Ten historical tidbits about Catholicism in Ethiopia

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Its been one year since the White Smoke indicated a new pope had been elected to represent the world’s one billion Catholics. Here are ten historic tidbits about Catholicism in Ethiopia. 

— Portuguese Roman Catholic missionaries arrived in Ethiopia between the 1554-57. In 1556, Rome appointed João Nunes Barreto as its Patriarch to Ethiopia. The second Patriarch appointed to Ethiopia was Andrés de Oviedo in 1566 following Barreto’s death. 

— The town of Fremona, located between Aksum and Adwa, served as one of the earliest bases for Catholic Missionaries. The town was designated when Emperor Menas restricted their activities to this location. The town was identified locally as Maigwagwa(noisy water).

— The first Ethiopian emperor to convert to Catholicism was the short-lived Emperor Za Dengel(1603-1604),the nephew of Emperor Sarsa Dengel. 

— Emperor Susenyos I was the second Emperor and most controversial of all converts, plunging Ethiopia into revolt after adopting Catholicism as the official religion. Susenyos’s son Fasilides would restore back to Orthodoxy and banish all Catholic missionaries from the Kingdom in 1632. 

— The oldest Catholic remains of this era can be found near the town of Gorgora along Lake Tana, where there are ruins of a 17th century Catholic cathedral. 

— Rome appears to have disobeyed the orders of Fasilides . On March 3, 1716, three Franciscan missionaries were martyred in an area near Gondar. In 1988 Pope John Paul II formally beautified the trio. The Associated Press reported that the missionaries “traveled to Ethiopia to open ecumenical dialogue but were condemned for their religious works and stoned to death.”

— Roman Catholic activities resumed in the 19th century with the efforts of Saint Justin de Jacobis(1800–1860). In 1839 Justin de Jacobis was appointed as the first Prefect Apostolic of Ethiopia and entrusted with the foundation of Catholic missions in that country. Despite imprisonment, exile and every other kind of persecution from the local Ethiopian Church, he founded numerous Catholic missions, built schools, and training of a native clergy, founding the beginnings of the modern Ethiopian Catholic Church. Saint Justin was beatified on July 25, 1939 and canonized as a Saint on October 26, 1975.

— The most notable of missionaries to spread Catholicism in Ethiopia was Gulielmo Massaja(1809-1889). Massaja focused on the Oromo region, writing a book on Oromo grammar, and later establishing a school at Marseilles, France for the education of Oromo boys. In 1952, Italy issued a commemorative stamp celebrating his mission to Ethiopia.

— In 1919, The Roman Catholic Church established the Pontifical Ethiopian College in Rome, the only college within the Vatican, dedicated to training Ethiopians in theology. 

— The Vatican formally established its presence in Ethiopia with the establishment of the Ethiopic Rite Apostolic Exarchate of Addis Ababa. This occurred on February 20, 1951. A 2010 census estimated Catholic membership in Ethiopia at approximately 610,719. October 27th is the Roman Catholic Feast Day of Saint Frumentius.

(Photo: The Ethiopian Seminarians – This piece is entitled Les Seminaristes Ethiopiens(1934) by French artist Yves Brayer (1907-1990).

(Sources: Wikipedia)

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