Laurent Ailloud is virtually unknown in the Catholic Church in Madagascar today, because other figures such as Callet, Malzac, Abinal, and others have virtually monopolized the attention of historians. Ailloud’s life and missionary activity was marked by discretion and a self-effacing personality.
However, if only for the body of written work that he left behind, Ailloud deserves to be mentioned in the annals of Malagasy Catholicism for his important contributions.
His biographical data is straightforward and is easily summarized. He was born on October 3, 1817, in Aix-les-Bains, France. He became a Jesuit at the age of eighteen and asked to be sent to the foreign mission field after his ordination. He directed the Jesuit school in Bourbon, Reunion Island, for seven years, and was a missionary to Madagascar for the fifteen remaining years of his life, from 1864 to 1879.
It was over the course of that latter, relatively short period of time, that Ailloud’s intellectual capacities and his adaptive mind were to flourish.
Throughout the time of his missionary excursions and parish work, he meticulously gathered up everything that had been written about Madagascar until then. He attained perfect fluency in Malagasy and published nine works of religious and linguistic nature in that language (see list of works in end notes), in addition to the many letters, the correspondence, and the articles that were published in magazines in France and in Madagascar.
His religious writing is characterized by clear and cultured thought that reveals profound understanding of the faith. Written for “his” Christians in a simple but clear, and often elegant style, his Explications des Evangiles du Dimanche [The Gospels explained, for Sundays], (Malagasy title: Fivoasana ny Evanjely amy ny isan’ Alahady), undoubtedly reveals a bit of moralizing, but far more obviously makes it clear that he wanted to present the basic doctrines of Christianity in an understandable way. Although the latter work was published in 1878, it saw considerable use in the Christian community into the first few decades of the twentieth century. It allows us to see how the thematic material of Catholicism was presented to the Malagasy people in the second half of the nineteenth century, and to study their responses to these themes (which are sometimes included in the text). In that sense, even though the doctrinal content of that work (and the other works as well) is now outdated, it is a primary source of historically significant information that should not be ignored.
The polemical battles between Catholics and Protestants that were raging in Madagascar in the nineteenth century are reflected in Ailloud’s works. His words are clear and sometimes harsh, but nonetheless correct, and they do not reach the levels of verbal violence that could be found in the Protestant (Teny Soa), and Catholic (Resaka) magazines of that time. In that sense, Ailloud’s writings also bear witness to his rather gentle human side, and to the nobility of his thought. One of his letters, published in 1874, proves this very thing, and also reveals the state of the mission in the 1870s:
Material difficulties are of no account among the missionaries. They accept them with a joyous and humble heart. What is hard for us is having to carry weapons around in light of the destruction wrought by the enemy. Without weapons at our side, we would not be able to maintain our schools, or build churches, or have hospitals and doctors, or be able to establish any propaganda outreach. For their part, the Protestants have schools in all the towns and villages, they are building beautiful churches in populated areas, they have a hospital and three doctors living in Tananarivo, and they are distributing their Bibles and publications everywhere. (Les Missions Catholiques, Oct. 9, 1874, p. 497)
Elsewhere, Ailloud does not hesitate to refer to these “publications and Bibles,” or to make use of them.
His books on linguistics are remarkable, for the time. They are well within the Jesuit Malagasy linguistic tradition that was established by Father Webber in 1853. Ailloud’s Le Vocabulaire français malgache [Malagasy French Vocabulary] and his La Grammaire malgache-hova [Malagasy-Hova Grammar] are addressed to foreign missionaries in particular, and they were written to help missionaries to quickly master the language. He says as much in the preface to the Grammaire: “[This work] has largely been written… for our Catholic missionaries. May it assist them, in their zealous impatience, to more rapidly and efficiently be able to spread the reign of Jesus Christ through their words and writings,” (p. III). His apostolic goals are clear, but Vocabulaire and Grammaire were also going to contribute to the establishment of the Malagasy language in the nineteenth century because of the working method employed by Ailloud, since he looked to current usage for the examples he used. He proposed making:
…a guide that would allow one to penetrate the rules of sentence construction, and even the secrets of idiomatic phrases. There was no such guide, so we have attempted to extract these rules that are still embedded in the language like building stones still locked in a bountiful quarry, and we have proposed assembling these into a handbook. We have searched for them in our virtually unceasing conversations with the Malagasy people, in many epistolary writings, in some stories or written manuscripts, and in the Malagasy Bible. (Preface, p. 1)
One should notice the intellectual honesty of Ailloud in those last few words, because there was no Malagasy translation of the entire Bible (only the New Testament) at the time, aside from the Protestant one. The Catholics had just begun the work of translating the Old Testament.
The life and work of Laurent Ailloud deserves to be studied in far greater depth, and no such study has yet been done. His religious life, his zeal, and his apostolic devotion make him one of the most prominent figures of the French missionary movement in the second half of the nineteenth century.
Volany ny Mary (Through the year with Mary), Tananarivo, 1866, 12°, pp. 111.
*Ny fety ny Maslna Mary *(Feast Days of Mary), ibid., 1868, 18°, pp. 96.
*Volany ny Fo Masiny Jeso *(Through the year with the Sacred Heart), ibid., 1869, 18°, pp. 111.
Ny Tantara Masina (The Holy Story), ibid., 1869, 18°, pp. 112.
Volany ny M.D. Josepha (Through the year with Saint Joseph), ibid., 1870, 18°, pp. 96.
Fivoasana ny Evanjely amy ny Isan’alahady (The Gospels explained, for Sundays), ibid., 1878, 12°, pp. 521.
Fanamasinana ny andro (Devotional Handbook: Daily Sanctification) [In collaboration with other missionaries], ibid., 1868.
Vocabulaire français-malgache, [French-Malagasy Vocabulary] ibid., 1868.
Grammaire malgache-hova, [Malagasy-Hova Grammar] ibid., 1872, pp. 111-383.
Lettres (Letters, incomplete list). In Annales de la Propagation de la Foi, vol. 39, pp. 69-73.
In Lettres de Vals: Feb. 1859, p. 16; Jan. 1864, pp. 5-6; Dec. 1864, pp. 13-15; March 1865, pp. 18-20 ; April 1868, pp. 17-20 ; Nov. 1868, pp. 64-67 ; Oct. 1874, pp. 23 et 13-14. In Les Missions Catholiques, Oct. 9, 1874, p. 497.
“Le P. Laurent Ailloud” [Father Laurent Ailloud] in Lettres de Vals, April 1880, pp. 98-100.
“Ny nahafatesany Mompera Ailloud” [The Death of Father Ailloud] in Resaka, No. 70, Oct. 1879. pp. 234-240.
This article, which is reprinted here with permission, is from Hommes et Destins: Dictionnaire biographique d’Outre-Mer [Men and destinies: Overseas Biographical Dictionary] , published in 1977 by the Académie des Sciences d’Outre-Mer (15, rue la Pérouse, 75116 Paris, France). All rights reserved.