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Venerables Gaspar Pais, SJ and John Pereira, SJ

April 25th - Venerables Gaspar Pais, SJ and John Pereira, SJ

Venerable Gaspar Pais, SJ
Born: 1593
Died: April 25, 1635

Venerable John Pereira, SJ
Born: 1601
Died: May 2, 1635

About half a century after the unsuccessful first Jesuit mission in Ethiopia, headed by Bishop Andrew de Oveida, the Jesuits under Fr Pedro Paez met with some success when he went there in 1602. By converting Negus (Emperor) Susenyos to Catholicism in 1622, Fr Paez cleared the way for Patriarch Afonso Mendes to enter the country.

Fr Gaspar Pais, a relative of Fr Paez arrived in Ethiopia in 1624.
He was born in Covilha, Portugal but his family moved to Goa when he was twelve. It was there that he entered the Society on November 23, 1607. After he completed all his Jesuit studies at St Paul’s College in Goa and after his ordination, he requested for work in Ethiopia now that the missionaries were again welcomed there. Fr Pais’ work among the Ethiopians in Fremona showed encouraging results, and within a month he converted 400 to Catholism. His ministry with the Agau, a semi-subdued tribe in the north was equally successful. From his letters to his superior general in Rome during 1625 and 16 26, he showed he was engaged in many activities among them including the translation of the Bible and devotional books for popular use and that the Negus had subsidized their printing press.

Things were to change when Susenyos allowed the country to revert to its former beliefs shortly before he died in 1632. This was to bring much suffering to the missionaries. When Susenyos’ son Fasilidas ascended the throne, he confiscated the Jesuit houses and properties given them by his father and in 1633 ordered them to assemble at the Jesuit’s central HQ in Fremona where they were kept under surveillance. Before their expulsion from Ethiopia, seven of the twenty Jesuits which included Frs Pais and Pereira, went underground. Fr Pais found refuge with an Ethiopian, Tecla Manuel who was sympathetic towards the missionaries and whose vast estate was near the town of Assa. He stayed in a cave and from there he moved quietly among the Portuguese andother Catholics in the vicinity. In time to come he was joined by Frs Bruni and Pereira.

Fr John Pereira, also a Portuguese was born I Cela, near Lisbon. He entered the Society in Coimbra on March 12, 1619 and came to Ethiopia as a missionary after his ordination in 1628. The three priests remained relatively safe under Tecla Manuel’s protection. The Negus was indignant that some Jesuits had outwitted him and gave orders for a reward to anyone who could deliver the priests to him. After Tecla Manuel’s term as governor was up, his hostile brother Melcha Krestos, a rabid schismatic succeeded him. Tecla Manuel informed the priests of his brother’s hostility and advised them to split up and search for new hiding places. The priests agreed to leave but not to separate. They found another remote spot in a deep valley protected by thick underbush and surrounded by tree-covered hills.

The missionaries were in their new hiding place for only four days when they were discovered on the morning of April 25, 1635 by Melcha Krestos and a hundred of his men. Melcha walked towards the huts where the Jesuits and some Ethiopian Catholics had gathered for Mass. Fr Bruni saw Melcha approaching and went out to greet him thinking he had a message for them and immediately the armed men ambushed him and he fell to the ground with fifteen spear wounds on his body. Hearing his cries, Fr Pais who was about to begin Mass rushed out and he was killed instantly by a spear through his heart. Then the men converged on Fr Pereira and when the few Catholics there tried to surround and protect him, he forbade them. He was wounded in the lower chest and legs and collapsed to the ground. The assassins, thinking Fr Pereira was dead withdrew from the scene. Finding Frs Pereira and Bruni alive, the Catholics carried them off to care for them. That afternoon they buried Fr Pais.

Fr Pereira never recovered from his wounds and on May 1, a week after the attack, sensing that death was imminent, he asked to be taken to the cave that was their chapel. He spent the day there in prayer and shortly before dying on May 2, he said: “Do not weep for me; my blood is flowing for the glory of God.” Fr Bruni survived and lived to meet martyrdom five years later. It was Fr Bruni’s letter written on July 1639 to Fr General Muzio Vitelleschi in Rome that gave an eye-witness account of how his two Jesuit brothers met their deaths.

The cause of Frs Pais, Pereira and their other six Jesuits brothers was introduced in Rome on June 19, 1902.