As far back as 1546 in the College of Saint Paul, Goa, it was mentioned that some people came from San Lorenzo, which is today’s Madagascar. However, it was only in 1613 that the Jesuits Luis Mariano and Pedro Freire first arrived on the island. On 20th August 1614, they baptised about a hundred people, among them the crown prince and son of King Chambangue, who took the name André de Souza. A year later, the prince was kidnapped by Portuguese soldiers. This act made his father allow the priests to evangelize his kingdom in exchange for the return of his son. Sometime later, the king changed his attitude towards the priests. In 1621, he expelled them from his kingdom. Members of this first expedition were dispersed to other mission territories, including Mozambique.
It was only in 1844 that the Jesuits returned to Madagascar. Under the leadership of Fr. Jan Roothaan, then General of the Society, French Jesuits from Lyon were sent to the island. Jean-Pierre Dalmond, the local bishop, entrusted the southern part of Madagascar to the Jesuits. In this place, they encountered strong opposition from Ranavalona I, a local queen who was generally opposed to European presence and, more specifically, to Catholics. Some members of the queen’s court were already inclined towards Islam. Furthermore, the presence of the London Baptist Missionaries in Antananarivo (later to be expelled by the same queen) made it difficult for Catholics to enter the place. Most Jesuits were forced to go to Réunion and to other neighbouring islands. Only a few managed to remain in Madagascar, where they established some schools and youth centres.
Ravanalona I died in 1861 and was succeeded by Radama II. This change saw both Catholic and Protestant missionaries return to the kingdom. For the Catholics, however, this freedom lasted but briefly. In 1869, Ravanalona II succeded Radama II and accepted baptism as a Protestant. Abolishing every other form of worship, he made Protestantism the state religion. Luckily, the Jesuits were welcomed by friends on the outskirts of the capital, where they established thriving missions. In 1883, for example, there were 83 mission stations in Betsileo alone. Even the war between the French and the Malagasy people (1883-1896), which led to the expulsion of the Jesuits in 1894, could not smother the zeal for Christianity that was already rooted in the local population.
The Menalamba nationalistic movement, which opposed the creation of a French protectorate on the island, was anti-European and, consequently, hostile to Christianity.
It was this resistance that led to the martyrdom of Father (now Saint) Jacques Berthieu, in 1896.
On Photo: Saint Jacques Berthieu
Christianity was put on hold again until the arrival of Joseph Galliéni in 1896. The new French colonial presence ushered in a new missionary era. Now, the Jesuits evangelised mainly the central and mountainous areas of Madagascar. They contributed significantly to the establishment of a local church with a strong local clergy. This, for example, is how St Michel’s College of Tananarive became a minor seminary in 1910 and a major seminary in 1921.
In 1925, the first Malagasy Jesuit priests were ordained. These gradually took over the work of evangelization.
The Vice-Province of Madagascar was created in 1958 and was made into a fully-fledged Province in 1971. Today, the Province is made up of 270 Jesuits, most of whom are in formation. They continue to invest themselves in youth education, publication, pastoral care and spiritual ministries. They have also distinguished themselves in the areas of scientific research and are visibly present in the Malagasy mass-media.
By Jean Luc Enyegue, SJ
Source: JHIA diary