Raphaël Rafiringa was born in a neighborhood of Antananarivo called Mahamasina, around 1854. His father was one of the head blacksmiths working for Queen Ranavalona I. Among other things, blacksmiths were responsible for testing the strength of the iron rings that were placed around the neck, ankles, and waist of prisoners.
The Catholic Mission was officially established in Antananarivo on September 24, 1861, having received authorization from King Radama II. The Brothers of the Christian Schools opened their first school in the Malagasy capital on May 19, 1867.
Rafaringa attended the school of St. Joseph’s parish in Mahamasina, where he was baptized on November 7, 1869, by Father Limozin. He was about fifteen years old at the time. In 1871, Raphaël entered what was more formally the school of the Christian Brothers, in Andohalo. He had great respect for Brother Gonzalvien, who was the director there, because of his sober, serious, and devoted practice of the faith.
Owing to a shortage of personnel, Brother Gonzalvien hired Raphël as a young teacher in 1874, and supervised his work for three years. Since Raphaël had earlier expressed his wish to become a priest, Gonzalvien wanted to make sure he had a solid education before he admitted him as a novice, to ensure that he would be able to stand up to the hardships it entailed.
At that time, the novitiate of the Christian Brothers was on Reunion Island. Since Raphaël’s parents would not grant permission for their young son to go there, Brother Gonzalvien received authorization to oversee his novitiate. He took holy orders March 1, 1878, and as a postulant, took the name “Raphaël-Louis.” His father, who had long opposed the religious vocation of his only son, felt that it was quite an honor to have a son make this religious commitment.
Brother Gonzalvien subjected the young novice in his care to a rigorous and thorough novitiate that lasted nearly five years. This training enabled Rafiringa, who was the first to enter the Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools in Madagascar, to later take on great responsibilities at two specific times in his life.
He had just finished the first years of his probationary period when the first Franco-Hova war broke out, in May of 1883. When the catholic missionaries left, the young Christian community was also left without its pastors. The Fathers had left it up to the Catholic Union, which was a group of young Christians in the care of a lay pastor named Paul Rafiringa, to take care of the parish. Also, the faithful in the four parishes of Antananarivo had chosen to be in the care of Brother Raphaël, who suddenly became head of the Mission, overseer of all the schools, and principal speaker for all the meetings and retreats. At his suggestion, the first Malagasy nuns from Saint Joseph of Cluny, who were now on their own, came together to live communally. In order to provide the resources that were needed for a Mission that had lost everything, Rafiringa had to work with his own hands. More than once, differences of opinion arose between himself and the Catholic Union, but Victoire Rasoamanarivo intervened and not only managed to coordinate their work, but also to maintain an energetic catholic faith among parishioners who had lost their leaders. Three years later, when the missionaries came back to Antananarivo on March 29, 1886, they were happy to find that the young catholic community had survived the trials of separation quite well. Brother Raphaël humbly returned to his place.
On November 14, 1889, Rafiringa took his final vows in the presence of the vicar apostolic, monsignor Cazet. Because of his perfect fluency in both French and Malagasy, he was asked by the French resident minister, Le Myre de Villers, to train French interpreters. For the next two years, he taught Malagasy to Gerbinis, Julien, Guèdès, Berthier, and Ferrand, who all became highly valued interpreters. In 1896, he also taught Malagasy to Hippolyte Laroche, the resident minister of France.
When the second Franco-Hova conflict broke out in 1894, the situation was similar to what it had been in 1883. As a priest, Rafiringa had to take on a prominent role which was made all the more delicate by the fact that part of the population, the protestant group in particular, tended not to distinguish between catholic interests and French interests. In addition to being in charge of the schools and the leprosarium, he was also asked to help the central committee that gave general leadership to the mission.
When his French colleagues returned again in 1895, Rafiringa also again resumed his former position. In 1902, Galliéni personally honored him with the Malagasy Cross of Merit for his services in the field of education. At that time, he began to devote himself to literature. He had been a member of the Malagasy Academy since its foundation in 1902, and his writing had drawn some attention. His literary output included poetry, speeches, and plays in which the Malagasy language was brought to the fore.
What might be termed Rafiringa’s “linguistic resistance” was to implicate him in the V. V. S. affair in 1915, along with two other religious figures, Father Venance Manifatra, and Brother Julien. Apparently, in order to rally Catholics to their movement, the leaders had used the three prominent figures to support their cause. The three men were arrested and detained for fifty-six days, but they were declared innocent and were released immediately when the case was dismissed for lack of evidence on February 18, 1916, as they had all three been falsely accused. The verdict stated: “Whereas it is clear in the statements made by the accused and by the witnesses, that the names of these religious were put forward by certain persons affiliated with the movement for the purpose of propaganda, and also in order to win the trust of native Catholics who were being solicited by the association in question…”
The trial was detrimental to Rafiringa’s morale and health, and in early 1917, his overseers sent him to Fianarantsoa for a time of rest. A school had been opened there by the Brothers of the Christian Schools in 1887. He gave the last two years of his life to the translation of sacred books and to the study of the education of Malagasy religious.
In addition to his gifts as a speaker, Rafiringa had a truly elegant Malagasy writing style. He sent several articles to the journals of the Catholic mission, Iraka and Ny Tsara Fanahy, and also authored several short works concerning educational problems and the family: Ilay Ingahy Mianaka, Ramanantsoa sy zanany, and Ny Fanambadiana Kristianina.
Rafiringa died on May 19, 1919, and was discreetly buried in Fianarantsoa. However, his former students had his remains brought to Antananarivo in 1933, and he was reburied there. The many people in attendance bore witness to the widespread influence that had been exerted by him and to the surprising qualities of his character. Having been laid to rest in the cemetery of Anjanahary, his mortal remains were transferred once more to Soavimbahoaka, on the grounds of the Madagascar headquarters of the Brothers of the Christian Schools.
In his remembrance, two streets bear his name: one in the Mahamasina neighborhood of Antananarivo, near the house where he was born; the other in the Ambatomena neighborhood of Fianarantsoa. The Faravohitra school of the Brothers of the Christian Schools in Antananarivo is also named after him.
Bernard Blot and Raymond Delval
Dr. Fontoynot, short speech given on the occasion of the transfer of Brother Raphaël’s ashes from Fianarantsoa to Antananarivo. Bulletin de l’Académie Malgache, new series, vol. XVI, 1933, pp. XXV-XXVI.
Fontoynot, Un Frère missionnaire, le Frère Gonzalvien, premier Directeur des Frères des Écoles Chrétiennes à Madagascar 1827-1902 [A Missionary Brother, Brother Gonzalvien, First Director of the Brothers of the Christian Schools in Madagascar 1827-1902]. Paris: Procure Générale, 1935.
Boudou A., Les Jésuites à Madagascar au XIXe siècle [The Jesuits in Madagascar in the XIXth Century]. Paris, 1940.
Madagascar. La Mission de Tananarive [The Mission of Antananarivo]. Antananarivo, 1941.
Martin, Roland, Le cher Frère Raphaël-Louis Rafiringa des Écoles Chrétiennes - Contribution à une étude de sa vie [Beloved Brother Raphaël-Louis Rafaringa of the Christian Schools] - Université de Madagascar, Établissement d’Enseignement Supérieur des Lettres. Études historiques, Antananarivo, 1974.
The above article, reprinted here by permission, is drawn from Hommes et Destins: Dictionnaire biographique d’Outre-Mer [People and Destinies: Overseas Biographical Dictionary], vol. 3, published in 1977 by the Académie des Sciences d’Outre-Mer (15, Rue la Pérouse, 75116 Paris, France). All rights reserved.