“20th January is a light. And in this light, there is another light: Mary – Sion – Jerusalem”

-Fr. Alphonse Marie Ratisbonne -(1814-1884)
Notre Dame de Sion (Religious of Our Lady of Sion)

Life sometimes holds key pivotal moments, turning points that dramatically influence future direction. Such an event occurred in Fr. Alphonse Marie Ratisbonne’s life on 20th January 1842. He entered Sant’ Andrea delle Fratte Church in Rome as a Jew; he left, a believing Christian. What happened there? Alphonse later testified that he had an apparition of Mary. She did not speak, yet in her silence, he understood all. Ten days later, he was baptised a Catholic and after a thorough investigation, the event was acclaimed by the Holy Church as “a true miracle“.

What was the impact of this dramatic change? Alphonse would later write, “20th January is a light. And in this light, there is another light: Mary – Sion – Jerusalem“. After time with the Jesuit Society, he left as an ordained priest, to join the newly founded Congregation of Fathers of Sion (Notre Dame de Sion). His one overriding passion was to work in Jerusalem and to assist in bringing the Sisters of Our Lady of Sion (Notre Dame de Sion) there. In 1855, he arrived in Jaffa, penniless, robbed of all his money, and valiantly made his way to the Holy City.

In mid 19th Century, Jerusalem was still under the control of the Ottoman Turkish government. With the Crimean War raging, the religious and political situation in the Holy Land was in a state of even greater uncertainty. Most of the monuments were in ruins, with piles of rubbish and stones littering the streets of Jerusalem. For all practical purposes, there were no roads. With deep faith and unquenchable hope, Alphonse forged ahead to build the Ecce Homo Convent on the Via Dolorosa, another Convent in the Village of Ein Kerem (St. John de Montana) and a Boy’s Trade School at St. Peter’s de Sion (Ratisbonne Monastery), in Jerusalem. Worn out by constant travel, poor health, a heavy workload and constant financial anxieties, Alphonse died on 6th May 1884, just seventy years of age. He is buried in the beautiful Sion cemetery of Ein Kerem (St. John de Montana).

Today, it could be quite easy to underestimate the courage, indomitable tenacity and deep trust in God of Alphonse Marie and the Sisters who sustained the many hardships of life in Jerusalem in that era. Although the ministries of the Sisters, Fathers and Brothers have dramatically changed over time, their presence in Jerusalem remains central to Sion’s mission in the Holy Church and the world.


*Texts in italics, taken from Congregational Journals and Writings, edited by Sr. Marie Carmelle, Nds




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