Ethiopian Saints

Rich briefly mentioned that most of the saints from Roman Egypt and Roman North Africa were about as black as your average Romans, Greeks, and Lebanese, and thus not super-useful for sermons related to Black History Month. (African History Month, sure. And here’s a good start at a list of African Catholic saints regardless of race.) Contrariwise, there may have been plenty of saintly folks in Rome or Alexandria or points east who were of African race, without them having been regarded as anything beside normal inhabitants of the city, if their family’d been there for a few generations. The Greco-Roman world didn’t have the same priorities as those of America in 1860, after all.

Anyway, somebody mentioned that they didn’t know who the relevant early Christian Ethiopian saints were, so I think I’ll post about that. The area known as Ethiopia in those days is pretty much what is called the Sudan and Darfur today. Nubia was also the modern Sudan. The area known as Abyssinia in those days is Ethiopia and Eritrea today. (Or something like that. Borders go back and forth a lot.) Abyssinia took over Ethiopia back in the 300’s, so for this purpose it doesn’t much matter which name you search under.

Back in Roman times, Ethiopia and Abyssinia were mostly pagan but had a fairly good-sized population of Jews and Jewish converts. Obviously, the first big Ethiopian saint guy was the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts, who was visiting Jerusalem, was converted by Philip’s teaching, and went back to the Candace’s court rejoicing. However, his teaching apparently didn’t take deep root, or was more popular in coastal areas. Christianity seems to have moved along the Red Sea, the Arabian Sea, and the Persian Gulf with the merchants, especially since there was a large Jewish presence in the area (especially connected with Sheba and Saba’s frankincense trade) and many Jews converted to Christianity early on.

Ethiopia’s apostles of Christianity were a couple of very young philosophy-loving kids from Tyre, St. Frumentius (literally, Wheaty) and his brother St. Aedeius. They were the sole survivors of a shipwreck (or a massacre by slavetrading pirates) on the Ethiopian shore, and were brought to the court at Aksum (aka Axum), some say as boy slaves. As learned foreigners they were curiosities and useful, and the king took St. Frumentius as his secretary. After the king died, he worked for the queen (the Candace), and the brothers were given permission to introduce Christianity and help open trade. They went to Egypt to talk to St. Athanasius and have him send a bunch more missionaries. St. Aedeius went on home to Tyre and Syria, but St. Frumentius ended up being consecrated a bishop himself and headed back to Ethiopia. Naturally, the Arians didn’t like anybody that St. Athanasius did, and at one point Emperor Constantius sent an Arian bishop and asked the Ethiopian royals to install this guy in Frumentius’ place. (Which wasn’t going to happen, since St. Frumentius was their tutor; but St. Athanasius wrote about it.) St. Frumentius’ titles in Ethiopia, Abuna (our father) and Abba Salama (father of peace), are also given to all the other Ethiopian patriarch bishops.

The kids tutored by St. Frumentius became Ss. Aizan and Sazan, the twin princes. St. Aizan was the first Christian to reign as Negashi (aka negus, king or emperor) in Aksum. They also seem to be called Abreha and Asbeha. Their feast day is October 1.

St. Aizan’s son used on his coinage a Ge’ez translation of Emperor Constantine’s motto.

One of the great Egyptian monastics is St. Moses the Ethiopian (aka St. Musa, Abba Moses the Strong, St. Moses of Abyssinia, St. Moses the Black). Legend has it that he was slave-trafficked to Egypt, then became a notorious bandit leader and killer. He was skeptical of his old pagan slavemasters’ worship of Ra and/or Helios, and liked to yell at the sky that he wanted to know who God was. One day, a voice answered him, and told him that the monks at Wadi el-Natroun knew who God was, and if he went there they’d tell him. So he went there, freaking out the monks until they knew his errand, and became a Christian and a monk. He had a hard time adapting to the ascetic life, and was forced to stay up all night to avoid temptation from his dreams. But he also performed many kindnesses with his strength, such as fetching water before sunrise to fill all the older monks’ water jars. He fell victim to paralysis one night at the well and could not move for a year, but immediately was less troubled by temptation. After a year, he got full strength back and lived a long healthy life. They figured the whole thing had been a demonic attack, and people with demon problems now sought him out.

After many years as a monk and deacon, the bishop tested him by making a racist remark and demanding that the monks “throw the black out”. He left church with all meekness and patience despite this provocation, and so the bishop ordained him a priest without delay and with great praise. It’s said that St. Moses also founded this beautiful Syrian monastery called Mar-Mousa al-Habashi, although the buildings are not as old as the monastery. It was said that he had as many monks under him as he had once had thieves, and that many from his old gang joined him in the monastic life.

In the end, he died at the famous Paromeos Monastery at Sketes, martyred there during a Berber raid in AD 407. (He refused to flee or defend himself, saying that since he had lived by the sword, he should die by the sword.) His relics are still treasured there, and are said to work miracles of healing against alcoholism and demonic possession. His feast day is August 28.

SQPN Saints page. Orthodox page from Detroit, with some very nice icons. Orthodox blog entry with tons of his sayings, including “Go sit in your cell. Your cell will teach you everything”, “If the soul gives itself all this hardship [of fasts and vigils], God will have mercy on it”, and “Affliction lasts a short time while peace is forever, by the grace of God the Word.”

There is also St. Elesbaan, king and confessor. When St. Elesbaan reigned in Aksum as the Negashi, Emperor Justin I (not to be confused with his successor Justinian) asked him to head across to Himyarite Yemen and stop a terrible persecution of Christians (including Roman residents) by a nasty prince there, in AD 520. (This included the massacre of a whole town, the famous martyrs of Najran.) St. Elesbaan’s generals apparently came down on the bad governor like a ton of bricks, quickly restoring order, and then conquered the rest of Himyarite Yemen. The aftermath was rather messy, but eventually a good governor was set in place. (And Najran became a great pilgrimage town, and its martyrs even praised in the Koran. The martyrs’ feast day is October 24.)

After many years, the king abdicated the throne in favor of his son, sent his royal diadem to Jerusalem, and died an ascetic monk. His Greek name is Elisbaas; Ethiopians call him Amda or Kaleb/Caleb. His feast day is October 27.

(The interesting thing is that Muslim Arab historians really really don’t like the whole invasion of Yemen thing, and they claim that Kaleb’s good governor actually tried to invade Arabia and destroy Mecca in Mohammed’s birth year. Whether or not this actually happened, it’s all like “Ethiopia bad”.)

Ethiopia also had many martyrs and confessors, who endured persecution by pagans, Jews, and Islamic invaders. Most of them, we don’t know their names. Ethiopia is still a great place for monasticism. So obviously there have been many holy Ethiopian Christians. I see some of these folks showing up in saint lists run by Catholics, but they don’t seem to be on the official lists. So I won’t list ’em.

One would love to count _all_ their saints as Catholic saints. But the problem is that, as with the Copts of Egypt, Ethiopia’s church chose to go with the Monophysite view of things instead of listening to the Council of Chalcedon. Their “Nine Saints” were a bunch of Monophysite theologians and clerics scooting out of the Roman Empire who both spread the local church (good) and took over a lot of it to their own views (not so good). When the Monophysite views took over, in the next couple hundred years, it isolated the Ethiopian church from all the other orthodox Christians in the world, and left them with not much outside theological help as Islam came along. It also meant that Ethiopian saints remained fairly unknown to the outside world.

Of course, there have recently been other historically-Monophysite or non-Chalcedonian churches who have gone to the trouble of clearing up the theological differences. A lot of Monophysitism has turned out to be a matter of mutual misunderstandings of terms, or churches have shifted over the years to a more orthodox theology. (The current term the non-Chalcedon Ethiopians use is “Miaphysiten”.) So this might eventually clear up, too, but we’re not there yet.

Obviously there’s also been more contemporary Catholic missionaries. Here’s the great Dr. Samuel Johnson’s translation of A Voyage to Abyssinia, by Fr. Jeronimo Lobo, S.J. (With a foreword by Johnson where he covers his Anglican butt against allegations of papistry.)

St. Justin de Jacobis was a Vincentian monsignor who went to Ethiopia as a missionary. Here’s Abyssinia and Its Apostle, a full-length biography of him by Lady Herbert.

Blessed Ghebre Michael was an Ethiopian monk known for his zeal and scholarship, who came into communion with the Catholic Church thanks to de Jacobis’ Vincentian missionaries. Then he joined their order himself. He was ordained in 1851, was imprisoned by the negus Theodore II, and died in 1855 thanks to ill-treatment. His feast day is September 1.

The best-known Ethiopian/Sudanese/Darfur saint recently is probably St. Josephine Bakhita, who was made a slave in the late nineteenth century, forcibly converted to Islam, treated so badly she forgot her own name, nicknamed Bakhita (“Lucky”), bought and sold by multiple cruel owners, and finally bought by a relatively kind master, an Italian diplomat who took her home with his family to be their nanny. When he bought a hotel on the Red Sea, he went to live there with his wife while he sent his daughter and her servant to stay with Canossian nuns in Venice. Bakhita officially converted at Easter that year and was baptized “Josephine”. When the parents came back, Bakhita did not want to leave (especially since she’d be just another slave back in Africa), and the diplomat’s wife tried to force her. The mother superior was shocked at this treatment, since Italian law didn’t believe in slavery, and called in the authorities to ensure Bakhita’s continuing freedom. She became a Canossian nun herself, and as doorkeeper to the convent in Schio, became beloved by the townspeople for her gentleness, calm voice, and smile. Her superior ordered her to dictate her life story, and it was published in 1930 to great acclaim in Italy. As soon as she died in 1947, people began to call for her canonization. She has been officially named the patron saint of Sudan (and presumably Darfur), and her feast day is February 8.

Perhaps her greatest achievement was overcoming her grief and anger. Late in her life, she said, “If I were to meet those slave raiders who abducted me, and the ones who’d tortured me, I’d kneel down to kiss their hands — because without them, I’d never have become a Christian and a woman religious.”


Filed under Saint Stories

6 responses to “Ethiopian Saints

  1. Pingback: Ethiopian Saints « Faith in Hand

  2. A lovely survey! Just by way of clarification, St. Caleb (Elesbaan) was a faithful Ethiopian Orthodox Christian and rejected Chalcedon along with the rest of Egypt and Ethiopia. When he abdicated he became a monk at one of the monasteries founded by the Nine Roman Saints. Despite this he is listed as a saint in both Roman Catholic and pro-Chalcedon Orthodox Christian calendars.

    • Tsion

      Hi this is true but you did mess up a bit as an Ethiopian St.Caleb was a faithful Ethiopian Tewahdo Orthodox Christian and not Catholic. Him and along with all of Ethiopia and Egypt did not accept Catholicism.

  3. shume alemu

    ARE YOU HIGH…..full of factual errors….

  4. Dawit Bolando

    “…and its martyrs even praised in the Koran…” and ” …’claim’ that Kaleb’s good governor actually tried to invade Arabia and destroy Mecca…it’s all like ‘Ethiopia bad’”.
    ..Really?. What are you? Both the massacre of Najran and the attempt to destroy Ka’aba (not Mecca) where mentioned in the Quran. Why pick one and leave the other in the darkness of “Claim”, And no Arab implicated ‘Ethiopia bad’. Get you Checked dude !!!!

  5. what an ignorant post.monophysites?we have never been monophysites/Eutychians and we declared them condemned in a council right after chalcedon.we rejected chalcedon for accepting the nestorian tome of leo and the blasphemous letter of Ibas,wich your own council constantinople II later condemned aswell.

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