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Header-The Siege of Czestochowa 

 

The account of the siege of Czestochowa which we present here is based on the Memoirs of the Siege of Czestochowa by Father Augustyn Kordecki and the reflections of Professor Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira.

 

Introduction: Siege of Czestochowa

Poland stands in the middle of vast plains and rolling hills. With few natural barriers, armies have overrun the country many times through history. Strong fortifications became the norm for castles, important towns, and even monasteries.

During the religious wars of the 17th century, the Protestant and Catholic powers vied for dominance in Europe. In 1655, King Charles X Gustav of Sweden launched an invasion known as The Deluge. Protestant Swedish soldiers soon overran Catholic Poland, desecrating churches and plundering the countryside.

The monastery of Jasna Gora (Polish for Bright Mountain) stood like a bastion in the medieval city of Czestochowa, the last remaining holdout. This symbolic heart of Poland was home to the miraculous icon of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa. With only 70 religious, a handful of nobles and their servants, and 160 infantrymen, Father Augustyn Kordecki led a heroic resistance against overwhelming odds. In one of the greatest interventions of Our Lady in history, the Siege of Czestochowa shows the power of confidence in the Mother of God to change certain defeat into a stunning victory.

 


 

Map of PolandTensions were high. The news was not good. The Protestant Swedish army had swept through Catholic Poland, virtually unchallenged. Now, after conquering Krakow in the far south, King Charles X. Gustav of Sweden ordered an army of 2,250+ men with 19 cannons, under the command of General Burchard Miller, to take the fortress—sanctuary of Czestochowa.

“We must not let them take her!” Father Augustyn Kordecki’s clenched fist hit the thick slab of wood that served as a table with a thud. The men gathered around him and rose as one. They knew they must protect her at all costs—The Black Madonna of Jasna Gora.

 

Friends and Foes Approach

Many of the Catholic nobility fleeing before the Swedish advance sought refuge in Jasna Gora. One of them, Count Stephan Zamoyski, counseled the religious not to give in to the enemy, and affirmed that those who sought refuge there were prepared to die in defense of the holy place.

Stanislaw Warszycki, noble lord of the Castle of Krakow and First Senator of the Crown, provided help by sending provisions and 12 cannons. Meanwhile, Count Jan Wejchard of Wrzeszczewicz, a noble of less noble ideals, in order to win the good graces of the advancing King, demanded that the monks hand over Jasna Gora to the Swedes. Father Kordecki, calling together the council of the monastery, communicated his decision to stand firm. The monks unanimously approved: “It is better to die worthily, than to live impiously.”

 

Preparing for Battle

Far from relying on material resources alone, Father Kordecki encouraged all to place their hopes in the Blessed Virgin, “who in such an extreme necessity would not fail them with her help.” He asked them to be present at the Mass he would offer before the sacred Image of Our Lady of Czestochowa. He also ordered that the Blessed Sacrament be carried in procession along the walls and bastions. Father Kordecki personally blessed the cannons, cannonballs, bullets, and barrels of powder!

In November of 1655, the Swedish army reached the foot of the monastery. General Miller sent a written peace proposal to the monks, urging the surrender of Jasna Gora so as to avoid “unnecessary bloodshed.” The troops of General Miller were already in position for the siege, and his soldiers studying the positions of the cannons of the fortress. “It did not seem fitting to answer that letter in writing,” reported Father Kordecki. “It was no longer the time to write, but the time to take up arms... We answered by the muzzles of our cannons...” The answer was so convincing that General Miller was forced to beg for a truce. He sent another delegate to try to convince the Friars to surrender, warning them that the resistance of Jasna Gora was unreasonable in view of the fact that the entire country had already surrendered.

It was nighttime, and the following day being Sunday and a Feast of Our Lady, there were various ceremonies lined up; among them a procession with the Blessed Sacrament, inside the walls. Far be it from these devout men of God to allow a war to interrupt their traditional devotions to God and Mary Most Holy. In view of this, the Swedes had to wait until midday for their answer, which was, again, a resounding “No!”

 

The Battle of Jasna Gora Begins

Battle of Czestochowa PaintingInfuriated, the Protestant army concentrated a three-day attack on Jasna Gora, launching grenades and cannonballs, trying to set fire to the monastery. By night, they dug trenches leading toward the walls.

In the midst of the noise of the bombardment, a pious and sacral hymn was mysteriously heard, coming from the height of the tower of the sanctuary, and giving new energy to the defenders. From then on, it became customary to hear in the midst of the fight, hymns which emanated from the majestic tower.

A bomb, launched at the chapel where the miraculous picture of Our Lady of Czestochowa miraculously “turned back toward the enemy as if it had been touched by an invisible force, spreading a terrible fire through the air.”

 

Catholic “Commando” Raid

One of the five nobles who defended Jasna Gora, Sir Piotr Czarniecki, Commandant of Kiev, decided on a bold strike against the Swedes. Sallying forth at night with a detachment of soldiers, he managed to get into the rearguard of the enemy camps without being detected. Commander Czarniecki dispatched the commandant of artillery with various officers and soldiers. The skirmish was successful; after seizing two cannons he returned to the monastery within the walls.

This incident resulted in great confusion and panic among the Swedes, many of them coming out into the open. The cannon of Jasna Gora completed Czarniecki’s blow by eliminating more of the besiegers. Meanwhile, Czarniecki lost only one of his men in the expedition.

Convinced that it would not be easy for him to take the fortress, General Miller sent a message to Count Arvid Wittenberg, commander of the Swedish armies in Krakow, asking him to send a cannon powerful enough to break down the walls and additional infantry.

 

Psychological Warfare

Awaiting military aid, General Miller employed more deceptive tactics. A respectable Polish noble, unsuspected at first, was sent to the fortress. Attempting to persuade its defenders to surrender, he said, “I consider that it is a pretension beyond the bounds of reason for a monastery to wish to resist the Swedish power, when the whole country has buckled under… the continuation of the resistance can only stir up the violence of vengeance ....Act as the others have done, for your own good. Moreover, the aim of a religious order is to abstain from temporal matters… Ponder it well, lest the arms which you brandish instead of your Rosaries, carry you to perdition.”

General Miller knew that his messages were presented before all the monks and many of the civilian defenders as well. In this way, he played on public opinion against Father Kordecki.

The following day, Father Kordecki was informed that some members of the garrison were plotting to flee. Acting immediately, he expelled the chiefs of the revolt from the fortress, increased the salaries of the garrison, and obliged all to swear an oath that they would fight until the last drop of their blood.

 

A Hostage Situation

To gain time, two religious were sent to the Swedish camp, under the pretext of studying the proposals of General Miller. The Father Prior continuously tried to entertain the enemy with this exchanging of messages. Part of his strategy was to delay things so as to push the siege until winter became more intense, or reinforcements arrived.
General Miller received the two delegates with open arms, gave them six great fish as a sign of his “generosity,” and sent them back with his conditions for a treaty: “the monks must recognize the Swedish King and abjure King Jan Kazimierz.”

The Black Madonna of Our Lady of CzestochowaFather Kordecki sent him the following answer, with the two monks: “By no means can we deny the rights and protection of King Jan Kazimierz.... If some have abandoned our legitimate King, by no means may this proposal to us be an example, to us who are ready to seal with our blood our fidelity to our Lord.”

Angered, General Miller imprisoned the two religious. The general affirmed that he would have the hostages executed if the defenders of the monastery fired on his soldiers. The besieging army began to move their cannons to positions nearer the walls, always repeating the slogan “shoot and we will eliminate your monks.”

Father Prior did everything possible to rescue the hostages, accusing General Miller of violating the law of nations, the right of immunity of delegates, of showing himself a man without honor. The strategy had an impact on General Miller and he freed one of the hostages.

The Protestant General hoped the hostage would tell what he had seen in the enemy camp. This in fact took place and after relating what he had witnessed, the monk concluded by saying it was madness to continue resisting in the face of such a powerful enemy. Nevertheless, the monk also declared that he was prepared to give his life if his superiors decided otherwise. Thus, the first hostage returned to the Swedish camp, prepared to sacrifice himself for the glory of God.

General Miller pondered the situation and decided to send the second hostage, only to get the same results. The second hostage was returned to him proclaiming his willingness to die for his God and his country. Both were to be executed the next day by hanging. They exclaimed to the shock of the Swedes: “Why may we not die today, if we must be immolated tomorrow for God, for the King and for our Fatherland?” On the following day, the execution was postponed indefinitely.

In spite of all this, General Miller sent yet another messenger demanding surrender. Father Kordecki answered him by asking: what guaranty could he have that the Swedes would fulfill the agreements they made, if they kept his delegates hostage? Disappointed in his hopes to take Jasna Gora by peaceful means, General Miller ordered the freeing of the two hostages.

 

Our Lady Sends Encouraging News

On the eve of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, another Polish noble was sent to the fortress to press the monks to surrender. But to the great surprise of the monks of Jasna Gora, he encouraged them not to give up, saying that the invading armies had begun to suffer their first defeats, and that the violence of the Swedes— sacking of the nobles, murders of priests, profanations of churches, violations of women—were stirring up great reactions in the country.

The following day, one of the villagers, disguised as a Swedish soldier, reached the walls and informed its defenders that the besieging army was about to receive six heavy cannons from Krakow plus reinforcements of 200 infantrymen. On a more positive note, the monks learned that the Tartars, a Turkic people living in Asia and Europe, were joining the ranks of the Polish army, increasing the chances of a Catholic victory. He also threw in a letter signed by the prior of the Paulist Convent in Krakow, which described the atrocities committed by the heretics and recommended Father Kordecki not be deceived by General Miller’s promises.

A little later, a Tartar, permitted to come within the walls, after contemplating the sanctuary, surprised the monks with words of encouragement, urging them not to permit that “perjurers occupy the place consecrated to the Most Pure Virgin.” With all these events, the Catholics recovered their confidence.

 

The Battle Rages On

With the peaceful strategy having failed, General Miller decided to launch a brutal attack upon the walls of Jasna Gora. The bombardment of the monastery took on a terrible fury and it was as if “hell itself was vomiting against the sacred icon.” Undeterred, the monks carried out their customary ceremonies in honor of the Blessed Sacrament. The Holy Eucharist was carried in a procession along the walls. Father Kordecki said that the cannonballs passed close to the heads of the defenders, but that only after the ceremonies did they respond to the attack.

Pilgrims in the ChurchAbout midday, the enemy ceased fire and sent a message asking the monks to accept the protection of the Swedish king. But the Prior was not in a hurry: he told them that he would send his answer the next day. Immediately, the Swedes renewed the heavy bombardment. The following day, the scene was repeated, and the monks responded once again: “such important matters must be pondered at length...”

By now, the winter was becoming more intense, so the Swedish soldiers lit bonfires at night. In this way they revealed their positions, becoming easy targets. They quickly learned that, between cold and death, it was better to be cold.

The Swedes were easily repelled, because their movements showed up against the snow. But a dense fog covered the mountain, making it possible for them to move their assault machinery closer, unperceived. To combat the fog, the Prior selected one of the religious to “cry out for help from the powers of God against the spells of the enemy.” This tactic cleared the darkness from the air, and once again the Swedes were exposed.

 

The Enemy Within

Some of the nobles who had taken refuge began suggesting to the Prior that he reach an agreement with the enemy. The Swedes have dominated the whole country, they said, and will not be intimidated.

We have no prospects of receiving reinforcements. So, why not accept an accord with the Swedes, while our situation is still good?

Father Kordecki answered: “...but the enemy will not concede all that we demand; we desire that the place consecrated to the Virgin Most Pure never be stained by the impious feet of the heretics. You, dear sirs, overcome by adversities, desire to reach an accord so that, relieving yourselves of the unhappiness of the siege and the discomforts of the war, you will then be able to enjoy an agreeable peace… do you think that, if we surrender, you will be free? The capitulation will become for you, then, a spring of misfortunes and defeats; but if, on the contrary, bearing the slight inconveniences, we overcome the obstinacy of our enemies with the help of God, then we should surely win a certain stable peace.”

 

A Gathering Darkness

The defenders of Jasna Gora saw on the horizon wagons loaded with gunpowder, and heavy guns coming from Krakow. Fear once again came to dominate the besieged. Many nobles tried to convince the monks to surrender. “Is it right for a religious, who has renounced the world and consecrated himself to the spiritual service of Christ, to take up the sword and shed blood?”

The older monks, however, were of exactly the opposite opinion, and they managed to make their counsels prevail. “If we once give in to the enemy, then there will be no more possibility of correcting our error…That most glorious Lady will extend her hand once again, so that we may understand that the Kingdom of Poland will recover its ancient grandeur only by the power and the protection of its Queen.”

It was now Christmas Eve and the religious spent all night awake: some watching on the walls, others encouraging the garrison; but the majority stayed in the church praying.

 

A Christmas to Remember

Interior of the Basilica of Our Lady of CzestochowaMore intense movement in the enemy camp and more campfires presaged something menacing for that Christmas Day. At midday, the massive attack commenced. “The cannons to the north thundered, and the balls struck with such force on the walls of the cloister, that, in many places they went right through them, flying and bouncing around amid the debris and dust scattering in the corridors and stairways, and causing such fear among its residents that no one had the courage to look out the window.”

Father Kordecki reported that, at nightfall, finally, one of the heavy guns which was doing the most damage, burst, putting an end to the attack. A report from an eye witness related that the last shot from that cannon had bounced back from the wall hitting the cannon, destroying it and killing the gunner.

Never allowing the discomforts of war to interfere with their devotions, the monks continued the commemorations of the Nativity, with chants and ceremonies. In hearing hymns of praise, rather than cries of defeat, the Swedish troops thought that it was the celebration of some victory, and began to abandon their positions. The officers concluded in their turn, that the besieged forces must be very well provisioned in food and in munitions, to permit themselves such festivities. Thirty-eight days after the beginning of the siege, the heavy guns were retired from their positions; the next morning, the commanders withdrew.

 

“Terrible as an Army Set in Battle Array” (Cant. 6:10)

According to the direct testimony of the Protestant Swedes themselves, it is clear that Jasna Gora was defended miraculously. Lord Grodzicki, Commandant of artillery, revealed that General Miller had said that the only motive which led him to end the siege of Jasna Gora was the word and the menacing face of a noble lady, who appeared before him, leaving him perturbed. The report circulating among the Swedes was that General Miller lifted the siege because he was deceived by a maiden at the service of the monks. What was said among the people, however, was that the general was severely warned by a lady who appeared to him.

Invited to eat with some Swedish commanders, Father Blazej Wadowski heard such blasphemies from the mouths of the Swedes as: “What witch is this that is to be found in your cloister of Czestochowa, who covered with a blue mantle sallies from the cloister and walks along the walls, resting from time to time on the bastions—and whose sight makes our people drop with terror?”

Father Kordecki himself writes, “The Swedes affirmed that some of them saw a Lady on the walls, pointing the cannons and furnishing with her own hands the necessary arms to the defenders who were in the trenches; This was also heard from the Swedes by Sir Aleksy Sztrzalkowski, who told it to the monks, on his word of honor.”

Another reliable source of Our Lady’s intervention comes from letters of the Dominican nuns to the sisters who were in Jasna Gora. They contain the following facts: “Gen. Miller observed with great attention, here in the church, the picture of Our Lady of Czestochowa, and since his interpreter asked us to give him a small copy of the image, we gave it to him, and Miller took it from his hands. Thus it became clear to us that General Miller wanted to find out if the vision he had at night was similar to the picture.” Upon viewing the image, General Miller said the following: “It is absolutely not comparable to that virgin who appeared to me; for it is not possible to see anything comparable on earth. Something of the celestial and divine, which frightened me from the beginning, shone in her face.”

Jasna Gora monastery and mosaic collage

Queen Mother of Poland

Once the faithful forces had been gathered together, the King of Poland made his way to the Cathedral of Lwow, and there proclaimed Our Lady of Czestochowa Queen and Mother of Poland.

The act was carried out before the altar of the Most Holy Virgin with the following words:

“Great Mother of God and Most Holy Virgin! I, John Casmir II, by the grace of Thy Son, the King of Kings, and by Thy Grace, I, the King, casting myself on my knees at Thy Most Holy feet, take Thee today as my Patroness and Queen of my dominions… I cry humbly, from this pitiful and devastated state of my Kingdom, for Thy mercy and assistance against the enemies of the Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church, and, grateful for the immense benefits conferred by Thee, I sense with the nation, a commanding desire to serve Thee zealously, and, in my name and in that of the administrators and of the people, I promise to Thee and to Thy Son, Jesus Christ Our Lord, I will spread Thy glory though all the countries of our Kingdom....Grant, Oh most loving Queen and Lady, that I obtain the grace of Thy Son to do all that I propose, to which Thou Thyself has inspired me!”

The people wept with emotion on hearing the words of the King, realizing that, from then on, the Blessed Virgin would be recognized as Queen of Poland.

 

Our Fight Today 

The Catholic Church today is embroiled in a battle; She is besieged on all sides in the cultural war. Sadly, there are even those within Her walls that, with saccharine voices, tell her to surrender. Let us take courage from the monks of Jasna Gora. Let us continue the fight and never cease our hymns of praise, knowing full well that Our Lady is right here amongst us. As she did in 1655, she will surely today put the enemy to flight, securing the fulfillment of her promise at Fatima: “Finally, my Immaculate Heart will triumph!”

 


All Photos Courtesy of Michael Gorre 

 

 

 

 

Quote of the day

DAILY QUOTE for November 17, 2019

I want to adorn myself, not out of worldly pride, but for th...

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November 17

 

I want to adorn myself, not out of worldly pride,
but for the love of God alone – in a fitting manner, however,
so as to give my husband no cause to sin, if something about me were to displease him.
Only let him love me in the Lord, with a chaste, marital affection,
so that we, in the same way, might hope for the reward
of eternal life from Him who has sanctified the law of marriage.

St. Elizabeth of Hungary


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Saint of the day

SAINT OF THE DAY

St. Elizabeth of Hungary

Elizabeth’s mother was murdered by Hungarian nobles, proba...

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St. Elizabeth of Hungary

Also known as Elizabeth of Thuringia, she was born in Hungary in 1207. She was a daughter of King Andrew II of Hungary and his wife Gertrude, a member of the family of the Counts of Andechs-Meran; Elizabeth’s brother succeeded his father on the throne as Bela IV; St. Hedwig, the wife of Duke Heinrich I, the Bearded, of Silesia was her mother’s sister, while another saint, Queen St. Elizabeth of Portugal, the wife of the tyrannical King Diniz, was her great-niece.

In 1211 a formal embassy was sent by Landgrave Hermann I of Thuringia to Hungary to arrange a marriage between his eldest son Hermann and Elizabeth, who was then four years old. This marriage was the result of political considerations and intended as a ratification of an alliance against the German Emperor Otto IV, a member of the house of Guelph, who had quarreled with the Church. Not long after the little girl was taken to the Thuringian court to be brought up with her future husband and, in the course of time, to be betrothed to him.

The court of Thuringia was at this period famous for its magnificence. Its centre was the stately castle of the Wartburg, splendidly placed on a hill in the Thuringian Forest near Eisenach, where the Landgrave Hermann lived. Notwithstanding the turbulence and purely secular life of the court and the pomp of her surroundings, little Elizabeth grew up a very religious child with an evident inclination to prayer and pious observances and small acts of self-mortification. These religious impulses were undoubtedly strengthened by the sorrowful experiences of her life.

In the year 1213, Elizabeth’s mother was murdered by Hungarian nobles, probably out of hatred of the Germans. On December 31, 1216, the oldest son and heir of the landgrave, Hermann, who Elizabeth was to marry, died; after this she was betrothed to Ludwig, the second son. It was probably in these years that Elizabeth had to suffer the hostility of the more frivolous members of the Thuringian court, to whom the contemplative and pious child was a constant rebuke. Ludwig, however, must have soon come to her protection against any ill-treatment and his mother, the Landgravine Sophia, a member of the reigning family of Bavaria and a deeply religious and very charitable woman, became a kindly mother to the little Elizabeth.

The political plans of the old Landgrave Hermann involved him in great difficulties and reverses; he was excommunicated, lost his mind towards the end of his life, and died on April 25, 1217, still unreconciled with the Church. He was succeeded by his son Ludwig IV, who, in 1221, was also made regent of Meissen and the East Mark. The same year, Ludwig and Elizabeth were married, the groom being twenty-one years old and the bride fourteen. The marriage was in every respect a happy and exemplary one, and the couple were devotedly attached to each other. Ludwig proved himself worthy of his wife. He gave his protection to her acts of charity, penance, and her vigils, and often held Elizabeth’s hands as she knelt praying at night beside his bed. He was also a capable ruler and brave soldier.

They had three children: Hermann II (1222-41), who died young; Sophia (1224-84), who married Henry II, Duke of Brabant, and was the ancestress of the Landgraves of Hesse; and Gertrude (1227-97), Elizabeth’s third child, who was born several weeks after the death of her father and later in life became abbess of the convent of Altenberg.

The followers of St. Francis of Assisi had made their first permanent settlement in Germany the year of Elizabeth’s marriage to Ludwig. For a time, the German Franciscan Caesarius of Speier was her spiritual director and through him she became acquainted with the ideals of St. Francis. These strongly appealed to her and she began to put them into practice: she observed chastity, according to her state of life, and practiced humility, patience, prayer, and charity. Her position, however, prevented her from living one she ardently desired: voluntary and complete poverty. In 1225, with Elizabeth’s assistance, the Franciscans founded a monastery in Eisenach.

Shortly after their marriage, Elizabeth and Ludwig made a journey to Hungary; Ludwig was often after this employed by the Emperor Frederick II, to whom he was much attached, in the affairs of the empire. During the spring of 1226, when floods, famine, and the plague wrought havoc in Thuringia, Ludwig was in Italy attending the Diet at Cremona on behalf of the emperor. Under these disastrous circumstances Elizabeth assumed control of affairs, distributed alms, giving even state robes and ornaments to the poor. In order to care personally for the unfortunate she built below the castle of Wartburg a hospital with twenty-eight beds and visited the inmates daily to attend to their needs; at the same time she aided nine hundred poor daily. It is this period of her life that has preserved Elizabeth’s renown as the gentle and charitable chételaine of the Wartburg. Upon his return, Ludwig confirmed all that she had done in his absence.

The following year he set out with Emperor Frederick II on a crusade to Palestine but died of the plague on September 11 at Otranto. The news did not reach Elizabeth until October, just after she had given birth to her third child. Upon hearing the news the queen, who was only twenty years old, cried out: “The world with all its joys is now dead to me.” In that winter of 1227, Elizabeth directed the Franciscans to sing a Te Deum and left the castle of Wartburg, accompanied by two female attendants. Her brother-in-law, Heinrich Raspe, now acted as regent for her son Hermann, then only five years old.

At Pope Gregory IX’s recommendation, Master Conrad of Marburg, a well known preacher of the crusade and inquisitor, had become Elizabeth’s spiritual guide. He directed her by the road of self-mortification to sanctity, and after her death was very active in her canonization. Although he forbade her to follow St. Francis in complete poverty as a beggar, by the command to keep her dower she was enabled to perform works of charity and tenderness.

Elizabeth’s aunt, Matilda, Abbess of the Benedictine convent of Kitzingen near Würzburg, took charge of the widowed landgravine and sent her to her uncle Eckbert, Bishop of Bamberg. The bishop, however, was intent on arranging another marriage for her, although during the lifetime of her husband Elizabeth had made a vow of chastity in the event of his death; the same vow had also been taken by her attendants.

While Elizabeth was maintaining her position against her uncle the remains of her husband were brought to Bamberg by his faithful followers who had carried them from Italy. Weeping bitterly, she buried his body in the family vault of the landgraves of Thuringia in the monastery of Reinhardsbrunn. With the aid of Conrad she now received the value of her dower in money, namely two thousand marks; of this sum she divided five hundred marks in one day among the poor. On Good Friday, 1228, in the Franciscan house at Eisenach Elizabeth formally renounced the world; then going to Master Conrad at Marburg, she and her maids received from him the dress of the Third Order of St. Francis, thus being among the first tertiaries of Germany. In the summer of 1228 she built the Franciscan hospital at Marburg and on its completion devoted herself entirely to the care of the sick, especially to those afflicted with the most loathsome diseases. Conrad of Marburg still imposed many self-mortifications and spiritual renunciations, while at the same time he even took from Elizabeth her devoted domestics. Constant in her devotion to God, Elizabeth’s strength was consumed by her charitable labors, and she passed away in 1231 at the age of twenty-four.

Very soon after the death of Elizabeth miracles began to be worked at her grave in the church of the hospital. By papal command examinations were held of those who had been healed and at Pentecost of the year 1235, the solemn ceremony of canonization of the “greatest woman of the German Middle Ages” was celebrated by Pope Gregory IX at Perugia.

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WEEKLY STORY

In the midst of this splendor, the Virgin Mary appeared stan...

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The Conversion of Alphonse Ratisbonne

Born in 1814, Alphonse Ratisbonne was from a family of wealthy, well-known Jewish bankers in Strasbourg, France. In 1827, Alphonse’s older brother, Thèodore, converted to Catholicism and entered the priesthood, thus breaking with his anti-Catholic family whose hopes now lay in the young Alphonse. At 27, Alphonse was intelligent and well mannered. He had already finished his law degree, and decided to travel to Italy before marrying and assuming his responsibilities in the family business. However, God had other plans for him.

While in Rome, Alphonse visited works of art, and strictly out of cultural curiosity, a few Catholic churches. These visits hardened his anti-Catholic stance, and nourished his profound hatred for the Church. He also called on an old schoolmate and close friend, Gustave de Bussières.

Gustave was a Protestant and several times had tried, in vain, to win Alphonse over to his religious convictions. Alphonse was introduced to Gustave’s brother, Baron de Bussières, who had recently converted to Catholicism and become a close friend of Father Thèodore Ratisbonne. Because of the Baron’s Catholicism and closeness with his turncoat brother, Alphonse greatly disliked him.

On the eve of his departure, Alphonse reluctantly fulfilled his social obligation to leave his calling card at the Baron’s house as a farewell gesture.

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Hoping to avoid a meeting, Alphonse intended to leave his card discreetly and depart straight away, but was instead shown into the house. The Baron greeted the young Jew warmly, and before long, had persuaded him to remain a few more days in Rome. Inspired by grace, the Baron insisted Alphonse accept a Miraculous Medal and copy down a beautiful prayer: the Memorare. Alphonse could hardly contain his anger at his host’s boldness of proposing these things to him, but decided to take everything good-heartedly, planning to later describe the Baron as an eccentric.

During Alphonse’s stay, the Baron’s close friend, Count de La Ferronays, former French ambassador to the Holy See and a man of great virtue and piety, died quite suddenly. On the eve of his death, the Baron had asked the Count to pray the Memorare one hundred times for Alphonse’s conversion. It is possible that he offered his life to God for the conversion of the young Jewish banker.

A few days later, the Baron went to the church of Sant’Andrea delle Fratte to arrange for his friend’s funeral. Alphonse reluctantly went with him, all the while making violent criticisms of the Church and mocking Catholic practices. When they arrived, the Baron entered the sacristy to arrange the funeral while Alphonse remained in the church.

When the Baron returned just a few minutes later, the young man was gone. He searched the church, and soon discovered his young friend kneeling close to an altar, weeping.  Alphonse himself tells us what happened in those few minutes he waited for the Baron: “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.”

When de Bussières talked to Alphonse, he no longer found a Jew, but a convert who ardently desired baptism. The news of such an unexpected conversion immediately spread and caused a great commotion throughout Europe, and Pope Gregory XVI received the young convert, paternally. He ordered a detailed investigation with the rigor required by canon law, and concluded that the occurrence was a truly authentic miracle. 

Alphonse took the name Maria Alphonse at baptism, and, wishing to become a priest, was ordained a Jesuit in 1847. After some time, and at the suggestion of Pope Pius IX, he left the Jesuits and joined his brother Thèodore in founding the Congregation of Our Lady of Sion, dedicated to the conversion of the Jews. Father Theodore spread his congregation throughout France and England, while Father Maria Alphonse went to the Holy Land. In Jerusalem, he established a house of the congregation on the plot of land where the praetorium of Pilate had formerly stood.

The two brothers died in 1884, both famed and well-loved for their exceptional virtues.  

By Armando Santos  

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In the midst of this splendor, the Virgin Mary appeared standing on the altar"

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