Born in 1814, Alphonse Ratisbonne was from a family of wealthy, well-known Jewish bankers in Strasbourg, France. In 1827, Alphonse’s older brother, Thèodore, converted to Catholicism and entered the priesthood, thus breaking with his anti-Catholic family whose hopes now lay in the young Alphonse. At 27, Alphonse was intelligent and well mannered. He had already finished his law degree, and decided to travel to Italy before marrying and assuming his responsibilities in the family business. However, God had other plans for him.
While in Rome, Alphonse visited works of art, and strictly out of cultural curiosity, a few Catholic churches. These visits hardened his anti-Catholic stance, and nourished his profound hatred for the Church. He also called on an old schoolmate and close friend, Gustave de Bussières. Gustave was a Protestant and several times had tried, in vain, to win Alphonse over to his religious convictions. Alphonse was introduced to Gustave’s brother, Baron de Bussières, who had recently converted to Catholicism and become a close friend of Father Thèodore Ratisbonne. Because of the Baron’s Catholicism and closeness with his turncoat brother, Alphonse greatly disliked him.
On the eve of his departure, Alphonse reluctantly fulfilled his social obligation to leave his calling card at the Baron’s house as a farewell gesture. Hoping to avoid a meeting, Alphonse intended to leave his card discreetly and depart straight away, but was instead shown into the house. The Baron greeted the young Jew warmly, and before long, had persuaded him to remain a few more days in Rome. Inspired by grace, the Baron insisted Alphonse accept a Miraculous Medal and copy down a beautiful prayer: the Memorare. Alphonse could hardly contain his anger at his host’s boldness of proposing these things to him, but decided to take everything good-heartedly, planning to later describe the Baron as an eccentric.
During Alphonse’s stay, the Baron’s close friend, Count de La Ferronays, former French ambassador to the Holy See and a man of great virtue and piety, died quite suddenly. On the eve of his death, the Baron had asked the Count to pray the Memorare one hundred times for Alphonse’s conversion. It is possible that he offered his life to God for the conversion of the young Jewish banker.
A few days later, the Baron went to the church of Sant’Andrea delle Fratte to arrange for his friend’s funeral. Alphonse reluctantly went with him, all the while making violent criticisms of the Church and mocking Catholic practices. When they arrived, the Baron entered the sacristy to arrange the funeral while Alphonse remained in the church.
When the Baron returned just a few minutes later, the young man was gone. He searched the church, and soon discovered his young friend kneeling close to an altar, weeping. Alphonse himself tells us what happened in those few minutes he waited for the Baron: “I had only been in the church a short while when, all of a sudden, I felt totally uneasy for no apparent reason. I raised my eyes and saw that the whole building had disappeared. Only one side chapel had, so to say, gathered all the light. In the midst of this splendor, the Virgin Mary appeared standing on the altar. She was grandiose, brilliant, full of majesty and sweetness, just as she is in the Miraculous Medal. An irresistible force attracted me to her. The Virgin made a gesture with her hand indicating I was to kneel.”
When de Bussières talked to Alphonse, he no longer found a Jew, but a convert who ardently desired baptism. The news of such an unexpected conversion immediately spread and caused a great commotion throughout Europe, and Pope Gregory XVI received the young convert, paternally. He ordered a detailed investigation with the rigor required by canon law, and concluded that the occurrence was a truly authentic miracle.
Alphonse took the name Maria Alphonse at baptism, and, wishing to become a priest, was ordained a Jesuit in 1847. After some time, and at the suggestion of Pope Pius IX, he left the Jesuits and joined his brother Thèodore in founding the Congregation of Our Lady of Sion, dedicated to the conversion of the Jews. Father Theodore spread his congregation throughout France and England, while Father Maria Alphonse went to the Holy Land. In Jerusalem, he established a house of the congregation on the plot of land where the praetorium of Pilate had formerly stood.
The two brothers died in 1884, both famed and well-loved for their exceptional virtues.
Claude Newman and the Miraculous Medal
There are many miracles that have taken place in the lives of people who are exposed to Mary’s Miraculous Medal. Stories of conversion, salvation, healings, etc., are very common to those who wear and promote this blessed sacramental. One of the greatest of these stories is the story of Claude Newman, a black man from Arkansas who was born in 1923. Let’s take a quick look at the life, and death, of this amazing child of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
When Claude was eleven, his grandmother married an abusive man named Sid Cook. They eventually split up, but his cruelty towards Claude’s grandmother was more than young Claude could take. One day in 1942, he waited in ambush for Mr. Cook, shot him, stole his money, and then tried to hide out at his mother’s house. He was eventually captured. He confessed to the murder, and was sentenced to die in the Mississippi electric chair in 1944, being all of 21 years old.
He shared a death row cell with four other prisoners, and one night, when they were talking, he noticed one of the other men wearing something around his neck. Claude asked him what it was, and the other man, in a fit of rage, took it off of his neck and threw it on the ground. Claude picked it up, looked at it, and felt an attraction towards it. He had no idea that it was Mary's Miraculous Medals. He put it around his own neck, and then went to sleep.
While in a deep sleep, Claude was soon awoken by a beautiful, glowing lady, who told Claude,
“If you want me to be your mother, and you to be my son, call for a Catholic priest.”
Claude was obviously startled, but soon calmed down. As soon as the lady vanished, Claude yelled out, “A ghost, a ghost!” Then he told the guard that he had to see a priest as soon as possible. The next day, Father Robert O’Leary came to his cell. He began instructing Claude in the Catholic faith, as well as the other four prisoners in his cell.
Claude was totally illiterate, not being able to read or write anything. He had no previous religious instruction either. He knew that God existed, but had no clue about the reality of Jesus Christ. Father O’Leary taught him, and soon the other four prisoners were helping Claude with his studies as well. The nuns from Father’s school were impressed by his story, and they also came by to see him. They visited the women prisoners there as well, and soon Claude’s experience with Mary was converting people all through the prison.
One day Father O’Leary was going to teach the prisoners about the sacrament of Confession, and Claude told him that that is when we think we are kneeling down before a priest to confess our sins, but we are really kneeling before Jesus! It is his precious blood that flows over us to heal us of our sinfulness! He said that confession is like a telephone, because we talk to God through it, and he talks back to us.
Mary’s Message to Father O’Leary
Father and the nuns sat there in stunned silence, and he finally asked Claude if Mary had been to see him again to tell him this. “Oh yes,” said Claude. He then told the priest to come with him alone so that he could talk to him privately. He told the priest that Mary said that she is still waiting for Father to make good on a vow he made to her while lying in a ditch in Holland in 1940. He told the priest exactly what the vow was. Needless to say, Father O’Leary then believed all that Claude said, and eventually made good on his vow, which was to build a church in honor of Mary’s Immaculate Conception. Father eventually built the church in 1947, in Clarksdale, Mississippi.
One day, Father was going to teach the prisoners about the Eucharist. Claude asked him if he could first relate what Mary told him about it. When granted permission, Claude said the following:
“The Lady told me that in Communion, I will only see what looks like a piece of bread. But she told me that it is really and truly Her Son, and that He will be with me just as He was with her before He was born in Bethlehem. She told me that I should spend my time like she did during her lifetime with Him– in loving Him, adoring Him, thanking Him, praising Him and asking Him for blessings. I shouldn’t be distracted or bothered by anybody else or anything else, but I should spend those few minutes in my thoughts alone with Him.”
Claude was received into the Catholic Church on January 16, 1944, in St. Mary’s Parish in Vicksburg, Mississippi. This happened only four days before he was to be executed on January 20. He was not sad about being executed, and even requested a party to be held as a final request. The warden reluctantly granted permission, and all of the prisoners were released to a common area to have cake and ice cream in Claude’s honor. Father O’Leary and a rich parishioner supplied all of the goodies. Following the party, they did the Stations of the Cross, had a Holy Hour with the Blessed Sacrament, and prayed for Claude’s soul. Fifteen minutes before his execution, a guard came running in and announced that the Governor had given Claude a two-week stay of execution.
Now here is where this amazing story really gets interesting. Claude was sad at this news, because he wanted to be free of prison and to be with the Blessed Virgin Mary. He didn’t know what he had done wrong to be punished like this. Father told Claude that maybe God wanted him to offer up his suffering for the conversion of James Hughs, a former Catholic, now a filthy apostate prisoner, who hated Claude. He agreed, and secretly offered up his suffering and his prayers for Hughs’ conversion during the two week delay.
Claude was finally executed on February 4, 1944. He joyfully went to his death, stunning the sheriff, the guards, and the reporters who witnessed him smiling as he was being strapped in the chair. His last words were to Father O’Leary:
“Father, I will remember you. And whenever you have a request, ask me, and I will ask her.”
James Hughs’ Conversion
And what of James Hughs, the white prisoner who hated Claude? He was to be executed on May 19, 1944. Father O’Leary said of him:
“This man was the filthiest, most immoral person I had ever come across. His hatred for God and for everything spiritual defied description.”
James was going to his death totally unrepentant, a hater of God, man, and goodness. When the doctor went in to see him before the execution, he pleaded with him to kneel down and to say the “Our Father.” James spit in his face. When being strapped in, the sheriff told him that if he had any last words, to say them now. James agreed, and started to blaspheme God.
But then, Hughs started to stare at a corner of the room in amazement. The amazement soon turned to horror, and he screamed loud enough to wake the dead. He then asked the sheriff to get him a Catholic priest as soon as possible. Father O’Leary had been hiding in the room, behind the reporters, because he didn’t want his presence to anger Hughs and cause him to blaspheme God any more than he already was. Father O’Leary then stepped forward, and James asked him to hear his confession. The room was cleared, and he confessed all of his sins with a deep remorse. He told Father that he had been raised a Catholic, but his immoral lifestyle caused him to leave, and to eventually hate, the Catholic Church.
When the sheriff returned, he asked Hughs what changed his mind. He told the sheriff:
“Remember that black man Claude – the one whom I hated so much? Well he’s standing over in that corner. And behind him with one hand on each shoulder is the Blessed Virgin Mary. And Claude said to me, ‘I offered my death in union with Christ on the Cross for your salvation. She has obtained for you this gift of seeing your place in Hell if you do not repent.’ I have been shown my place in Hell, and that’s why I screamed.”