How a pagan princess saved the faith in Madagascar
Blessed Victoire Rasoamanarivo used her role and her connections to keep Catholicism alive and strong while missionaries were expelled.
The first Blessed of Madagascar was born a pagan princess and ultimately became an activist, a contemplative, and a national hero. Blessed Victoire Rasoamanarivo was born in 1848 to a noble family in a country where Christianity was illegal. Along with most of the Malagasy people (those from Madagascar), Victoire practiced a sort of ancestor worship.
But when Victoire was 13, the queen who had outlawed Christianity died and foreign missionaries began to preach publicly again. That same year, Victoire was enrolled in a school run by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Cluny. Their witness and their instruction transformed her, and despite the opposition of her powerful family she was baptized at the age of 15.
Victoire’s family had stood alongside the persecuting queen. Her grandfather was the prime minister, and they were appalled at her choice. They pulled her out of Catholic school and sent her to a Protestant one, but her faith remained strong. Finally, citing her baptism as a betrayal of her race, they swore they wouldn’t bury her with her family, the most profound act of rejection possible in Malagasy society. Victoire was unmoved: “The missionaries will bury me with them.”
Victoire’s heart was fixed on Christ and, as is so often the case, she wanted to become a Sister. But a desire to belong completely to Christ doesn’t necessarily indicate a vocation, and the Sisters of St. Joseph pointed out that if she were to enter, her family could make life intolerable for all Catholics in the country. Victoire prayed and ultimately submitted, allowing her parents to arrange her marriage to a cousin, the son of her uncle the prime minister.
Ever courageous, the 17-year-old bride made sure to have a priest present for the marriage. Unfortunately, her husband Radriaka was a cruel man, a violent drunk and a lecher. Even his own father urged Victoire to divorce him. But whatever abuse her husband hurled at her, Victoire accepted as a sacrifice to offer for his conversion.
For a time, Victoire lived a life of quiet joy and faith. But only a few years after her marriage, Protestantism became the official religion of Madagascar and subtle persecutions began. Victoire’s uncle criticized and threatened her day and night. Her family had slaves throw stones at her and once set an assassin on her. Her husband demanded that she leave her faith in submission to him. But still Victoire loved well and prayed hard, spending hours a day in prayer despite her many duties at court.
In 1883, the mild daily persecution that Catholics suffered became more severe during the Franco-Malagasy War. All foreign missionaries were expelled from Madagascar; as they left, the priests entrusted the Catholics of the country to Victoire as the Apostles had been left in the care of the Blessed Mother.
Victoire was just the woman for the job. When the government locked the churches, she presented herself before the queen and the prime minister to object. When they stationed soldiers outside to bar entry for prayer, Victoire calmly approached the armed men, saying, “If you must have blood, begin by shedding mine. Fear will not keep us from assembling for prayer.” She stared them down, then led the assembled community in to the church. Though the Eucharist was gone, and there was no Mass, still they prayed. Victoire explained, “I place before my mind the missionaries saying the Mass, and mentally attend all the Masses being said throughout the world.”
Victoire traveled all over the island encouraging the Catholic communities, ensuring that they had proper catechesis, and defending them in the face of government abuse. When the priests were readmitted two years later, they found a community of 21,000 Catholics on fire for their faith. Victoire herself acknowledged that had she become a Sister as she had hoped, none of this would have been possible.
Not long after the missionaries’ return, Victoire’s faithfulness to her husband was rewarded. In 1888, he suffered a fall; when it became clear that his injuries were fatal, he asked for Baptism. Victoire baptized him herself and saw the fruit of years of sacrifice as her husband died in a state of grace. She spent the next six years praying, serving, loving, and refusing to compromise in matters of faith. She worked with prisoners, lepers, and the abandoned poor, and when the uncle who had so persecuted her fell out of favor with the court, she cared for him as well. Finally, at the age of 46, this strong and courageous leader went home peacefully to Christ.
Bl. Victoire Rasoamanarivo used her privilege to speak truth to those in power, heedless of the consequences she might face. On her feast day, August 21, let’s ask her intercession for the courage to do the same. Bl. Victoire Rasoamanarivo, pray for us!