I had been but a few moments in the church when I was suddenly seized with an unutterable agitation of mind. I raised my eyes, the building had disappeared from before me ; one single chapel had, so to speak, gathered and concentrated all the light ; and in the midst of this radiance I saw standing on the altar lofty, clothed with splendours, full of majesty and of sweetness, the Virgin Mary, just as she is represented on my medal. An irresistible force drew me towards her; the Virgin made me a sign with her hand that I should kneel down; and then she seemed to say, That will do! She spoke not a word, but I understood all.
— Marie-Alphonse Ratisbonne
Marie-Alphonse Ratisbonne was born 1 May 1814 in Strasbourg, Alsace, France, the eleventh of the thirteen children born to Auguste Ratisbonne and his wife, Adelaide Cerfbeers members of the famed family of Jewish bankers. His father was the president of the Provincial Council of Alsace. His mother died when he was 4 years old, but his natural charm drew his wider family to take charge of his upbringing. The family was assimilated into the secular society of France, but had a strong sense of social justice, with which value he was raised. An older brother, Théodor, converted to Catholicism in 1827 and went on to become a Catholic priest in 1830.
After studying law in Paris, Alphonse joined the family bank and announced his engagement to his 16-year-old niece. In January 1842, with the postponement of the marriage due to the bride's age he traveled to Rome for a pleasure trip. On 20 January, he entered the Church of Sant'Andrea delle Fratte, where he experienced a vision of the Virgin Mary. Due to this experience, he was led to be converted to Catholicism. At his baptism, he added Marie (Mary) to his name to reflect the role he felt she had played in his life.
Alphonse returned to Paris to proclaim his new-found faith to his fiancée, and invited her to share it with him. His niece tearfully rejected this. In June of that same year he entered the Society of Jesus and was ordained as a priest in 1848.
After his own conversion, Théodor Ratisbonne had been drawn to work for the conversion of his fellow Jews to the Christian faith. This proposed ministry, also the inspiration of Alphonse, was blessed by Pope Gregory XVI in the course of a visit by Théodor Ratisbonne to Rome in 1842. Théodor then took up the suggestion made to him by Alphonse to establish a school for Jewish children in a Christian setting. At this time, two Jewish sisters came to him for spiritual advice, and eventually also converted to Christianity. They became the nucleus for the Congregation of Our Lady of Sion, founded in 1847.
In 1850 Alphonse became engaged in mission work among convicts in the prisons of Brest, but two years later he felt called to join his brother in this mission to their own people, writing that he recognized that the will of God in my Conversion and in my vocation to the priesthood obviously destined me to work for the salvation of Israel.
With the authorization of the Jesuit Superior General, Jan Philipp Roothaan, and the blessing of Pope Pius IX, Alphonse left the Society of Jesus to join his brother. The two brothers, with several other priests drawn to their mission, formed the male branch of the Congregation in 1852. Alphonse moved to Palestine in 1855 to open a convent for the Sisters of the congregation. He would spend the rest of his life there.
In 1858, Ratisbonne established the Convent of Ecce Homo in the Old City of Jerusalem for the Sisters of Sion. In 1860, he built the Convent of St. John on a hilltop in Ein Karem, then a village on the outskirts of Jerusalem. In 1874, he founded the Ratisbonne Monastery for the priests of the congregation. (It is now a Salesian study center in Jerusalem's Rehavia neighborhood) Ratisbonne died in Ein Karem on May 6, 1884 and is buried in the cemetery of the convent.
Catherine Labouré stated that on 19 July 1830, the eve of the feast of Saint Vincent de Paul, she woke up after hearing the voice of one child calling her to the chapel, where she heard the Virgin Mary say to her, "God wishes to charge you with a mission. You will be contradicted, but do not fear; you will have the grace to do what is necessary. Tell your spiritual director all that passes within you. Times are evil in France and in the world."
On 27 November 1830 Catherine reported that the Blessed Mother returned during evening meditations. She displayed herself inside an oval frame, standing upon a globe. She wore many rings set with gems that shone rays of light over the globe. Around the margin of the frame appeared the words Ô Marie, conçue sans péché, priez pour nous qui avons recours à vous ("O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee"). As Catherine watched, the frame seemed to rotate, showing a circle of twelve stars, a large letter M surmounted by a cross, and the stylized Sacred Heart of Jesus crowned with thorns and Immaculate Heart of Mary pierced with a sword. Asked why some of the gems did not shed light, Mary reportedly replied, "Those are the graces for which people forget to ask." Sister Catherine then heard the Virgin Mary ask her to take these images to her father confessor, telling him that they should be put on medallions, and saying "All who wear them will receive great graces."
Sister Catherine did so, and after two years of investigation and observation of Catherine's ordinary daily behavior, the priest took the information to his archbishop without revealing Catherine's identity. The request was approved and medallions were designed and produced through goldsmith Adrien Vachette.
The chapel in which Saint Catherine experienced her visions is located at the mother house of the Daughters of Charity in Rue du Bac, Paris. The incorrupt bodies of Saint Catherine Labouré and Saint Louise de Marillac, a co-founder of the Congregation of the Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul, are interred in the chapel, which continues to receive daily visits from Catholic pilgrims today.
Pope John Paul II used a slight variation of the reverse image as his coat of arms, the Marian Cross, a plain cross with an M underneath the right-hand bar (which signified the Blessed Virgin at the foot of the Cross when Jesus was being crucified).BACK TO LIST