I’ve always been intrigued by missionaries, even as I have always known that heading off to a foreign land to spread the gospel was not part of my calling. That’s why I love St. Thérèse of Lisieux, who became the patron of missionaries even though she never ventured more than a few hundred miles from her home in France.
It’s the same reason I am captivated by one of the Church’s lesser-known “blesseds,” Victoria Rasoamanarivo of Madagascar. Although this woman never left her home island, Pope John Paul II didn’t hesitate to call her “a true missionary” and “a model for laypeople today.”
Privileged Princess. The fourth largest island in the world, Madagascar lies off the southeastern coast of Africa. Today it is probably best known for lemurs, vanilla beans, and a popular animated film and its sequels. About half of Madagascar’s twenty-two million people still practice traditional ancestor worship; the other half are predominantly Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican, and Mormon.
It was here, in 1848, in the capital city of Antananarivo, that Victoria was born. As a princess of the ruling Havas tribe, she was well connected. Her father was an officer of the royal palace, her mother a member of the royal family; her grandfather was prime minister, and her brother would follow in his footsteps under a later monarch.
Young Princess Victoria was raised in the native religion, which believes in a creator god and features ancestor worship and adherence to many ancestral taboos. But Madagascar had a Christian presence, too. Catholic missionaries came to the island in the sixteenth century; the first Protestant missionaries, from England, arrived around 1820.
When Victoria was thirteen, she was enrolled in a girls’ school newly opened by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Cluny. There, along with the high-quality education her family wanted her to receive, Victoria learned about Jesus and decided to convert to Catholicism. All of this sounds fairly normal for a saint—until you realize what was going on in Madagascar during Victoria’s lifetime.
Reign of Terror. In 1828, a ruthless queen had taken over the throne left vacant by her husband’s death. Ranavalona I began her thirty-three-year rule by killing off all other contenders, including her husband’s nephew. Unlike the king, who had welcomed missionaries and foreigners, Queen Ranavalona rejected all Christian and European influences. She banned Christianity, broke treaties with foreign powers, and began a systematic and enthusiastic purge of dissidents.
The queen especially favored the ancient tradition of “trial by ordeal.” In the Madagascar version, “trial by tangena,” the accused person was forced to eat three pieces of chicken skin, some rice, and the highly poisonous kernel of the tangena plant. Vomiting was induced, and if all three pieces of chicken skin were regurgitated, the accused was considered innocent. If not, the person was hacked to death.
Whether declared innocent or guilty, many died from ingesting the toxic concoction. And although there are no exact statistics, it is known that thousands of Christians were fined, jailed, condemned to hard labor, or executed during Ranavalona’s reign.
Sealed by the Spirit. Victoria was born twenty years into this reign of terror. When the queen died in 1861, however, the situation changed dramatically. Her son, the new king, was favorably disposed toward Christians. He permitted the Jesuits and the Sisters of St. Joseph to establish missions, including the school that Victoria attended.
Victoria was fifteen years old when she asked to be baptized. Her uncle and guardian, a high-ranking military commander, vehemently disapproved. It’s hard to tell if he was genuinely opposed to the faith or if he feared that the recently-ended persecution of Christians would reignite.
With her royal connections, Victoria was surely aware of the price that Christians had paid under Queen Ranavalona’s reign. Even afterwards, many in Madagascar wanted nothing to do with Christianity. Victoria’s choice meant that she would stand outside her tradition, without even the right to be buried in her family tomb. Nevertheless, the princess was determined. She told her mother, “I will no longer be the way I was before. I will be a daughter of God, because I want to receive Baptism. I will have the seal of the Holy Spirit.” She was baptized on November 1, 1863, and received her First Communion the following year.
Till Death Do Us Part. Victoria believed that she had a vocation to the religious life and asked to join the Sisters of St. Joseph. Knowing that her family had already betrothed her to Radriaka, the new prime minister’s eldest son, the nuns prudently suggested that she live out her Christian convictions as a laywoman. Victoria wondered, “Is this God’s will?” But she accepted her family’s decision and married at age seventeen. Even though it was a traditional arrangement, she was bold enough to have a priest present so that her marriage would be recognized by the Church.
Victoria’s marriage became an example of her courage in living her Catholic faith and her missionary zeal in witnessing to Church teaching. As it turned out, her chosen husband was an alcoholic and “lived a scandalous lifestyle,” according to one biographer. Family and friends encouraged Victoria to divorce him, but she refused.
Victoria would have had compelling grounds for an annulment of her marriage, but she felt called to pray for her husband and stand by him. Furthermore, as a member of the royal family, she believed she had an obligation to demonstrate how to live by God’s laws, in particular, the laws of the Church regarding marriage. “Don’t you know that Christian marriage can’t be dissolved?” she would tell people who urged divorce. “Only death can separate us!”
During the twenty-two years of their marriage, Victoria prayed long and fervently for Radriaka’s conversion. Just before he died, in 1887, apparently from injuries sustained in an accident, he agreed to be baptized. Victoria’s persistent prayers and faithful devotion had been rewarded.
Stay-at-Home Missionary. Now the royal princess became a visible and dedicated missionary of the faith through both the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. She founded Madagascar’s Catholic Action movement to assist the poor and became known for her hands-on approach. She visited prisoners and the sick, and she showed a special concern for people with leprosy. One of them said, “Everyone runs away from us, but she does the opposite. She comes close and talks and cares about us.” By her personal example of work for the poor and suffering, Victoria won the respect of people from all social classes.
Victoria’s missionary spirit faced perhaps its greatest test during the Malagasy-French War of 1883-85. At this time, foreign missionaries—Catholics, in particular—were expelled from Madagascar once again. Before leaving the island, Fr. Joseph Caussèque turned to Victoria and entrusted her with the care of the Catholic community, telling her that she could do many things because she had connections with the prime minister and was “filled with faith.” She replied, “I don’t know how to do many things, Father, but I shall endeavor with all my heart and all my strength to the end.”
On the first Sunday after the priests’ departure, the Malagasy Catholics who attempted to enter the cathedral were warned away. Seeing this, Victoria stepped up to the guards posted at the door and said, “If you must have blood, begin by shedding mine. Fear will not keep us from assembling for prayer.” The guards relented, and she led the crowd into the cathedral.
Courageously and almost single-handedly, Victoria encouraged her fellow Catholics to keep the faith and continue teaching it and passing it along. She appealed directly to the queen and prime minister, risking their anger in order to ask that Catholic schools and churches be left open. Eventually, the prime minister gave in, allowing there to be no law forbidding Christians to pray in their churches.
When Catholic missionaries were allowed to return in 1886, they were met by a community of nearly 21,000 Catholics. They had persisted in the faith largely because of Blessed Victoria’s lay missionary actions.
Victoria Rasoamanarivo died on August 21, 1894, at the age of forty-nine. Pope John Paul II beatified her while visiting Madagascar in 1989.
Every Place a Mission Front. Princess Victoria lived in a time and a place where religious persecution was common memory and where anti-Christian sentiment was very much alive. She could hardly have been blamed if she had decided to let someone else—a less public person—take up the work of a missionary. But her love for Jesus and her faith in the “seal of the Holy Spirit” gave her the conviction and the courage to spread the Catholic faith throughout her homeland. She became a missionary in the truest sense of the word.
May those of us who are not called to foreign missions imitate the example of Blessed Victoria. May we, like her, find the home mission fields that surround us in our daily lives, and may we minister in them courageously for the love of Christ.
Woodeene Koenig-Bricker is the author of numerous books and articles on faith, family, and the Christian life. Two of her books—Facing Adversity with Grace and Asking God for the Gifts He Wants to Give You—are available from The Word Among Us (1-800-775-9673; www.wau.org) and www.amazon.com.