Blessed Madeleine Fontaine, Blessed Frances Lanel, Blessed Teresa Fantou, and Blessed Joan Gerard were Daughters of Charity in Arras, about 150 kms north of Paris, during the time of the French Revolution. This was a time when the Catholic Church was judged to be on the side of the rich rather than the poor, and thus became the target of the revolutionaries. The Daughters of Charity, however, had been founded by St Vincent de Paul and St Louise de Marillac precisely to serve the poor.
Sister Madeleine was born in 1723 at Etepagny and had been superior of the convent at Arras since 1767. At the outbreak of the Revolution in 1789 the Daughters of Charity in Arras had a dispensary for the sick and a free school for girls and made house visits to the poor. In spite of the Revolution, the Daughters continued their work and were generally left in peace. When they heard that persecution might come their way, they sent the three youngest sisters in the community across the border into Belgium.
In 1794 the revolutionaries took possession of their house and a judge found them guilty of working against the Revolution, based on a false accusation relating to papers that were said to have been found in their convent. They were ‘under suspicion of being under suspicion’! When they refused to take the Revolutionaries’ Oath of the Constitution, they were sentenced to death by the guillotine.
After twelve weeks in prison, the four sisters were moved to Cambrai, about 50 kms away. There they were tried again, and then taken to the central square of the town where they walked calmly to the guillotine, singing a hymn to Mary. Madeleine was the last to be killed. It was 26 June 1794, in Cambrai. She was 71 years old. The other sisters were aged 49, 47, and 42. They were the last victims of the guillotine in that town.
Blessed Madeleine and her companions were beatified in 1920.