Clara Clerget was born on March 6, 1877, in Fleury-sur-Ouche, in the department of Côte-d’Or, France. Her father worked for the railroad and died in a work-related accident, and her mother lived a simple and hard-working life in her home village.
Clara heard a sermon on missions when she was very young, and felt the pressing beginnings of a missionary vocation, but her mother was fiercely opposed to it for many years. She finally relented, and Clara joined the nuns of Saint-Joseph of Cluny as Anne-Marie of the Visitation. She was twenty-four years old when she took her vows at the mother house on September 23, 1901.
She was sent to Madagascar and arrived in Tamatave on November 8, 1901. She spent the first ten years of her missionary life there, working seven years in the hospital and three in the sewing room.
During the annual visit of the principal Mother of Antananarivo to her community, she learned that a priest was thinking of opening a leper-house in the south and was asking if any Sisters could help. It was an irresistible call for Sister Anne-Marie, but she needed to get the approval of her General Superior before she would be able to serve the lepers. She got the approval easily because the General Superior had done her novitiate at the same time as she, and she was also from Burgundy.
Sister Anne-Marie was then able to volunteer to be a founder of the leper-house of Marana, which was near Fianarantsoa. She arrived in 1911 and began working under the leadership of the founder, a Polish Jesuit priest named Father Beyzim. From then on, the names of Sister Anne-Marie and of Marana would always be closely associated.
She became quite attached to the leper-house and only left it on two occasions, once in 1936, and once in 1946, at which times she needed to go to Antananarivo for her health. She was the Superior there from 1911 to 1940, and again from 1946 to 1956, and she remained there until her death on January 17, 1967.
She dedicated fifty-six years of her life to caring for lepers. When the leper-house was established, the founder had required that men and women live in separate wards. At that time, the treatments being given made very little progress against the disease, and the separation was justified. Eventually though, progress that was made in treatment with the use of sulfones completely transformed the leper-house, and patients were able to lead a normal social and family life.
Starting in 1963, Marana undertook a complete modernization and reorganization project that was approved by Sister Anne-Marie. A village for lepers was built, which allowed family life to replace hospitalization. Married patients found a home again, and single patients were given lodgings that respected their independence. In 1967, there were 170 patients: seventy-three men, forty women, and fifty-seven children.
As she led a life of humble devotion among the lepers that she called her “dear ones.” Sister Anne-Marie had such a radiant presence that young men and women, spiritual directors as well as seminary students, all came to see her. Two Malagasy Jesuit priests in particular bore witness to the quality of the attraction exerted by her spirituality.
The work of this humble nun was officially recognized and rewarded: on May 11, 1962, the Vice-president of Madagascar, Mr. Calvin Tsiebo, came to Marana to personally confer the Malagasy Order of Merit in a ceremony that was also assisted by five bishops and other civil and military authorities from the neighboring provinces. This ceremony happened to occur on the same day that Monsignor Gilbert Ramanantoanina was installed as archbishop of Fianarantsoa. Sister Anne-Marie was also decorated with the French Legion of Honor, and received the honorable distinction in all simplicity, saying, “It is for my dear lepers and to the honor of God.”
Her funeral was marked by a grandiosity that was in contrast with the life of humble devotion that she had led. As Monsignor Gilbert Ramanantoanina was in Rome, it was monsignor Thoyer, who came for the occasion from Ambositra, who celebrated the requiem mass in the largest church in Fianarantsoa, which is Saint Charles. The highest civil, military, and religious authorities were present: the Prefect, the vice-Prefect, the deputy-mayor, the Consul of France, the Armed Forces commander of La Place, and the president of the Committee for Aid to Lepers. The other religious confessions were also represented: the Anglicans, the Protestants, and the Muslims. The wife of the leader of the Muslims of Madagascar had offered a white silk sari embroidered with silver to serve as a covering for her coffin. A police unit stood at attention on the church square as the mortal remains of Sister Anne-Marie were transported to be buried in the leper cemetery, as she had had wished. The president of the Committee for Aid to Lepers, Dr. Rabenoro, wrote the following lines to Mr. Raoul Follereau: “The leper house of Marana is in deep mourning: Sister Anne-Marie of the Visitation was called back to God after having dedicated fifty-six years of her life to the cause of leprosy. Her magnificent apostolate had given rise to the honor of having been given a moving tribute in the pages of your remarkable work: Tour du monde chez les lépreux [Leprosy: a World Tour]: ‘Later, when you came through Madagascar on the occasion of the 13th World Leprosy Day, you found that your old friend was still valiantly caring for the most disinherited ones, who were also the most beloved. Her funeral was held in the very place where, day after day, for over half of a century, she had shown her love and the joy she had in serving others.’”
Mr. Raoul Follereau answered thus: “It is with profound emotion and great sadness that we have learned of the death of Mother Anne-Marie. She was truly one of the most heroic pioneers in the ‘war on leprosy.’ She was a wonderful example to all, and she will forever remain in our hearts as the very symbol of living, fraternal, and universal love.”
Bulletin de la Congrégation des Soeurs de saint Joseph de Cluny [Bulletin of the Congregation of the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Cluny]: no. 271, April 1967, p. 1155-1161; no. 279, December 1969, p. 2108-2124.
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.