Jacques Berthieu was born on 27 November 1838 in the Auvergne in central France where his parents were farmers. He studied at the seminary of Saint-Four and was ordained to the priesthood for this diocese in 1864. Wanting to be a missionary, he entered the novitiate of the Society of Jesus in 1873 and in 1875 to two small islands administered by France near Madagascar, where he learnt Malagasy and prepared himself for the mission.
In 1881 the French government expelled Jesuits from all their territories, and Fr Berthieu moved to the large island of Madagascar. He described his task thus: “This is what it means to be a missionary: to make oneself all things to all people, both interiorly and externally; to be responsible for everything, people, animals, and things, and all this in order to gain souls, with a large and generous heart.”
Soon after he began his ministry a series of Franco–Malagasy wars began. In 1895, the Menalamba (“red shawl”) revolt targeted Christians as well as the colonizers. Fr Berthieu tried to lead a group of Christians to safety. On 8 June 1896 they were staying in the village of Ambohibemasoandro when the Menalamba entered the village and seized Fr Berthieu. They stripped him of his cassock. One of them snatched his crucifix from him, saying: “Is this your amulet? Is it thus that you mislead the people? Will you continue to pray for a long time?” He responded: “I have to pray until I die.” One of them then struck his head with a machete; Berthieu fell to his knees, bleeding profusely. The Menalamba then led him away on a ten kilometer march to the village of Ambohitra where the church Berthieu had built was located. They stoned him, emasculated him, and eventually shot him to death.
In the midst of trials, he retained his sense of humor, and remained affable, humble and helpful. He liked to quote the Gospel passage: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body, but rather of those who make one lose one’s soul.” (cf. Mt 10:28). In his instructions, he often spoke of the resurrection of the dead. The faithful remembered the following sentence: “Even if you are eaten by a crocodile, you will rise again.” Was this a premonition of his own end? In fact, after his death, two inhabitants of Ambiatibe dragged his body to the river Mananara, a short distance away from the place of his martyrdom, and his remains disappeared.
Jacques Berthieu was beatified in 1965 and canonized in 2012.