Étienne Chambaron was born in Chassang, in the municipality of Tiviers, a few kilometers northeast of Saint-Flour, on October 15, 1827. He was the ninth child in a hardworking family of Auvergnat farmers. The family had solid religious beliefs, and on the day of his first communion, at age thirteen, the young Étienne was already thinking of becoming a missionary.
In 1843, he entered the school of the Brothers of the Christian Schools of St. Flour, and in confirmation of his vocation, he entered the novitiate of the Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools in Clermont in 1845. On the day he took the habit he took the name of Gonzalvien, and finished his novitiate at the school of the Brothers of Riom, where he gained his first experience as a teacher.
Sent to the island of Reunion with nine other co-workers, he arrived in Saint-Denis on April 15, 1850, and served there until 1866 in the large school that was directed by the Brothers. He was then appointed to direct the boy’s school that had been founded by the Jesuit Fathers in Antananarivo in 1862.
He arrived in Antananarivo in November of 1866 with two other brothers who were from Reunion. He was favorably impressed by the Malagasy students and was given a kindly welcome by Queen Rasohérina. He began his work as the first director of the Brothers of the Christian Schools in Madagascar by building a new school. Two years later, the number of students had grown from fifty to two hundred and seven. The queen’s adopted child, prince Ratahiry, was among those students, as were other children of the high nobility.
One particular incident can serve to show forth the quality of the education that was being given by the Brothers: when the Franco-Malagasy treaty of August 8, 1868 was signed, the Malagasy version of the treaty had been transcribed by a young student named Marc Rabibisoa. The impeccable calligraphy of the document was admired by all, and Rabibisoa was later sent to France along with Antoine Radilofera, the son of the Prime Minister, to the school run by the Brothers in Passy.
Gonzalvien opened two other schools in Antananarivo and set up an evening course for adults. He also opened another school in Tamatave that was directed by two Brothers, and organized various activities intended to stimulate a spirit of competition among the students: public exams, open exhibition of student work, and contests that culminated in award ceremonies that were attended by the French consul as well as representatives of the queen and the Prime Minister. In addition, the creation of a school band was something that made him very popular.
Aside from his gifts as an educator, Gonzalvien also had some talent for architecture, and he put that to good use as well. He drew up the plans for the vault of the church of Saint Joseph that was being built in Mahamasina, and was given charge of the interior ornamentation. He also created the plans for the church of Notre-Dame du Sacré-Coeur in Ambavahadimitafo, and drew up the rough drafts for the cathedral of Antananarivo, that he was not able to see to completion.
One of Gonzalvien’s greatest concerns was to train good teachers for service to the mission of Madagascar. He was in charge of all the schools in the city and in the surrounding villages, and he put his former students in charge of these schools, continuing all the while to supervise and direct them. He assembled the young teachers for seminars on pedagogy, and also organized occasional retreats for them. The first of these retreats, which took place in 1876, gathered forty-seven teachers who collectively had 1,212 students. By 1882, an increase in the number of schools made it necessary to divide the mission into districts. An inspector for each district was chosen from among the best and most highly educated teachers. At that time, there were 216 teachers.
The need to increase the size of the main school in Antananarivo was being felt, and it was propelled forward by the acquisition of a favorable plot of land. Gonzalvien drew up a plan for a community and a school, and the inauguration took place on September 18, 1882. Only a few months later, the first Franco-Hova conflict broke out. Gonzalvien went to Reunion Island along with all the other missionaries. He found his former students in Saint-Denis and was put in charge of the theological college and the novitiate.
He was only able to return to Madagascar on September 7, 1889, along with Monsignor Cazet, who had been named Vicar Apostolic of the island four years beforehand. He was named director of a community of six Brothers, of a school that had 405 students of which 120 were boarders, and given charge of all the catholic schools of the city. He maintained excellent relationships with the resident [governors] of France, Bompard and Larrouy, who were very pleased with the instruction being given by his school, and with the court and the Prime Minister, whose grandsons were students there.
In February of 1893, Gonzalvien’s eyesight began to fail rather quickly, but he continued with all his responsibilities to the end of the school year, awaiting the nomination of a new director. He then moved to Fianarantsoa, where a community had been founded while he was living in Reunion. The five months he spent there were put to good use, as he did translation work and wrote a history of the [religious] communities of Antananarivo and Fianarantsoa.
In 1894 Gonzalvien was named director of the novices at Saint-Denis, and two years later, he was appointed auxiliary visitor for Madagascar. He was therefore able to travel to Madagascar again, where general Galliéni had been nominated head of the colony, and where the signature of an agreement with the Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools, (which took place on April 10, 1897), allowed for an increase in personnel and for the creation of new schools. In 1898, there were twenty brothers at work in six schools, with a total student population of 2,300. A school of agriculture was also opened that year, and on June 29, 1900, a professional school that had 300 students in attendance only a year later. The agreement was terminated in 1904 by a decision made by the French authorities.
In 1897, at the age of seventy, Gonzalvien was named Visitor. He carried out his duties for four years, first in Madagascar, then for the district of Saint-Denis, and finally for the islands of Mauritius and Reunion.
He left Antananarivo for the last time in September of 1898, and on the way to Reunion, he visited the mission house in Tamatave. In 1900, he was invited to participate in the retreat organized for Brothers who were Visitors, in Paris, when he was able to visit France again, fifty years after his departure. In that same year, from May 18 to 27, he was blessed by being able to go to Rome for the grandiose ceremonies given on the occasion of the canonization of the founder of the order, the Blessed Jean-Baptiste de la Salle. He returned to the Indian Ocean once again and visited the mission stations of Reunion for the last time. On December 16th, 1900, in light of his age and fatigue, he handed his responsibilities over to his successor. In March of 1901 he retired to Curepipe on Mauritius, which is where he breathed his last on Sunday the 3rd of August, 1902.
Un Frère missionnaire. Le Frère Gonzalvien, premier Directeur des Frères des Écoles Chrétiennes à Madagascar (1827-1902) [A Missionary Brother. Brother Gonzalvien, the First Director of the Brothers of the Christian Schools in Madagascar (1827-1902)], Paris: Procure Générale, 78, rue de Sèvres, 1935.
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.