The woman who became the first Malagasy prioress of the Carmelite convent of Antananarivo was born into a family with thirteen children. Her father was a woodcarver and woodworker whose life exemplified the solid virtues of the early Christians: life of faith, love of neighbor, work accomplished with great care. These qualities were to leave their mark on his daughter, Émilie.
Émilie loved to study, but she often had to interrupt her evening studies to help her mother with babysitting and with the daily chores common to all Malagasy families: drawing water, gathering wood, and pounding rice. She remembered that she sometimes did it grudgingly, but she really did need to pitch in and do her share of the work in a house with so many children.
When she turned seventeen, she answered an irresistible calling, and decided to enter the Carmelite order. Her family became very upset, but she bravely faced her mother’s anger and left her home. It was also a very disappointing decision for many of her suitors.
Sister Marie-Bernard of the Immaculate, which was her religious name, was known in the convent for paying very careful attention to her work and for being very discreet. However, her joyful and vivacious spirit really broke out during times of recreation - sometimes in unexpected ways - but always pleasantly. The contemplative life lived behind walls didn’t cut her off from her many relatives and friends however, and she showed her care for them in touching ways, especially on their birthdays.
In 1973, the time had come to mark the foundation of the Carmelite convent in Madagascar by nominating a native prioress to lead the Carmelite convent of Antananarivo, which had been particularly prosperous and which had seen many vocations. The community was nearly unanimous in thinking of Sister Marie-Bernard of the Immaculate as a nominee, and for good reason: she showed a marked sensitivity to the supernatural realm; she was courageous, prudent, and gifted in heart and mind. She, however, wasn’t thinking about it.
With all the strength and all the qualities that she had, Mother Marie took the burden of all the heavy responsibilities on her frail thirty-three year old shoulders, and faced the many difficulties ahead with conscientiousness, simplicity, and confidence.
For a young prioress just getting started, there was no shortage of work: the aggiornamento (which meant the application of all the conciliar reforms that had been recommended by Vatican II) needed to be implemented in the Carmelite convent of Antananarivo; the implementation of specifically Madagascan reforms needed to be applied, most notably in the use of the Malagasy language for liturgy and various church services, etc.; the creation of the Carmelite convent of Tuléar was undertaken, which meant taking away part of the Antananarivo community, and all the financial problems brought about by the founding of a new community.
During the events of February 1975, the convent was anguished by the siege and the attack of the mobile Police unit that was located nearby. The Mother Superior gathered the entire community for prayer while, on the outside, many explosions were heard, and the buildings were being damaged.
Mother Marie-Bernard of the Immaculate, overworked and not sufficiently attentive to her health, succumbed to the workload. She was hospitalized for five weeks, and she died on January 5, 1978. Her funeral service was grand: the cardinal, four bishops, sixty priests, and a great crowd of people surrounded the coffin where she now rests for eternity.
She was thirty-eight years old, and had spent twenty-one years in the Church. The great maturity and wisdom that she drew on during her five years as a prioress were indicative of the long career she might well have enjoyed, but this was not to be her vocation.
Notice du Carmel de Tananarive [Bulletin of the Carmelite convent of Antananarivo], January 1978.
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.