St. Justin de Jacobis missionary in Eritrea and Ethiopia and his Success in Founding the Catholic Church

Abba lyob Ghebresellasie, C.M. of the Province of Eritrea offers this summary of a longer article from Vincentiana, 2000-06-05.

Justin de Jacobis, a Vincentian missionary with a great gift of holiness and understanding, learned from his founder St. Vincent de Paul, one basic conviction: to follow God’s Providence.  It was Divine Providence that taught Justin how to deal with the people entrusted to him in his new mission.  He was quite aware of the Catholic missionaries who for centuries had done their best to establish the Catholic Church in both Eritrea and Ethiopia, but without success.  Justin asked God to inspire him with insight about how to win over the hearts and minds of the Ethiopian people.  And Divine Providence responded, giving Justin a remarkable perspective on his new mission field’s culture and traditions.  In many ways, Justin anticipated Vatican II’s vision of culture and its importance by almost a hundred years.  In St. Justin’s time it was often difficult for foreign missionaries to accept and live the culture of their mission territory.  Providence enabled St. Justin, the new Apostolic Prefect, to embrace the traditions and culture of the people, and so announce to them the message of the Gospel.


By keeping his heart open to the people, Justin not only was able to win many of them over to him, but also was able to help them open their hearts to God’s word.  From now on the Catholic Church would become deeply rooted in the lands of Eritrea and Ethiopia, and would soon offer martyrs for the faith.  This was due in large part to the farsighted vision of St. Justin and his holiness.  He hoped and labored for a Catholic Church with an Ethio-Eritrean face.  In this, he succeeded where others had failed.  That is why we can affirm that St. Justin de Jacobis is the founder of the new Catholic generation.  He, by assimilating all the positive value of his country of adoption, was able to build the structure of the Catholic Church on solid ground.  This small community would undergo harassment and persecution.  But it would resist and survive.


In his mission of evangelization, St. Justin traveled from place to place.  When he decided to establish mission stations, he would entrust their administration to priests and seminarians, while he remained always on the move for new places and new people to evangelize.  As soon as he arrived in a new place, Justin would rent one or two “hidmos” (small local residences) for himself and for the people traveling with him.  Then he would invite the poor and the common folk to visit him, to talk with him, and to pray with him as well.


As a true man of God, Justin preached the Gospel message in such a simple way that people understood it, and liked him as well.  His life was a living example to the people, and so he was able to change, slowly but surely, the unfair image that the people often had of the Catholic Church and of Catholics themselves.


During his twenty years of preaching the Gospel in Eritrea and Ethiopia, St. Justin covered thousands of kilometers visiting large and small villages.  Wherever he went, he preached the Good News through words and deeds, and encouraged the small communities he founded to lead lives of integrity and fidelity to their beliefs.  In this way, Justin’s followers earned a good reputation as well as the respect of ordinary Orthodox believers.  Because of the continuous persecutions by the civil and religious authorities, Justin did not gain many disciples.  Otherwise he was well accepted everywhere because of his great respect for the people.


The First Establishment of the Catholic Community at Adwa


The years from 1769 to 1855 are known as the “Age of Princes” in the Ethiopian history.  There was no central government authority in the northern part of the country.  There were only various provincial and regional authorities. In this context, Adwa was an administrative and commercial center.  Ubie was its regional prince whose residence was not far from the town of Adwa.  By the end of 1839, Adwa had been chosen to be the residence of the newly appointed Apostolic Prefect, Justin de Jacobis.  Fremona, on the outskirts of Adwa, had been a center of the Jesuit missionaries some two centuries before Justin’s arrival.


De Jacobis gave his first sermon in January 1840.  His first efforts aroused mixed feelings as well as admiration for him in the people and the Orthodox clergy of Adwa.  It also opened the possibility of gathering together the first Catholic community around him.  But, during Justin’s absence from Adwa in 1841, Abuna Salama, the newly consecrated Orthodox bishop from Egypt, attempted to uproot this small Catholic community by excommunicating all of its members and its sympathizers.   Some of these newly converted persons, afraid of the excommunication which automatically deprived them of the Orthodox sacraments and church burial, abandoned the Catholic faith and formally returned to the Orthodox Church.  In spite of this setback however, the faithful of the newly created Catholic community continued to grow steadily.  The steady growth of the community was well known to the fanatical Orthodox ecclesiastical authorities.  The prefect was denied access to any space for public worship and he had to celebrate the Holy Mass and confer the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation and Confession secretly in hidden places.


The Orthodox authorities considered Justin’s presence to be a scandal and a sacrilege.  He and the Catholic community were denounced to the Orthodox bishop, Abuna Salama.  Fortunately, the local prince Ubie greatly respected Justin and so his Orthodox foes were unable to carry out their plans for expelling the Prefect and uprooting the small community he founded.  Ubie granted a small territory to St. Justin which included a few nearby villages.  This was in compensation for the service he rendered to the delegation which went to Egypt to request a new bishop for Ethiopia.


Adwa was also very near Addi Abun, the residence of the Orthodox bishop.  The presence of the Catholic community so near the bishop became intolerable.  The other Orthodox authorities also continued their opposition.  They treated De Jacobis and his companions badly.  And they threatened the newly converted families with excommunication and harassment.


There was no choice for the poor Prefect but to move out of Adwa.  Convinced of God’s providence, Justin searched for a suitable place to live peacefully and continue his ministry.  In 1844, he traveled back to Eritrea and stayed for half a year in Zeazega.  He then returned to Agame.  Before moving his clergy out of Adwa, he founded a small Catholic community in nearby Enticio.  Here, St. Justin was given a piece of land by a delegate of the German government named Mr. Shamir.  This gentleman, who had formerly been a Protestant, was received into the Catholic Church by Justin, and married a Catholic woman from the local area.  Because of this donation of land, the Prefect was able to build a small house and an oratory, and he appointed a priest to look after the tiny community as well as a “debtera” (a master of liturgical ceremonies) to teach catechism and liturgical music.  De Jacobis and his confrere Biancheri decided to move on, but would return now and then to visit the community.  In May of 1845 the majority of the priests and seminarians moved to Guala, where in the meantime, St. Justin had bought a piece of land and built Mary Immaculate Seminary.


by Abba lyob Ghebresellasie, C.M.

Province of Eritrea


Complete text  Vincentiana, 2000-06-05