Alphonse Ratisbonne had no time for Christianity. He didn’t practise his Jewish faith and had become agnostic, but when his brother became a Catholic and then a priest, Alphonse developed a deep hatred of his brother and of Catholicism. That was until a vision of the Blessed Virgin turned his life upside-down. PATRICK P ROWAN recounts the journey of Ratisbonne, a most remarkable conversion.
Alphonse Ratisbonne was the youngest of nine children of August and Adelaide Ratisbonne who were wealthy bankers in Strasbourg, Germany. Both parents died when Alphonse was young but a wealthy uncle took him under his wing and showered gifts and money on him. When he went to Paris to study law, he spent most of his time enjoying himself. He felt that his future was nicely laid out for him. After his time in Paris, he was due to join the family business and marry In 1841,when he returned home, he decided to delay his marriage for a while as his fiancee was only sixteen years of age. Instead, he would travel around the countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea.
Meanwhile his family was devastated when Alphonse`s older brother Theodore, converted to Catholicism. The family immediately disowned him and Alphonse was annoyed with his brother When Theodore became a Catholic priest, A|phonse developed a deep detestation of his brother and of the Catholic Church.
Alphonse had decided that the one place he would not visit while travelling was Rome, but when he was in Milan his travel arrangements untangled and he was forced to go to Rome. He accidentally met a friend in Rome who invited him to the residence of Baron Theodore de Bussieres, a fervent Catholic and a convert from Protestantism. The baron and Alphonse were soon engaged in a philosophical discussion. When Alphonse declared his great hatred for religion in general and Catholicism in particular; the baron asked him if he would engage in a dare. The young man laughed at the idea but agreed to the dare. He wished to show that he was immune to any religious influence by agreeing to Bussieres` suggestion that he would wear a Miraculous Medal and say the Memorare prayer every day. He told the baron, ‘|f it does me no good at least it won’t do me any harm.’
Because he had promised the baron that he would read the prayer that St Bernard had composed, he read it quickly and then put it into his pocket, intending to forget all about it but the thought of it kept coming back into his mind. By the next day, he realised that he was saying it time after time. Yet, he could not understand why this was happening. He must have wondered at the medal that Bussieres had given him with its inscription, ‘O Mary conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to you.’ This was the medal designed at the request of the Blessed Virgin when she appeared to the nun, Sister (now Saint) Catherine in Paris in 1830. The medal was held in very high regard at the time that Alphonse took on the dare.
A few days later Alphonse met Baron Bussieres who was on his way to the church of Saint Andrea delle Fratte for a friend’s funeral. The baron told him he didn`t have to accompany him into the church if he didn`t wish, but Alphonse said he would. He wandered around the church looking at the paintings on the walls. He stopped in one side altar: and had a most unusual experience. Suddenly he was surrounded by a brilliant light and he saw a lady before him. She wore along tunic with a blue-green mantle and had a crown on her head. He immediately fell to his knees as he realised that it was the Mother of God. She looked exactly as she was depicted on the Miraculous Medal. The Lady didn’t speak but Alphonse felt that she was fully conversant with his attitude to religion and that she could see that his soul was stained with many grievous sins. She gave him to understand that he was forgiven for his many transgressions.
When the baron came looking for him he found that Alphonse was so emotionally upset that he couldn't speak at first. Then, he told the baron that he wanted to see a priest immediately. After he had told the priest of the vision, he requested admission to the Catholic Church. The priest was amazed that Alphonse had a complete understanding of the faith as taught by the Church and was told that this knowledge had been imparted by the Blessed Virgin. At his baptism, he added Marie to his name. Because he came from an influential family the news of his vision spread rapidly and had a beneficial effect on many of his friends, but was not welcome news to his own family He was ostracised by his family and any entitlements due to him were rescinded.
Soon after being received into the Church, Alphonse entered the seminary of the Society of Jesus and was ordained in the Jesuit Order in 1848. He was then sent to work in a school in Brest, France. After a while, he decided that he should be working for the conversion of his fellow Jews. With the permission of the Jesuit Superior General and of Pope Pius IX, he left the Jesuits to join his brother Theodore in Paris. There, they founded the Sisterhood of Our Lady of Sion. This order initially had as its objective the conversion of Jews but later changed to the study of Judaism and its interaction with Christianity.
In I855, Alphonse brought the Sisters of Sion to Jerusalem and established the Convent of Ecce Homo for them in the Old City In 1860, he had the Convent of St John built in Ein Karim village near Jerusalem where John the Baptist was born. This building included a church and an orphanage for girls. He had an orphanage for boys built near the Jaffa Gate of the Old City and he also set up a school to train boys in trades.
Meanwhile, a Roman court of enquiry had been set up to investigate the circumstances of the vision reported by Alphonse. A pontifical decree was issued stating: ‘It is certain that a true and notable miracle, the work of God, through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin, did produce the instantaneous and complete conversion of Alphonse Ratisbonne.’
Fr Alphonse Ratisbonne died on 6 May 1884 at Ein Karim and is buried in the cemetery of the convent that he had established there.