By Larry Peterson
The roots of Our Lady of Sion go back to the fourth or fifth century. Sion (or Zion) is a place in the Diocese of Toul in France where Christianity in the future nation took root. Writings from a Christian named Nicetius were found there, and it is recorded that a church dedicated to Our Lady was the center of a very large Catholic community. The Basilica of Our Lady of Sion is built over the ruins of a temple that had been dedicated to an unknown Roman goddess.
But we must leap forward to the 19th century to grab hold of what this all means today. The Congregation of Our Lady of Sion was actually two Catholic religious congregations founded in Paris. Two brothers, Theodore Ratisboone and Alphonse Ratisboone (some spell it Regensburg) founded the order for Religious Sisters in 1843 and the order for Catholic Priests and Brothers in 1852.
What intrigued me so much was their mission statement—“to witness in the Church and in the world that God continues to be faithful in his love for the Jewish people and to hasten the fulfillment of the promises concerning the Jews and the Gentiles.” (Constitution, article 2).
I must admit that as a cradle Catholic who is the maternal grandson of a Hebrew man, and a descendant of family members killed in the Holocaust, I was stunned to learn of The Congregation of Our Lady of Sion. Imagine, a Catholic organization dedicated to Jewish people. I had no idea.
God sure “writes straight with crooked lines” doesn’t he? The Ratisboone brothers and founders of the order, were Jews. They were continually being drawn to the faith but Theodore converted first. Seeing some of his friends embrace Catholicism and after studying and reading about the faith, he was baptized in 1826. He was not done with his conversion. He was ordained a priest in 1830.
Alphonse was much more reluctant to embrace and believe in Jesus Christ. But on January 20, 1842, while on a trip to Rome before getting married, he happened to visit the Church of Sant’Andrea delle Fratte. It was here that the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to him. He hurriedly contacted Theodore and told him. Both brothers believed that God was calling them especially since Alphonse had been personally converted by none other than Our Lady. They both strongly felt that they had been called to bring their fellow Jews to Christianity.
Alphonse was baptized and entered the Society of Jesus where he spent several years. In 1843 Theodore founded a small community of women who wanted to join him in his ministry of teaching the faith to Jewish children. In 1850, Alphonse, with permission from Pope Pius IX and the Superior General of the Jesuit Order, left the Jesuits and joined with his brother to work together. Side by side, in 1852, they founded the Congregation of the Fathers of Our Lady of Sion.
Eventually, Theodore Ratisboone wanted to continue his work of converting fellow Jews to Christianity. In 1842 while visiting Rome, Pope Gregory XVI, blessed Theodore’s ministry. He immediately formed a school for Jewish children in a Christian setting. As God will provide, two Jewish sisters came to him for spiritual advice. They converted to Christianity and became the starting point for the Congregation of Our Lady of Sion, found in 1847.
Alphonse moved to the Holy Land and in 1858 and, on the sight of the ruins of an old church, built and orphanage and vocational school which the Sisters ran. These schools were open to all children regardless of creed. In 1874, Alphonse began construction on the Ratisboone Monastery on the outskirts of Jerusalem. It was a school for boys and today is a branch of the Salesian Pontifical University.
Today the Congregations of Our Lady of Sion are spread around the world from Australia to England, to Istanbul, Costa Rica, Rio de Janeiro and even Kansas City, Missouri.
Not bad for a couple of Jewish converts. Not bad at all.
At this time there is no cause pending for either of the Ratisboone brothers to have their causes for sainthood begun. But there are those who are diligently trying to get the process started.