After a visit to the crypt you can wander the garden and visit the Church which contains a very fine Virgin and Child by Bernini.