Martyred in Madagascar

St. Jacques might have been safe if he hadn’t given away his horse

Throughout the 2,000-year history of Christianity, missionaries have carried the faith around the world, sometimes giving their lives in the effort.

One such missionary is St. Jacques Berthieu, who, less than 120 years ago, was killed because of his work and refusal to deny the faith.

Jacques was one of seven children in a pious farm family in Polminhac, France. He was a parish priest in Roannes-Saint Mary after his ordination on May 21, 1864, before entering the Jesuits on Oct. 31, 1873.

Jacques, who had a special devotion to the Sacred Heart, became interested in the missions while studying theology at Vals. In 1875, he was sent to Réunion, a French colony in the Indian Ocean off Africa’s coast. In a letter to a friend, he wrote he was “probably to never return, which is fine with me.”

He was assigned to Nosy Boraha, an island off the east coast of Madagascar, starting a mission with two other Jesuits and several Sisters of St. Joseph of Cluny.

After Jesuits were ordered out of all French territories in March 1880, Jacques started a new mission in Madagascar, caring for lepers, teaching the faith and defending marriage. He served until 1894, when war forced his return to Réunion, where he remained a year before returning to Madagascar after it became a French protectorate.

Troubles resumed in May 1896, when the Menalamba tribe struck out against both Christianity and French rule, which they blamed for causing problems because they convinced people to abandon their traditional beliefs and authority. Objecting to how the French colonel in charge of evacuating Christians treated local women, Jacques led his own convoy to the capital. He probably could have arrived safely, but gave his horse to a mission employee unable to walk.

A Menalamba gang captured Jacques at Ambiatibe, Antananarivo, Madagascar, on June 8, 1896. “Renounce your nasty religion, and stop leading the people astray,” the chief told him, “and we’ll make you our chief and counselor, and we won’t kill you.”

Jacques fell to his knees and replied, “I absolutely cannot do such a thing. I would rather die!”

A few minutes later, he was killed by gunfire and his body thrown into the Mananara River.


Sources: Catholic News Service; “Men and Destinies: Overseas Bibliographical Dictionary”;;;; and


Staley is a retired editor of The Compass.

St. Jacques Berthieu

When: Nov. 28, 1838 – June 8, 1896

Where: Madagascar

What: Missionary, martyr

Feast: June 8