The exalted title “Mother of the Church” belongs to our Blessed Lady alone, but her title applies to her as the mother of the Universal Church. I’m very sure Our Lady is not averse to sharing that title with one of her beloved daughters, a woman named Victoire Rasoamanarivo (1848-1894) who deserves a similar title for her heroic defense of the Church in her native land. Victoire is known as “Mother of the Church of Madagascar.”
This valiant woman singlehandedly kept the Catholic Church alive in Madagascar during a time of repression, and her story is a fascinating display of courage, charity, and conviction that has few equals.
Nobility with Humility
Victoire was not born Catholic but rather animist. Her family was part of a culture that largely practiced a form of ancestor worship with all the attendant superstitious beliefs and practices that went with it.
Her grandfather had been Prime Minister and her father was commander-in-chief of the country’s army, so she was born into the upper class in a highly stratified social system. That, as we will see, served her well in years to come.
The Queen of Madagascar, Ranavalona I, ruled the country for 33 years and was like the high priestess of the animist cult offering worship to pagan deities. The queen, initially tolerant of Christianity, began to see it as a threat to her power and outlawed it for all her subjects in the 1850s. When she died in 1861, it became possible for Catholic missionaries from France to begin their evangelization efforts among the Malagasys (as citizens of Madagascar are called).
Victoire was only 13 at the time and became deeply attracted to the Catholic Church, probably because she was sent to a school run by the Sisters of St. Joseph, who formed in her habits of prayer and piety that quickly transformed her young life. At the age of 15 she requested and received Baptism in the Catholic Church.
She quickly distinguished herself, even as a teenager, by her prayerful spirit and by her charity to the poorest of her society. Despite her noble status, she associated with the lowly, the sick, and the destitute, which was something unheard of for the upper classes.
Not surprisingly, Victoire’s family was shocked that she had chosen to become Catholic and began to make attempts to convert Victoire to Protestantism, which was growing in favor among the elite and became the national religion in 1869. This was quite ironic, as her family had been allied with Queen Ravanalova who had violently persecuted Christians just a few years before.
Victoire endured a significant amount of “soft” but real persecution because of her decision to become Catholic, including ridicule and stone throwing by her family’s slaves. She steadfastly refused to convert to Protestantism, even in the face of her parents’ threat to disown her and deny her burial as a noblewoman. Victoire had the courage of her convictions but was never free of the stigma of her Catholic faith, even as a member of the elite.
Even though she secretly wished to become a nun, the nuns discouraged it believing that her powerful family might unleash a harsh persecution of Catholics in the whole country. So, at the age of 17 Victoire consented to an arranged marriage that turned out to be a total disaster.
She endured twenty-four years of her husband’s violent behavior, womanizing, and alcoholism but refused to divorce him, even in the face of heavy pressure from friends and family. She believed marriage to be a permanent sacrament! The curse of infertility left her and her husband without children, which only exacerbated Victoire’s suffering.
Perhaps her charity, perseverance in faith, and longsuffering patience in a difficult marriage prepared her for the storm that was to come.
The Guardian Angel
Changes in the political climate turned Madagascar into hostile territory for foreigners, especially the French, who invaded Madagascar in1883. The French missionaries had introduced Catholicism to the country two decades earlier, but soon they were all summarily expelled from the country, and overnight, more than 20,000 Malagasy Catholics were left without priests!
What would you do if you suddenly found that your beloved nuns were gone and you were without ordained ministers to preach, teach, and bring sacraments to those in need? That’s a question hopefully most of us will never have to face, but we know how Victoire answered the question.
She went to work and filled the gap of spiritual fatherhood with her loving spiritual motherhood. Before the missionaries left, they asked Victoire to be “the guardian angel of the Catholic mission and the support of the Christians” in her country. And they were not disappointed.
For the next three years, the Catholics in Madagascar endured the drought of a priestless Church and very real official and cultural hostility to Catholicism. The day after the missionaries were expelled, certain members of the government issued an “unofficial” pronouncement that Catholics were enemies and traitors to the country. Thousands of productive and law-abiding citizens were now considered traitors!
On the Sunday after the missionaries left, Victoire arrived at the cathedral for prayer but found it boarded up, with a police guard stationed at the door. She suspected that this was a scheme to further weaken Catholicism and discourage the faithful from practicing the faith in any form.
Her family’s position allowed her to get an immediate message to the Prime Minister asking if the government had ordered Catholics churches to be closed and boarded. His answer was that such an action had never been officially decreed.
Victoire then marched up to the official at the door and gave him the Prime Minister’s answer. And then she said, directly to his face: “If you oppose this by force, my blood will be the first you will shed. You have no right to prevent us from entering our churches to pray.”
The remarkable resolve of a saint.
The door was immediately opened and from there, for the next three years, Catholics congregated in their priestless churches for prayer even though they could not have liturgy.
Victoire traveled all throughout her country keeping hope alive for them by reminding them that although the French had been expelled, Catholicism was not “officially” outlawed as such. They could, and they must, continue to practice their faith.
Organizing For a Harsh Season
Victoire knew that she could not sustain the Church alone, so she galvanized the men of the pious association, the Catholic Union, into action. Under her leadership, these men reopened schools and churches and went in search of the lost sheep. They encouraged people to attend their churches for prayer on Sundays and did their best to catechize the faithful in times of overt hostility against them.
The needs of the faithful were oftentimes extreme. Catholicism in Madagascar consisted mostly of the poorer classes, and Victoire supported many of the families and communities out of her own personal finances.
With her support and encouragement, Catholics continued to take care of the sick and destitute and never wavered in their ministries. Nor did she relent in her own personal efforts to care for prisoners, lepers, and the many slaves who were still in bondage in her country during that period.
Day after day, week after week for three years, Victoire sustained the Catholics of her country in a remarkable show of maternal care for her people that did as much as possible to supply for the deficit of religious ministers.
In his book, How Saints Die, Fr. Antonio Sicari repeated a remarkable testimony from the people of that time about Victoire’s presence among them: “Victoire became the foundation, the pillar, the father and mother of all the Christians, as the holy Virgin was after Jesus left for heaven.”
It’s hard to find a more heartfelt tribute to her heroism than that.
France and Madagascar ended their war and reestablished diplomatic ties in 1886, and the French missionaries were able to return. Far from hanging on to any authority or prestige, Victoire gladly relinquished back to the priests all ministerial direction of the Church that she had so lovingly shepherded for three years.
She had kept the fragile flame of faith alive in the hearts of thousands of Catholics during three long years of drought, and upon the priests’ return, it was as if she was an Olympic runner handing off a brightly burning torch to the true guardians of the flame. Hers was a victory of the first order, as her very name suggests.
But the missionaries were well aware that the Church she gave back to them remained intact and unified because of her. It is amazing what one person of resolve and humility can do in the community of faith.
Soon after that (1888), Victoire was blessed with the conversion of her own husband who died an untimely death from injuries due to an accident. Before he died, he asked forgiveness of her, voluntarily requested Baptism, and died in the grace of Christ and His Church. Victoire herself baptized him.
Victoire lived seven more years before her own death at the age of forty-six. She spent most of those years carrying out her immense works of charity and spending six to seven hours a day in church praying.
It is said that everywhere she went, she held Rosary beads in her hands, so devoted was she to the Blessed Virgin Mary. When she died, her last words were, “Mother, mother, mother!”
By Their Fruits You Shall Known Them
There are now twenty-one Catholic dioceses in Madagascar with 8.2 million Catholics (approximately 25% of the population). The Church in Madagascar opened the process of canonization for their beloved Victoire, and in 1989 Pope John Paul II declared her “blessed”, one step away from official sainthood.
Perhaps Victoire will one day enjoy the title of “saint” when the Church finally bestows it, but the honor may be redundant for someone who already bears a more precious title: Mother of the Church of Madagascar.
So many Catholics are weak in faith for many reasons. It’s easy to shrug off their situation as one of personal fault on their part; yet, we never know the heart or circumstances of even overt sinners.
Choose to be like Blessed Victoire in this season of grace, and offer prayers, sacrifices, works of charity, and encouragement to those whose faith is weak. This includes children and even non-Catholics who have never really been exposed to the graces we often take for granted as Catholics.
Be the guardian angel that they need by your example and your unflagging zeal for their souls.
Sources: Antonio Maria Sicari, How Saints Die: 100 Stories of Hope, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2021.
United States Catholic Mission Association, Baptized and Sent: The Church of Christ on Mission in the World, October 2019.