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Ratisbonne Brothers


RATISBONNE BROTHERS , two French Jews who converted to Christianity and who became prominent in the Catholic Church in the 19th century. The Ratisbonne brothers were sons of a Strasbourg Jewish banker who was president of the Consistoire of Alsace. His second eldest son, theodore ratisbonne (1802–1884) was born in Strasbourg and practiced law in his native city. He devoted much of his time to the improvement of the social and economic plight of the Jews in the Strasbourg ghetto. However, his study of the Bible and church history led him to be baptized secretly. He adopted the name Marie and was hereafter known as Marie Th é odore Ratisbonne. After being ordained a priest in 1830 he taught at a church school in Strasbourg and in 1840 went to Paris to work for the archconfraternity of the parish Notre-Dame des Victoires. In 1843, together with his brother Alphonse, he founded the Congregation of Notre Dame de Sion for women and in 1852 the Fathers of Zion. Marie Théodore Ratisbonne's avowed aims in founding these religious societies were to bring about a better understanding between Jews and Christians and to convert Jews. He wrote profusely, and among his principal works are Histoire de Saint Bernard et de son siècle (2 vols., 1840; 190311) Manuel de la mère chrétienne (1859; 192622).

alphonse ratisbonne (1812–1884), the ninth child of the family, was also born in Strasbourg and began his career as a lawyer and banker. Like his brother Théodore he was filled with fervor to help his fellow Jews. At first he found it difficult to forgive his brother's conversion and felt hatred toward Christendom for its persecution of Jews. However, an experience during a visit to a church in Rome in which he reportedly saw a vision of Mary (January 20, 1842) moved him so powerfully that he had himself baptized eleven days later. He took the name of Marie, became a Jesuit, as Marie Alphonse Ratisbonne, and in 1848 was ordained a priest. He left the Society of Jesus in 1852 to collaborate with Théodore in Paris, but in 1855 went to Palestine, where he spent the rest of his life working for the conversion of Jews and Muslims. In 1856 he established the Ecce Homo convent for the Sisters of Zion in the Old City of Jerusalem and, subsequently, two orphanages. He wrote Monument à la gloire de Marie (1847).

The Ratisbonne Congregations

The Sisters of Zion benefited from the fact that in the middle of the 19th century there was a prodigious development in the education of girls, particularly in France, and that the French teaching congregations were spreading throughout the world. A congregation whose aim was the conversion of the Jews would have attracted a very limited number of candidates, whereas the movement toward teaching and the establishment of boarding schools made it possible to reach young ladies attracted to religious life. The development deflected the primitive orientation of the congregation: if in their life of prayer their objects remained unchanged the sisters made no efforts at proselytizing. The Fathers of Zion who did not constitute a canonically erected religious congregation during the lifetime of the Ratisbonne brothers were at the beginning primarily chaplains and spiritual directors to the Sisters and their pupils. Until the end of World War i both congregations had little contact with Jews and Judaism. With the rise of Hitlerism Fathers and Sisters were among its most prominent opponents on the Catholic side and insisted in their publications on the necessity of common action by Jews and Christians against neo-paganism. In the countries occupied by Nazi Germany Sisters and Fathers made efforts to provide Jews with shelter and a passage to safety, although they themselves were closely observed by the Gestapo. After World War ii they were activein the development of the mentality which led to the Declaration "Nostra Aetate" by the second Vatican Council. Both Congregations now hold that proselytizing must be entirely abandoned and they considered themselves pioneers of a new era of Jewish-Christian understanding. The Sisters and Fathers of Zion have taken a positive attitude toward the State of Israel.


J. Guitton, Le conversion de Ratisbonne (1964); L.M. Leggatt (tr.), A Nineteenth Century Miracle (1922); M.J. Egan, Our Lady's Jew, Father M.A. Ratisbonne (1953); idem, Christ's Conquest: The Coming of Grace to Theodore Ratisbonne (1945).

[Marie Joseph Stiassny]

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