Sœur Léonide, Saint-Lazare, and the Legion of Honor
About This Story
Not long after the end of the bloody Parisian Commune of 1871 a young 20 year-old nun belonging to the order of Marie-Joseph walked through the gates of Saint-Lazare in Paris and took up her new duties as a soeur surveillante. More than sixty years later when the prison was finally closed, this now venerable sister left Saint-Lazare as a decorated chevalier and officier of France’s prestigious Legion of Honor. Until the end of her long-life, Soeur Léonide proudly wore these colorful decorations on her habit.
Justine-Julie Lateuligne (in religion Soeur Léonide) was born on March 21, 1852 at Coupiac. From the time of her first communion at the age of eleven she was determined to become a religious. On a visit to Montpellier, when she was eighteen, she had her first contact with the Soeurs de Marie-Joseph and their innovative ministries with female prisoners and former prisoners. She soon entered the novitiate at the mother house in Dorat where she received her initial formation in the religious life prior to her assignment to Saint-Lazare.
In the final decades of Saint-Lazare’s existence, Soeur Léonide became the public symbol for the prison’s “softer” or more human side. The strident rhetoric of the prison’s many critics (especially as the facility aged very ungracefully) rarely extended to the Soeurs de Marie-Joseph. The popularity and almost romantic fame of Soeur Léonide was a reflection not only of her own “devotion and admirable selflessness,” but also that of all the sisters.
In the publicity and subsequent memoirs and histories that surrounded the high profile prisoners at Saint-Lazare during this era, the role and presence of Soeur Léonide never escaped mention. For example, in her Memoirs, Madame Steinheil described in great detail the awful physical conditions at Saint-Lazare, but also the always-humane and kind treatment afforded by her Soeur Léonide. She recalls that as she left the prison, “I thanked Sister Léonide for all she had done for me, but there must have been more gratitude in my eyes than in my words.”
In the flood of post-war publicity about the imprisonment, trial, and execution of Mata-Hari the role of Soeur Léonide in ministering to the condemned woman became part of the history and myth surrounding the episode. According to Soeur Léonide’s own account, as they arrived at the place of execution Mata-Hari turned to her and said: “My little mother, promise me something. May I ask you to say a short prayer for me each day?” The nun later testified, “I have never failed to do so.”
At the time of her promotion as an Officer of the Legion of Honor in 1931, the public citation noted:
…for exceptional services: in the course of her sixty years of service, Soeur Léonide has consecrated her life to the supervision and moral amendment of prisoners with an admirable devotion that joined together kindness and firmness. During the war she was specially charged by the Conseil de guerre with the supervision of prisoners who had been sentenced to death. She acquitted herself of this painful and delicate task to the complete satisfaction of the administration. She in every way merits the high distinction for which she has been presented.
The executions of spies and collaborators, and this special role of Soeur Léonide did not end with the end of the First World War. In the vindictive post-war atmosphere, trials and the executions of spies and collaborators, continued for some time. Another high-profile accused spy who was incarcerated at Saint-Lazare was Alice Aubert. She was among a group of spies and collaborators who were tried in 1920. Condemned to death, she too was accompanied to her execution by Soeur Léonide. The women’s last words were recorded by the nun: “No, my sister it is not the justice of men that I fear, for what is this compared to God’s justice? It is that, that I fear.”
When Soeur Léonide’s Legion promotion was announced in 1931 one of her most famous former prisoners was fulsome in her praise. Marthe Hannau (1890-1935) had been the mastermind of a huge financial fraud. She was the Bernard Madoff of France in the late 1920s. She was imprisoned for eighteen months at Saint-Lazare during the time of her very public and sensational trial. At one point, she went on a hunger strike in prison and the authorities removed her to a hospital where she was force-fed. She escaped from the hospital and went directly back to Saint-Lazare. To the warden’s great surprise she entered his office and said: “I demand to be imprisoned here.”
After he release from Saint-Lazare she bought the magazine Forces. It was in the pages of this publication that she had this to say about Soeur Léonide:
Since my former cell was so close to yours (the prison sisters lived in cells among the prisoners) I watched and listened to you very carefully my good sister. I know that the assistance that you afforded me reflects all that you did day after day to relieve such atrocious suffering there. You have fulfilled, to the highest degree, your noble mission to relieve pain and suffering on this earth. It is you, Soeur Léonide who honor the Legion.
After the closure of Saint-Lazare, Soeur Léonide continued her prison ministry at la Petite-Roquette in Paris until September 1941 when at age 89 she retired to the sisters’ mother house at Dorat.