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The French Revolution



These villagers were virtually all Catholic, and the revolutionary changes which had perhaps the greatest impact on them were those which affected the practice of their religion. Most of the villagers were extremely devout and felt deeply threatened by the republican government's attacks on their religion. The people of Alsace, more than those in any other part of France, resisted the anticlerical actions of the government.

On November 2, 1789, land owned by churches or by various noblemen, which included a lot of arable land, was confiscated and put up for auction. The Catholic Church ordered the faithful not to participate in these auctions, so most of the church holdings in the Stundwiller area were purchased by outsiders.

On 12 July 1790, the Assembly passed laws purporting to make all clerics subject to the state. All clergy were to be paid by the state, and elected by state or district electors. They were to swear an oath of allegiance to the Revolution, and the government would regulate their conduct. Any priest who refused to swear the oath of allegiance to the Revolution was forbidden to perform any of his priestly duties, and was subject to arrest and punishment if he were found to be ministering to his people.

Whether this constituted as much of a difficulty for the Protestant clergy in France, I do not know, but since the Pope was the head of the Catholic Church, French Catholics were placed in an impossible situation. In France as a whole, about half of the clergy swore the required oath of allegiance to the Revolution, but in Alsace, only 8 percent did. For the purposes of the following discussion, those who swore the required oath of allegiance to the Revolution will be called "government" clergy, and those who refused to swear that oath will be called "refractory" clergy.

The parish of Stundwiller included the villages of Oberroedern and Aschbach, and its pastor, Father Anthon, was among the many Alsatian priests who refused to take the oath. The government bishop tried to recruit replacements in Germany, some of whom had very little clerical training, but the people would not accept the government priests. By July of 1791 the pressure on the refractory priests was increased, and when they were given 8 days to take the oath or face banishment, many of the priests went into hiding.

The people of the Stundwiller parish petitioned the government to let Father Anthon, who had been their pastor for 17 years, return to his parish and to his duties, but their efforts were unavailing.

The government appointed a German pastor of the parish, but the people of the parish had almost nothing to do with him; the people conducted their own baptisms, marriages, and funerals.

Once the government priest took over, Mr. Schimpf, the schoolmaster, refused to serve Mass or serve on the parish council. Mr. Schimpf took the position that he was only hired to instruct the children, but the authorities disagreed and ordered him to serve mass and serve on the parish council on penalty of dismissal. Mr. Schimpf bravely persisted in his refusal to assist the government priest, who accordingly secured Mr. Schimpf's dismissal and got his preferred candidate, Mr. Thomann, hired in Mr. Schimpf's place. The Directory not only fired Mr. Schimpf, but informed him that if he instructed any children, he would be prosecuted for treason.

The death of Mr. Thomann at the age of 58 was entered into the parish registry only a matter of weeks later. A statement in the "Neueste Religionsbelegenheiten" of 27 April 1792 indicates that he was the victim of violence. In any event, the position was not filled, and Mr. Schimpf, though no longer a schoolmaster, remained in Stundwiller.

Jacob Starck, a choir boy from the neighboring village of Trimbach, told of the day he disobeyed his mother's orders and accompanied the government priest to Stundwiller. When they got there, they were stoned. The next day (the feast of the Ascension in 1791), the government priest went back to Stundwiller with an escort of 27 national guard troops from Niederroedern, most of whom were massacred at Stundwiller.

Government troops were called in to protect the government priest at Stundwiller, who very reasonably feared for his safety. Villagers shot at the soldiers, and beat to death anyone they suspected of helping the government priest. In April, 1792, the government priest quit, and it wasn't until July of 1793 that another government priest, another German, was appointed. This one was only 22 years old, but he was hired at a significantly higher salary than his predecessor. It isn't clear whether he ever actually arrived to take over his duties, though. In any event, shortly after he was hired, he took a non-clergy position elsewhere.

De-Christianization

As if things weren't bad enough already, they soon became much worse. On September 21, 1792, the Republic was established, along with a new calendar with 10 different days, every tenth day being designated a day of rest. Radical officials in some départements began a program of De-Christianization, which spread at various rates and in varying degrees to other départements. Religion was declared to be superstition, all religious things were either put to secular use, confiscated, or destroyed (if they could be found, that is; the villagers of Stundwiller hid the relics of St. Lucius). Priests were forbidden to say Mass or perform any clerical duties, and secular holidays were instituted to take the place of religious holidays.

On May 30, 1795, as the result of a complaint filed by the municipal attorney of Stundwiller, an arrest warrant was issued for Father Spisser, who had been saying Mass and otherwise ministering to the people in the area of Stundwiller, and some months later, a reward was offered for his capture. Father Spisser was apparently a master of disguise, however, and wisely kept on the move, and with the help of the faithful, he managed to elude the authorities. (In Wolschwiller, in southern Alsace, where others of my mother's ancestors lived during this period, things did not turn out so well. The priest there hid up in the woods on a ridge above the village and came down to the village at night to be fed by the villagers. On Sundays the villagers would go up into the woods and hear Mass. They were eventually betrayed, however, and the priest, the mayor, and the schoolmaster were taken off to Colmar and guillotined.)

War against the Austrians and the Prussians

Other European monarchies, fearful that revolution would spread beyond France, became alarmed and, after Louis XVI was apprehended while he was trying to leave France, the Habsburg Emperor Leopold II and King Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia threatened military intervention. On April 20, 1792, France declared war on Prussia and Austria, and very shortly thereafter, an army of about 15,000 men, which lived almost entirely off the inhabitants, was sent to the area near Stundwiller. They requisitioned from the local populace all the food, horses, and carts they needed. They camped in the fields, ruining the crops and ensuring subsequent crop failures. Thus they further impoverished an already suffering populace.

After Louis XVI was executed on January 21, 1793, acts of terror increased, and many people were executed.

In October of 1793 the Austro-Prussian army, ironically under the command of an Alsatian, General Wurmser, drove out the French forces and occupied the area in northern Alsace from Wissembourg to Hagenau. Our villagers were less afraid of the Austro-Prussian army than they were of the French army, and they were overjoyed that the Austro-Prussian forces brought with them some of their beloved priests who had earlier been driven out.

The French army reorganized and regrouped, however, and in November launched a counteroffensive which drove out the invaders. At Niederbronn they threatened Wurmser's flank, and won great victories at Woerth, Froeschwiller, and Hagenau. From Soultz-sous-Forêt and Seltz, they advanced on the Lauter valley, and liberated Wissembourg on December 27.

I will add to this as I find the time.


Sources

René Clauss, Raymond Schwengler, and Joseph Walter: Oberrœdern Stundwiller: Deux Villages, Une Paroisse. Strasbourg: Editions Coprur, 1993.

Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th ed., Macropaedia Vol. 7, pp. 652, 654.

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