A Missionary named Marie Claire

The village is called Mahavavy, on the northwest coast of Madagascar. It is a rather strange name. Even the Malagasy who travel through do not always grasp the meaning of Mahavavy.


Tribal War

Sakalava people: their name means
"people of the long valleys."

During the eighteenth century when tribal wars were a way of life there would have been an important battle by the river that now gives its name to the village. The royal army from the Merina kingdom of the high plateau was on the north bank of this rather small river while the Sakalava army – those local costal people who would be defending their land – was on the south bank. When they engaged in battle the Sakalava army, very much outnumbered, would have fled in fear and shame. Thus the name of the river and area: Mahavavy – “That which makes [a warrior] into a woman.”

For years it was just another isolated non-Christian village in the bush. During three months of the year an occasional truck loaded with tobacco or a Jeep would venture over the dirt track that lead through the village. In 1978 thirteen bridges were built in this valley, known as the Betsiriry – meaning “Where everything grows” – and a paved road opened up the entire area between Morondava and Antsirabe – two dioceses that the La Salette Missionaries began. I myself drove through 10 or 20 times a year and never thought of stopping to bring the Good News. Priests and nuns also never stopped to see if people were interested in accepting Christ into their loves. We would drive through – always in a hurry to get somewhere else, always too busy to stop.


Marie Claire Arrives


It was in 2000 that God sent his first missionary – not a priest or religious, but an elderly woman named Marie Claire Rasoanandrasana – into the village. She had moved there to be with her daughter. She found one other woman, Helen, and together they started reciting the Rosary on Sundays, as they had neither Bible nor hymnal. Then they set out to visit every house in this small village. Soon a small group was gathering for Sunday worship.


Fr. Paulin Arrives

Fr. Paulin Rakotondrabe, M.S.

Four years later Fr. Paulin Rakotondrabe, M.S., said the first Mass there for them. They soon obtained permission from local authorities to find a plot of land for a future church. It was Marie Claire who did all the negotiations to obtain four acres of land along a straight stretch of road just outside the village. And so the place was named Andalamahitsy – “along a straight stretch of road.” She alone would receive papers and permits from the mayor of the area.

This small Christian community began to build a small mud hut with a thatched roof that was little better than the stable of Bethlehem. When an anonymous benefactor gave $7,500 for a little church in honor of St. Norbert, I figured Mahavavy would be a good village in which to build a more solid church.


The Church Dedication

And so in 2007 this small village church was dedicated. There are about 60 people who regularly pray there each Sunday. There is both a catechist to preside Sunday services and a president of the local parish council to oversee all material aspects of this nascent community. And of course none of this would have been possible without Marie Claire – one woman sent by God. Now, after eight years not only do they have a small church dedicated to St. Norbert, but also a young, dynamic catechist and community. And would you believe that Marie Claire’s father was named Norbert!

(left) Fr. Jeremy Morais, M.S.,
with a parishioner, proudly hold up the
bronze plaque of St. Norbert; (right) two
parishioners display the plaque.

During my visit last July, on the day before the re-dedication of the church in Ambatolahy, I visited the village of Mahavavy which is only a few miles away. I was able to present a bronze plaque of St. Norbert to the Catholic community. It had been given by the members of the Norbertine Religious Order here in the states. It depicts St. Norbert, who is an apostle of the Eucharist, holding the monstrance with the Precious Body of Christ.

Is it just by coincidence that St. Claire of Assisi – patroness of Marie Claire – also held up the monstrance at a time when that city was being invaded and obtained the grace of avoiding a massacre of its citizens? Is the Eucharist destined to have a special place in the life of this Catholic community?

God often works in mysterious ways

Often we don’t recognize how mysteriously God works in and through the seemingly insignificant decisions of our lives.

Marie Claire is a baptized lay person whose life is fortified with the Spirit of God that made her a missionary by virtue of her baptism.

An anonymous benefactor who recognized something special in the baptismal name he received and gave money for a church to be dedicated to St. Norbert.

The Mahavavy Delta is a giant complex of
lakes, rivers and marshes, home to five
threatened bird species.

The hunger of the people in the small village of Mahavavy for something mysterious that led them to say “Yes!” to that call to prayer and Baptism.

Recognizing the zeal of these people, I (Bishop Donald) decided to use the money for the new church in their village and to dedicate it to St. Norbert.

• When the Norbertine Order in Wisconsin came to know of this new church they ordered a plaque made to present to the new Catholic community.

Fr. Paulin went to Mahavavy – whether by invitation from Marie Claire or on his own initiative we do not know – to celebrate the first Mass there.

Yes, all these came together, as St. Ignatius would say, “for the greater glory of God (ad majorem Dei gloriam)”.