With familial ties to the Rothchild’s, ALPHONSE RATISBONNE advanced through a well-placed line of Jewish bankers in Strasbourg, France.
After studying law in Paris, he worked for his uncle’s banking firm, and later became engaged to the eldest daughter. Ratisbonne was nominally a Jew and deeply impious. He snubbed religion of any kind and became hardened radically when his brother Theodore not only converted to Catholicism but also became a priest. This resentment he says “made me believe all I heard of the fanaticism of the Catholics, and I held them accordingly in great horror.”
Before marrying and taking responsibility for the family business at 27, he took holiday to Italy and the East. In Italy he started his travels to Naples, and after embarked for Malta, but he took the wrong boat and landed in Rome. Here Ratisbonne took great interest in the art he encountered and would only visit the churches for artistic interest—while at the same time deepening his anti-Catholic resentment.
Taking advantage of the opportunity Ratisbonne visited an old schoolmate, Gustave de Bussieres, who was a protestant and tried to convert Alphonse. Their encounter led to an introduction to Gustave’s brother, Baron Theodore Bussieres, a recent Catholic convert and a friend of Fr. Theodore. Calling on the Baron before his departure, Ratisbonne was challenged to wear a Miraculous Medal, write down the Memorare, and recite it daily at morning and evening. Reluctantly, only out of courtesy did Alphonse accept.
Around midday January 20, Baron de Bussieres went to Sant’Andrea delle Fratte church to make arrangements for the funeral of a longtime friend, and former French ambassador to the Holy See. Ratisbonne accompanied him, maintaining his bitter disposition. As the Baron was in the sacristy making funeral arrangements, Alphonse strolled about the church and was rapt by the appearance of the Blessed Mother who stood in front of a large painting of St. Michael at a side chapel. This prompted Alphonse to kneel, and weep deeply through a swift conversion.
“I had only been in the church a short while when, all of a sudden, I felt totally uneasy for no apparent reason. I raised my eyes and saw that the whole building had disappeared. Only one side chapel had, so to say, gathered all the light. In the midst of this splendor, the Virgin Mary appeared standing on the altar. She was grandiose, brilliant, full of majesty and sweetness, just as she is in the Miraculous Medal. An irresistible force attracted me to her. The Virgin made a gesture with her hand indicating I was to kneel and as if saying ‘very good!’ Although she did not say anything, I understood everything.”
The news of this conversion spread throughout Europe. Pope Gregory XVI met the young convert and ordered an investigation which was later declared to be an authentic miracle. At baptism Ratisbonne took the name Maria Alphonse and was ordained a Jesuit in 1847. However later Pope Pius IX recommended that he join his brother Theodore to found the Congregation of Our Lady of Sion. While Fr. Theodore spread the congregation to France and England, Fr. Maria Alphonse established various houses of the congregation in the Holy Land.
In Jerusalem Ratisbonne bought some land, upon which the praetorium of Pilate was located, to build the large convent of Ecce Homo with a school and orphanage for girls. Near the Gate of Jaffa he founded the orphanage of St. Peter for boys, with a school for mechanical arts. On the mountain of Ain Karim, outside Jerusalem, he erected another established another orphanage, and on that site, with other Priests of Sion (Pères de Sion), he labored for conversion of Jews and Muslims.
Both brothers died in 1884, celebrated for their stellar reputations. This amazing story of conversion would later influence Saint Maximilian Kolbe to found the Militia Immaculata and convinced him of the power of the Miraculous Medal. His belief in Mary’s role in bringing the world to Christ gave momentum to thriving apostolates and a press which he started. Kolbe offered his First Mass at the altar of the apparition on April 29, 1918.
This Saint expired from starvation in Auschwitz on the vigil of the Assumption of Mary, August 14, 1941.