Jean-Baptiste Cazet was born July 17, 1827, in Jurançon, near Pau, in the department of the Basses-Pyrénées, France. The deep religious convictions of his family marked the education he received until he entered the Jesuit novitiate in Toulouse on January 20, 1848. He was ordained to the priesthood on May 25, 1861, in Vals près Le Puy, in the French department of the Haute-Loire.
He did his “third year” as the socius of Father Ginhac, who was head of the novices in Toulouse at that time. Gifted with clear thinking, more given to the concrete than to the speculative, his friends envisioned that he might be a successor to Father Gury as a teacher of moral theology.
In spite of what appeared to be frail health, he asked to be sent to the “island mission.” He arrived in Reunion on July 30, 1864, as the designated replacement for Father Jouen, who was the regular Superior of the mission, and started working on October 25th. He lived in Saint-Denis de la Réunion but made frequent visits to Madagascar so he could give guidance to the clergy under his care.
In 1872, when Father Jouen died (he had remained Apostolic Prefect), Cazet was called on to succeed him in that new function, so he moved to Antananarivo.
From then on, his biography virtually becomes one with the history of the Catholic mission in Madagascar. For forty years, thanks to the clairvoyance with which he was able to judge the most complex situations, to the resolution of his decisions, and especially to the loyalty that characterized all of his dealings, he was to remain the uncontested leader of the development of the Church, presiding over the vast territory that he was responsible for.
Father de la Devèze, who knew him, had this to say about him: “Monsignor Cazet didn’t make a single enemy for himself. In Paris just as in Antananarivo, we knew that he spoke the truth, that he saw things clearly, and that he was completely unbiased.”
His career began under the Merina monarchy and the government of Rainilaiarivony, and ended under a French administration. He had dealt with four resident governors (Le Myre de Vilers, Bompart, Larrouy, and Laroche) and three general governors (Galliéni, Augagneur, and Picquié). In spite of having significantly different perspectives that, at times, created tension between the Catholic mission and the civil authorities, Cazet was respected by all and, on occasion, even venerated by some.
The work he was doing was interrupted, if not compromised, by two wars (1883-1885 and 1894-1895) that were undoubtedly the greatest hardships of his life. In July of 1884, during the first of the wars, saddened by having to abandon the 24,000 baptized souls and the 60,000 catechists in his mission field, he did not hesitate to ask Rainilaiarivony for permission to return to Antananarivo in order to comfort them by his presence. There was no response to his repeated requests.
Under his impetus, the Catholic mission had developed to such a degree that in that same year of 1884, Leon XIII decided to raise him, under his leadership, to the position of Vicar Apostolic. He was consecrated bishop in Lourdes, France, on October 11, 1885, and was back in Antananarivo by Easter of 1886 to celebrate his first pontifical high mass on Malagasy soil in the cathedral of Andohalo.
He had blessed the laying of the first stone of that cathedral on the 8th of May, 1873, and although it was finished yet, and that it was to be consecrated only on December 17, 1890, it had been in use for services since 1878.
When he finally returned to his mission as a bishop, one of the first things he did, and which is an act that reveals his most personal thoughts, was to go visit the sick in the mission’s leper house and give them his first blessings. In the following weeks he made many trips to the outlying stations, living just like the Bushmen did at that time. One day he wrote to a correspondent: “I’m seated on the ground on a mat, with a book and a journal for a table, writing on my knees.”
Thanks to his instructions and his leadership, the mission’s territory and influence grew in the following way from 1872 to 1911: in Antananarivo, two new parishes were opened; in the Imerina, fifteen missionary districts were created; In the Vakinankaratra, four; in the Betsileo, twenty-three; and on the east coast, Mananjary, in 1873. In 1888 the Saint Michel School was opened in Ambohipo (later transferred to Antananarivo at Amparibe, in 1900). In 1889 the observatory of Ambohidempona was founded, and was directed by Father Colin. In 1897, the teacher training college for catechists was founded in Ambohipo.
One apostolic vicariate for the entire island was simply too large a territory for a single congregation. Cazet called on the lazarist priests, who arrived in Fort-Dauphin on April 7, 1896, and took over the territory located south of the 22nd parallel. In 1898, after answering a similar call for help, the Fathers of the Holy Spirit were given charge of the territory north of the 18th parallel, and settled in Diégo Suarez. A year later, the Fathers of the Salette came to take over from the Jesuits in the Vakinankaratra, and in 1900 the Sisters of Providence arrived, as well as the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary (nuns). And finally, 1901 saw the arrival of the Jesuits of Providence from Champagne, who were given part of the Betsileo mission.
The last act in the long episcopacy of Cazet would be the opening, on the grounds of the Saint Michel School, of a small seminary where future Malagasy diocesan priests would be trained. The Vicar Apostolic had earlier had the joy of seeing a number of Jesuits, who had been converted through the mission, come into the priesthood. He was even able to personally ordain the second of these, Father Venance Manifatra, in the cathedral of Antananarivo, on March 23, 1896.
Convinced of the role that teaching would play, on a purely human level as well as in Christian discipleship, he gave great encouragement to the mission schools right from the start. The number of students in Catholic schools went from approximately 3,000 in 1872, to 82,700 in 1900, only to fall back to 7,400 in 1910.
The sudden drop was due to the decree signed by Augagneur on November 23, 1906, which forbade holding class in facilities that also held prayer meetings on Sundays. Of the 1,200 schools of the Catholic mission in the vicariate of Antananarivo alone, 900 had to close.
Still other trials had come his way over the course of his long career. In 1890, he had been condemned by the French tribunal in Antananarivo of having warned his church members to beware of the influence of the Masonic Order. Enacting laws against religious congregations that had been passed in France, a trial held in 1911 refused to grant registration of the buildings that belonged to the mission. In 1908, and then again in 1910, he sought authorization to be interred in the cathedral that he had built, but the requests were denied. Those who were close to him at that time were amazed at the serenity with which he accepted these snubs.
Starting in 1900, when he was seventy-three years old, he began to feel his strength waning, and he shifted part of his workload to the coadjutor who had been given to him in the person of Monsignor Henri de Saune.
In 1911, a fall caused him to lose the use of his legs, even though it had no effect whatsoever on his lucidity. He tendered his resignation, and left his vicariate to his successor. When he had come into it, it numbered less than 2,000 souls, and even with the divisions of Fort-Dauphin (1896) and of Diégo-Suarez (1898), it now numbered 183,000.
Condemned to staying put, he who had led the Catholic mission of Madagascar for nearly forty years spent the last six years of his life in an armchair, and accepted his lot without complaining. To one of the visitors who complimented him on his expression, he answered, “It’s not my face that hurts, general, its’ my leg!”
He breathed his last on the 6th of March, 1918. Father Venance Manifatra, who gave the eulogy, quoted a phrase that he had just heard from someone who was a friend of the mission: “Monsignor Cazet was the moral conqueror of Madagascar.”
De la Devèze, “Monseigneur Jean-Baptiste Cazet,” in La Mission de Madagascar, Vicariat de Tananarive [The Madagascar Mission, Vicariate of Antananarivo], no. 11, Dec. 1919, pp. 203-225.
A.Boudou, Les Jésuites à Madagascar au XIXè siècle [The Jesuits in Madagascar in the 19th Century], vol. 2.
———,* La Mission de Tananarive*.
This article, reprinted here with permission, is from Hommes et destins: Dictionnaire biographique d’Outre-Mer [Men and Destinies : Overseas Biographical Dictionary], vol. 3, published by the Académie des Sciences d’Outre-Mer (15, rue la Pérouse, 75116 Paris, France). All rights reserved.