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The Church in Northern Ethiopia

Excerpts from a report prepared by CNEWA’s Regional Director for Ethiopia and Eritrea on his November field trip to the northern Ethiopian provinces of Welo, Tigre, Gonder and Gojam.

Excerpts from a report prepared by the Director of our Addis Ababa office on his November field visit to the northern Ethiopian provinces of Welo, Tigre, Gonder and Gojam.

After making extensive preparations for this 11-day, 1,400-mile field trip – I even purchased an extra rim and tire – we left Addis Ababa at 7:30 A.M.

Debra Berhan. Our first stop was in the village of Debra Berhan where we visited a kindergarten administered by the Sisters of Divine Providence. There are 300 children in three levels at the school, 166 of whom are enrolled in our Needy Child Program. To date, more than a third of these children are without sponsors. Even though it was Sunday, we were able to visit. The classrooms were models of what a kindergarten should look like.

We also visited the Women’s Promotion Program, which is basically a knitting center. Debra Berhan is the wool-producing hub of Ethiopia and the only industry in town is the factory that produces wool blankets. The sisters have taken advantage of the availability of wool and work with the women to produce sweaters.


We drove nonstop for seven hours to Dese, the provincial capital of Welo. Dese is a sprawling mass of randomly built shacks. One of my traveling companions likened it to Nineveh in the Old Testament. Dese did not take us three days to cross, but we had our concerns.

While in Dese we visited the orphanage administered by the Ursuline Sisters. It is small and old, but very clean. The children are well cared for and seem to get a good deal of personal attention from the sisters.

In addition to our Needy Child Program at the orphanage, there are a number of children enrolled in our program who live with their families. When I asked the sister responsible how she knew these children were in need, she replied that the sisters required a certificate from the kebele, or neighborhood association, stating the family’s situation. The sisters visit the families as well. She pointed out several of these children and told me their stories.


Between Dese and the town of Alamata lies an enormous lowland fertile plain. Before arriving in the town, we drove through fields of corn and sorghum, which were not yet ready for harvesting. We would not see fertile land for another week.

Just north of Alamata begins a chain of mountains that leads to the plateau of the Ethiopian highlands. For five hours we drove along the winding road, built more than 40 years ago by the Italians who occupied the region. Although a simple gravel road, it is an engineering marvel. As we poked our way through the mountains, enjoying the beauty of scenery hard to surpass, I prayed that our automobile would not overheat or suffer a flat tire.

By the time we reached Mekele, the capital of Tigre, we were exhausted. After taking a light supper and renewing old acquaintances with members of the Salesian community, we retired.

After breakfast and a quick tour of an interesting new program for homeless boys sponsored by the Daughters of Charity, we left Mekele for Wukro. We drove by rocky and arid fields, plots of land so small the farmers can produce only the hare minimum. The people are doomed to subsistence living.

Training Orthodox Seminarians. The two Spanish White Fathers who live in Wukro received us warmly. One, Father Jose Bandres, has taught in the major seminary in the nearby city of Adigrat for more than 25 years. He is knowledgeable of the life and liturgy of the Orthodox Church and has established a very good working relationship with the local Orthodox clergy.

Several months ago he came to our office and spoke about a project for assisting Orthodox seminarians in Wukro. The seminarians, he explained, were ascetic, they lived in one room and they were without classrooms. A few Orthodox priests had asked him if he could help. I encouraged the priest to present the project as a grant request. In response, CNEWA gave him a grant for a substantial sum, which I presented at this time.

One must forget all that one knows of our methods of seminary training. The Ethiopian Orthodox practice in Wukro, and in other areas of northern Ethiopia, is the ancient way of training priests.

When a young man or boy (even as young as 11 years of age) wishes to become a priest, a monk or a debtera (a layman with expertise in scripture or liturgy), he decides, together with his family and priest, where he will study.

Scattered throughout the countryside are learned men, spiritual directors who are known, not by the number of their degrees, but through reputation. The candidate chooses his master and then presents himself. If the director accepts the candidate, he becomes a seminarian.

In Wukro I saw a group of seminarians gathered around their master under a tree. These neophytes read from scriptural texts and memorize them while the master listens and corrects. After a few years, the seminarian will move on to another master to further his “studies.”

We visited a few groups and found a group of seminarians living in an unfinished stone house. We also found a few living in little grass huts resembling the tepees of the American Indians.

Like the mendicants of old, each day these novices go into town and ask for food and alms, door-to-door. The people know they are seminarians and do what they can for them.

Adigrat, Tigre. We moved on to the town of Adigrat, where we stayed for a few days, calling on Abuna Kidane Mariam Teklehaimanot, the Bishop of Adigrat, inspecting and assessing projects and prospective programs.

Our Association has provided several grants for a variety of diocesan projects, ranging from office equipment in the major seminary to the restoration of the Filippini Sisters’ convent. Renovating buildings is a necessity for the diocese – one must keep in mind that during the years of civil war in Tigre, nothing was done to maintain them.

At St. Luke’s Elementary School, which is run by the Filippini Sisters, the average class operates at a substantial deficit. Sister Letta Selassie, the school principal, explained that this is why the Needy Child Program was so important to the school – the money enables poor children to pay their school fees.

The seminary, which is a large, three-storied, E-shaped building, houses a staff of about eight priests, the Bishop and 14 seminarians. In the past the numbers were larger. If the present number of aspirants remains the same, they may have to consider other uses for such a large structure.

Debra Damo Monastery. About 24 miles west of Adigrat lies one of Ethiopia’s holiest sites: the monastery of Debra Damo. The spirituality of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church is primarily monastic. Historically, monasteries have been at the heart of developments in Ethiopian art, literature, theology – even politics. Debra Damo is an important monastic center founded by Abba Aragawi, one of the nine saints who, according to tradition, bolstered the presence of Ethiopian Christianity after their arrival from Syria in the sixth century.

According to legend, Aragawi discovered a mountainous plateau suitable for leading a solitary life. God commanded a large snake to stretch down from the plateau to lift the hermit. Following this tradition, all images of Abba Aragawi depict his assumption by snake.

Aware of the importance of this site, I decided to take advantage of the opportunity to visit it. I turned off the road and followed a dirt track that took me through a small river to the foot of the mount. Looking up 50 feet of sheer rock, I saw the head of a monk. Dangling from the top were two “ropes.” One was a simple strip of cowhide, the other a rope of braided leather. The only access to the monastery is to pull oneself up using this rope. Having made my Act of Contrition, I pulled my way to the top. “Grunt, groan. I made it!”

I was free to roam the site. I was struck by the immensity and the serenity of the plateau. There were a large number of individual dwellings for the monks – the Ethiopians follow the idiorrhythmic tradition of Eastern Christianity; each monk follows his own pace.

At one time, more than 500 monks called this plateau home. Today, about 150 follow this ancient way of life. It is said that there are a good number of monks who live as hermits in caves carved out of the rock on the side of the cliff. Bread and water are lowered daily. Their commitment to this way of life varies: it can be for a period of years or just a few months.

After visiting the ancient church, a sacred and peaceful space, I returned to the edge of the mount, made an offering for the monastery, tied on my “safety belt” and made my descent.


We then traveled south to the province of Gonder.

Abba Gebre Egziabia, the superior of the Cistercian community in Gonder, took us to the village of Arbaba to see a school under construction. The school is not yet finished; inflation has risen dramatically making it difficult to complete the structure. The unfinished school is on the site of the first Catholic mission in Gonder; a priest was killed and buried there. As in the rest of Ethiopia, the presence of Catholic missionaries historically provoked hostility and persecution from the Orthodox – Catholics were seen as proselytizers and were identified with the ambitions of the expansionist European powers. Today the Orthodox are grateful for Catholic humanitarian assistance, but they are wary of an expanding Catholic presence.

Falasha. On the outskirts of Gonder live the Black Jews of Ethiopia, the so-called Falasha (“strangers” in Amharic). In the late 1980s, the Israeli government launched “Operation Moses,” a mass evacuation of these Jews to Israel.

It is not known how many Jews actually emigrated. At the time of the operation it was reported that, in a 72-hour period, 50,000 were ferried out of Ethiopia on large U.S. transport planes.

We passed through a few Falasha villages that lie on the outskirts of Gonder. The women are known for their crude clay figurines and when I saw the stalls along the roadside filled with them, I knew we had arrived.

I asked a few children how many Jews were left in the area – “only a handful,” they replied.

The Falasha lacked opportunity and were very poor, but all of the people in the area were in the same situation. Now a rich cultural heritage of Ethiopia has been lost.

Bahr Dar. For the last leg of the trip, we stopped in Bahr Dar, which lies on the southern shore of Lake Tana. We were greeted by Abba Teklehaimanot, a Lazarist priest from Eritrea, who has spent most of his 50 years as a priest working in south-western Ethiopia. Abba Teklehaimanot is 78, but he is a man with a twinkle in the eye and a heart full of apostolic zeal. Until now I had never met him; I had only heard stories about this man of God.

The priest explained that few Catholics live in the area; his primary duty is to serve as chaplain to the Daughters of Charity. The sisters have been working in Bahr Dar for five years. They run a school with multiple levels of kindergarten. Every year they add an additional grade to the school. Presently they are up to grade four. The sisters also operate a small Women’s Promotion center and a small clinic. One of the sisters, a nurse, is frustrated that medicines are not easily obtainable – the clinic has not yet been recognized by the Ministry of Health, although the sisters applied for government recognition four years ago.

We visited another group of Orthodox seminarians and met with their superior, a debtera, who had befriended Abba Teklehaimanot. We decided that CNEWA would be interested in improving the living conditions of the aspirants and that a proposal would have to he presented to the Patriarch, Abuna Paulos.

Debra Mariam Monastery. Lake Tana is famous for its island monasteries, many of which are hundreds of years old. Isolated from civilization, many of these sites preserve precious manuscripts, scriptural commentaries and lovely icons – a historian’s delight.

After a lot of fuss we learned of a monastery located not far from shore, Debra Mariam. The only way to reach the island was by tanqua, a reed boat. After making another Act of Contrition, I climbed into the boat, which was more like a floating puddle.

The priest greeted us warmly and invited us to see the dimly lit church. We asked the frail monk if we could look at a few manuscripts. He brought out two, both of which dated to the 12th century. We saw a manuscript featuring the four Gospels; each Gospel was preceded by a colorful image of the respective evangelist. A lovely translation of the Psalms featured a beautiful painting of David playing the harp.

I was concerned that the priest did not seem to realize how susceptible to damage these documents were.

But Debra Mariam, like many holy sites in Ethiopia, is an ancient center of spirituality preserving elements of the Christian faith that have disappeared elsewhere in the Christian world.

We arrived back in Addis Ababa after 11 full days on the road, 1,400 miles, two flat tires and a minor dent from a stone thrown by a shepherd. We had begun each day with a prayer to Our Lady and now that we had completed our Ethiopian travels, we thanked her for our safe return.

Brother Vincent Pelletier, F.S.C., the director of our Addis Ababa office, has lived in Ethiopia for more than 25 years.

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