The Miraculous Conversion of Alphonse Ratisbonne

Alphonse Ratisbonne was born in France in 1814 to a wealthy Jewish family. Whilst Alphonse was still young, his older brother Theodor converted to the Catholic faith and was eventually ordained a priest. The whole Ratisbonne family were appalled at this apostasy, but for Alphonse it was the catalyst for a vehement hostility towards all things Catholic. He resolved never to speak to his brother again and at every opportunity poured scorn and ridicule on the Church of Rome.

At the age of 28 Alphonse, engaged to be married and with a promising career in prospect, decided to take some time travelling around Europe. Whilst in Naples he booked passage to his next intended destination, Palermo, but instead, through what would prove to be a Divine intervention, he found himself on a coach bound for Rome, the very last place he wanted to visit. In Rome, touring the sights and museums, Alphonse chanced to meet an old school friend, Gustavo de Bussieres, together with Gustavo’s brother Theodore who was himself a zealous convert to Catholicism and a close friend of Alphonse’s priest-brother. Despite Alphonse’s intense antipathy towards Theodore’s beliefs they struck up a friendship which drew them into discussions about faith and religion.

Although privately hurt and irritated by Alphonse’s constant jibes and blasphemous remarks about the Catholic faith, Theodore resolved to entrust an apparently hopeless situation to Our Blessed Lady. He asked Alphonse, as a gesture of friendship, to wear a gift of a Miraculous Medal and pray the Memorare twice daily. Not wishing to give offence, Alphonse agreed and, although he had absolutely no belief in what he viewed as a charade, he nevertheless wore the medal and said the prayer as requested. Meanwhile, Theodore enlisted the help of all his friends to join him in praying the Memorare for the conversion of Alphonse. Chief among them was a devout Catholic who was seriously ill, Count Laferronays. The Count offered his own life in return for the conversion of “the young Jew” and he prayed the Memorare twenty times in succession for this intention. That very day the Count suffered a heart attack and, having received the last rites, he passed away peacefully to his eternal rest.


The next day Alphonse met again with Theodore who was just about to enter the basilica of St Andrea delle Fratte to arrange the funeral of his friend the Count. Inviting Alphonse to wait for him in the church, Theodore left to speak to one of the monks. When he returned some time later he found Alphonse kneeling in prayer at the altar of St Michael and bathed in tears. Alphonse asked to be taken immediately to a Catholic priest to be baptised and when he was eventually able to compose himself he took off his Miraculous Medal and kissed it exclaiming:

“I have seen her! I have seen her! I had been in the church but a few minutes when suddenly I felt myself seized with a strange uneasiness. I lifted my eyes. The whole edifice was veiled from my sight. All the light was concentrated in one chapel. Alone in the midst of this brilliance, radiant, full of majesty and sweetness, appeared the Blessed Virgin Mary such as she is depicted on the Miraculous Medal. An irresistible power attracted me to her. She made a sign with her hand for me to kneel. Opening her arms to me she seemed to say ‘It is well’. She did not speak but somehow I understood the frightful situation I was in, my sins and the beauty of the Catholic Faith.”


After a short period of retreat with the Jesuits Alphonse was baptised, taking the name ‘Marie-Alphonse’ and also received Confirmation and First Holy Communion from the hands of Cardinal Patrizi, the Vicar of the Pope.


News of the conversion spread quickly and the Holy See, after a four-month investigation, declared the conversion an authentic miracle, an act of God brought about by the powerful intercession of the Virgin Mary. Alphonse’s brother, Fr Theodor, was overjoyed by his brother’s conversion and they were soon re-united. Alphonse, having broken off his engagement, subsequently joined the Jesuit novitiate and was ordained a priest in 1847.


Such conversions from the Jewish faith were rare but they served to heighten the brothers’ awareness of a personal vocation to pray for the Jewish people. Together they founded the Congregation of Our Lady of Sion in 1843 and Alphonse dedicated himself to establishing a religious presence in Palestine. Visiting the Holy Land in 1855 he became devoted to the Way of the Cross and especially the site where Our Lord was condemned by Pilate, so much so that he decided to buy the site. There, in 1856, he established the convent Ecce Homo (Behold the man!) for the Sisters of Our Lady of Sion, a place of prayer and education as well as an orphanage for girls. It was here that Alphonse, until his death in 1884, worked tirelessly for the conversion of Jews and Mohammedans. This great mission, begun by Alphonse, continues to this day.

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Alphonse Ratisbonne