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On the second day of March, 1500, a fleet of thirteen ships, commanded by Pedro Alvarez Cabral, sailed from Lisbon to explore the Indian Ocean. On 10 August, one vessel of this fleet, commanded by Diego Dias, having been parted from the rest by stress of weather, came in sight of a point of land on the east coast of a large island. To this island the name of St. Lawrence was given, the day of its discovery being the feast day of that martyr; it is now the island of Madagascar, situated to the south-east of Africa, between 11 degrees 57 minutes 30 seconds and 25 degrees 38 minutes 55 seconds S. latittude, and between 43 degrees 10 minutes and 50 degrees 25 minutes East longitude. Many small islands of less importance are adjacent to it in the Indian Ocean and the Mozambique Channel, the principal being St. Mary, Mayotte, and Nossi-Be.
The island of Madagascar is, on the whole, very thinly populated, the population averaging little more than thirteen to the square mile; but this population is unevenly distributed, dense in the central regions and sparse in other parts. The principal ethnological divisions are the Hova, the Betsileo, the Sakalava, the Betsimisaraka, the Sihamaka, thee Antaimoro, the Antanosy. Since the French conquest of the island these various peoples, or tribes, have been distributed in provinces, circuits, and districts, all under the administration of a governor-general who resides at the capital, Tananarivo. Divers opinions have been put forward by the learned as to the origin of the peoples of Madagascar. M. Alfred Grandidier, who is an acknowledged authority in such matters, thinks, and the greater number of anthropologists think with him, that this population is of the black Indonesian race, and is therefore one of the chief groups of the Malayo-Polynesian countries. Malagasy (the chief language) seems to be related to the Malayo-Polynesian languages, is, like them, agglutinative, and has a grammar apparently based on general principles analogous to theirs. It is very rich on the material and physical side, and poor in the expression of abstract ideas.
The religion of the Malagasies appears to be fundamentally a kind of mixed Monotheism, under the form of a Fetishism which finds expression in numerous superstitious practices of which these people are very tenacious. Even those who have received Christian instruction and baptism retain a tendency to be guided, in the various circumstances of their lives, rather by these superstitious prescriptions than by the dictates of reason and faith. They admit the existence of the soul, but without, apparently, forming any very exact notion of it; in their conception, it is not so much a spirit made in the image of the Creator as a double of the man, only more subtile than the visible corporeal man. The Malagasy is naturally prone to lying, cupidity, and sexual immorality, which is for him so far from being a detestable vice that parents are the first to introduce their children to debauchery. This immorality and the lack of stability and fidelity in marriage are the great obstacles to the development of the family and of the Christian religion in Madagascar.
The first priests to bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ to Madagascar after the discovery of the island, came with the Portuguese. Old documents mention religious who, about the year 1540, accompanied a colony of emigrants to the south-eastern part of the island, where they were all massacred together during the celebration of a feast. Then again, about 1585, Frey Joao de S. Thome, a Dominican, appears to have been poisoned on the coast of the island. In the sevententh century two Jesuits came from Goa with Ramaka, the young son of the King of Anosy. This youth had been taken away, in 1615, by a Portuguese ship, to Goa, where the viceroy had entrusted him to the care of the Jesuits; he had been instructed and baptized. Ramaka's father permitted these two Jesuits to preach Christianity in his dominions. But soon, when they were beginning to wield some power for good, the king, instigated by his ombiasy (sorcerers) forbade his subjects to either give or sell anything whatsoever to the fathers. One of the two died, but the other succeeded in returning to India. Some years after this, the Lazarists, sent by St. Vincent de Paul, essayed to conquer Madagascar for the Faith. The Societe de l'Orient had then recently taken possession, in the name of France, of a tract of territory on the south-eastern littoral, and had named its principal establishment Fort-Dauphin. The first superior of this Lazarist mission was M. Nacquart; he left France with the Sieur de Flacourt, who represented the Societe de l'Orient, and one of his associates, M. Gondree. Arriving at Fort-Dauphin in December, 1648, M. Nacquart devoted himself most zealously, amid difficulties of every kind, to the evangelization of the natives, until he was carried off by a fever, 29 May, 1650. M. Gondree had died the year before. During these fourteen months of apostolate seventy-seven persons had received baptism. It was not until four years later that MM. Mounier and Bourdaise came to continue the missionary work which had been initiated at such cost; but they too, succumbed to the severity of their task. A reinforcement of three missionaries sent to their assistance never reached them; one died at sea, the other two on the island of St. Mary, where they had landed. Nevertheless, St. Vincent de Paul was not discouraged.
In 1663 M. Almeras, the successor of St. Vincent de Paul in the government of the Congregation of St. Lazare, obtained the appointment of M. Etienne as prefect Apostolic and sent him to Fort-Dauphin with two of his brethren and some workmen. On Christmas Day M. Etienne baptized fifteen little children and four adults. But it was not long before he, too, fell a victim to his zeal. On 7 March, 1665, four new missionaries set out, and on 7 January, 1667, they were followed by five priests and four lay brothers, with two Recollet fathers. But in 1671, the Compagnie des Indes, which had succeeded to the Societe de l'Orient, having resolved to quit Madagascar, M. Jolly, M. Almeras' successor, recaled his missionaries. Only two out of thirty-seven who had been sent to theisland, were able to return to France, in June 1676; all the rest had died in harness. From the forced abandonment of the Madagascar mission in 1674 until the middle of the nineteenth century, there were only a few isolated attempts, at long intervals, to resume the evangelization of the great African Island: we may mention those of M. Noinville de Glefier, of the Missions Etrangeres of Paris, and of the Lazarists Monet and Durocher. The last-named even sent some natives to the Propaganda seminary in Rome with the view of training them for the apostolate in their own country.
In 1832 MM. de Solages and Dalmond laid the first foundations of the new Madagascar Mission. But by this time some English Methodists, supported by the Government of their country, had already succeeded in establishing themselves in the centre of the island. The Rev. Mr. Jones had obtained authorization from the Court of Imerina to open a school at Tananarivo, the capital. Other English Protestant missionaries followed him, and by 1830 they had thirty-two schools in Imerina, with four thousand pupils. When, moreover, it was learned at Tananarivo that the new prefect Apostolic, M. de Solages, a Catholic priest, was on his way to the capital, everything was done to arrest his progress, and he died of misery and grief at Andovoranto. M. Dalmond took up the work begun by M. de Solages. After preaching the Gospel in the small island off the coast until about 1843, he returned to France in order to recruit a large missionary force. The aid which he so much needed he obtained from Father Roothan, the general of the Jesuits, who authorized him to take six fathers or brothers from the Lyons province. Two priests from the Holy Ghost Seminary went with them. After a fruitless attempt at Saint-Augustin, the Jesuit fathers set themselves to evangelize the adjacent islands of St. Mary, Nosi-Be, and Mayote. Assisted by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Cluny, they also made earnest efforts towards the instruciton and education of the Malagasy boys and girls in the island of Reunion (or Bourbon). They did not, however, by any means lose sight of the great island, and again endeavoured to establish themselves on its littoral, but were once more compelled to abandon their brave enterprise.
It was only in 1855 that Pere Finaz, disguised, and under an assumed name, was able to penetrate as far as the capital. "At last", he exclaimed in the joy of his heart, "I am at Tananarivo, of which I take possession in the name of Catholicism." Waiting for the time when he should be able to freely announce the Gospel to the Hova, he used all his efforts to prolong his stay at the capital without arousing suspicion, making himself useful and agreeable to the queen and the great personages of the realm. He sent up a balloon before the awe-stricken populace assembeld in the holy place of Mahamasina; he contrived theatrical performances on a stage constructed and set by himself; he made them a telegraphic apparatus, a miniature railroad, and other things wonderful in their eyes. Meanwhile, Fathers Jouen and Weber, under assumed names, joined Father Finaz at Tananarivo, coming as assistants to a surgeon, Dr. Milhet-Fontarabie, who had been summoned from Reunion by the Queen of Madagascar, Ranavalona I, to perform a rhinoplastic operation on one of her favourites. But this state of affairs was not to last long; Ranavalona soon grew suspicious and ordered the expulsion of the few Europeans who resided at Tananarivo. The fathers, however, had managed, during their brief stay at the capital, to conciliate the favour of the heir presumptive, Ranavalona's son. And so it was that, in 1861, when this same prince, on the death of his mother, succeeded to the thone as Radama II, Fathers Jouen and Weber could return to Tananarivo, bringing with them a small contingent of Jesuit fathers and Sisters of St. Joseph of Cluny, and without being obliged, this time, to dissembel their object in coming.
Radama II gave full authorization for the teaching of the Catholic religion in his dominions; and this much having been conceded to the French Catholic missionaries, similar concessions had to be made to the English Protestants of the London Missionary Society. What with the large subventions furnished by this organization to its emissaries, and the clever manoeuvres of some of them-particularly of Mr. Ellis-after the tragic death of Radama II, the English missionaries acquired considerable influence with the new queen, Rasoherina, and her chief adviser, Rainilaiarivony, to the detriment of the Catholic missionaries. The latter, moreover, were few in number-six fathers and five lay brothers at Tananarivo, with two small schools for boys and one, under the Sisters of St. Joseph of Cluny, for girls; and at Tamatave, three fathers, one lay brother, and two sisters. Nevertheless, in spite of all difficulties, the number of neophytes increased and, especially after the arrival of the Christian Brothers in 1866, the schools took on fresh vigour. Already four parishes were in operation within the capital city, and the missionaries thought of extending their efforts outside. Father Finaz opened the missionary station at Antanetibe on 12 September, 1868; by the end of 1869, theity-eight gropus of neophytes had been formed, twenty-two chapels built, and twenty-five schools opened. Betsileo was occupied in 1871, then Ampositra and Vakinankaratra. A propaganda periodical, "Resaka", was founded. A leper-house was bilt to receive about one hundred patients. The sisters gave care and remedies to the large numbers who daily applied at their dispensary. A fine large cathedral of cut stone was erected in the centre of Tananarivo. When the war between France and the Hova broke out in 1883, the Catholic mission numbered 44 priests, 19 lay brothers, 8 Brothers of the Christian Schools, 20 Sisters of St. Joseph of Cluny (besides 3 native postulants and 3 novices), 346 native male, and 181 native female, teachers, 20,000 pupils, a laity amounting to 80,000, 152 churches and 120 chapels completed, and 11 churches and 43 chapels in course of construction. In the year ending July, 1882, there were 1161 baptisms of adults, 1882 infant baptisms, 55,406 confessions, 580 first communions, 45,466 ordinary communions, 860 confirmations, and 190 marriages. Sir Gore Jones, a British Admiral, whose testimony cannot be suspected of favourable bias, declared in 1883, in a report to his Government after a visit to the island made by its orders, that the Catholic missionaries, "working silently in Madagascar", were planting in that land "a tree far superior to all others".
On 17 May, 1883, Admiral Pierre took possession of Majunga in the name of France, and on 11 June of Tamatave. A formal order of the queen expelled all the Catholic missionaries and all French citizens. "Do not resist the queen's word", was the answer of the more responsible among the native Catholics when the fathers consulted them as to the course to be pursued. "To do so would be to compromise our future and, perhaps, to bring upon us more serious misfortunes. If you submit now, you will the more easily return later on." They left the centre of the island-at the same time leaving the native Catholics to their own resources-and went down to the coast. For two years, more or les, while hostilities lasted, the Malagasy Catholics, left without priests, were able to maintain their religion-thanks to the devotion and energy of Victoire Rasoamanarivo, a lady related to the prime minister, of the native Brother Raphael of the Congregation of the Christian Schools, and of some members of the Catholic Union. This organization, consisting of young Malagasies, shows a truly wonderful zeal in their efforts to make up for the absence of the fathers. Both in the city parishes and at the country stations, they made themselves ubiquitous, instructing and encouraging the neophytes. At Tananarivo they sang the choral parts of high Mass every Sunday, just as if the priest had been at the altar; and the native Government, compelled to admire their fidelity, permitted this exercise of devotion. On the first Sunday after the departure of the fathers, when the Catholics attempting to enter the cathedral were warned away, Rasoamanarivo said to the guards at the door: "If you must have blood, begin by shedding mine; but fear shall not keep us from assembling for prayer."