Blesseds Agathangelus of verdome and Cassian of nantes

The Martyrs of Gondar Strung Up by Their Own Cincture Cords


Feast Day : 7th August


Gone But Not Forgotten !

For over two hundred years, it looked like their names were destined to lie buried forever beneath the dust of some Vatican secret archive, just as their remains had lain beneath the dry and sandy soil of some remote African village, forgotten, more or less, by the outside world. Of course, the memory of these two heroic Capuchins had not totally vanished from the face of the earth. When another illustrious Capuchin missionary, Brother William of Piovà, better know today as Cardinal Massaia, came to labour as a missionary in that same Ethiopian land some two hundred years later, he not only discovered his Confreres’ unmarked grave, but also pieced together a clear account of their last few years as ecumenical missionaries, as well as the story of their final ordeal and martyrdom for the Faith. Thanks to the historically reliable anecdotal evidence he had gathered from Ethiopian Catholics, who continued to recall their memory through many generations, the cause of their beatification, which had long been languishing for want of sworn evidence, made rapid progress and, on the 1st of January 1905, Pope Saint Pius X added to the Church’s list of Blesseds the names of these two Martyrs of Unity - Brother Agathangelus of Verdôme and Brother Cassian of Nantes. 
  
Shared Labour ! Shared Fate! Shared Glory !

Blesseds Agathangelus and Cassian had laboured together as missionaries in Africa for the last four years of their lives, they had been hanged side by side from a single scaffold at Gondar and their remains lie buried in one grave at the entrance of a largely Muslim village in Ethiopia. Agathangelus and Cassian - two tributaries, sprung from distinct French sources, but joining one another to form a confluence in Egypt and flow on from there as one unstoppable river until, on the plains of Ethiopia, it empties itself into the ocean of eternal life. There still the blood of these two Capuchin Martyrs of Gondar serves to water daily the fragile but fast-growing implantation of the Capuchin Order on Ethiopian and Eritrean soil, while, at the same time, thoroughly irrigating the seedbed of the Catholic Church in those ancient African lands.  Agathangelus and Cassian – their names, like their lives, will remain forever linked in the Liturgy of the Church and in the history of the Capuchin Order.  Yet each man retained his own particular personality, influenced by different cultural and family backgrounds, different gifts unique to himself alone and different, though similar, experiences of Capuchin life and ministry, predating the 1634 arrival of Brother Cassian in Alexandria, Egypt, where, for the first time, he met up with his fellow labourer in the Lord’s vineyard and companion in martyrdom, Brother Agathangelus of Verdôme, a far more seasoned missionary and nine years his senior. 


A Young French Boy who Practically Grew Up with the Capuchins

Brother Agathangelus was born in Verdôme, France, on the 31st of July 1598 and had more or less grown up with the Capuchins before he joined their Order in 1618. His father, Francis Noury, the President of town’s Elections Court, was one of the Capuchin Order’s chief fund raisers and syndic or spiritual friend who took care of financial affairs on their behalf. His father, Francis Noury, the President of town’s Elections Court, was one of the Capuchin Order’s chief fund raisers and syndic or spiritual friend who took care of financial affairs on their behalf. With his wife, Margaret Béon, he begot and raised seven children of whom Brother Agathangelus, baptised Francis after his father, was the third. When, in 1606, the Capuchins raised a cross on the site of their new Friary in Verdôme, young Francis had accompanied to him to the public celebrations and the enthusiastic welcome the local people extended to the Capuchin Brothers made an indelible impression on his young mind. From then on, seed of his Capuchin vocation began to germinate and he became on of the Friary’s regular visitors. After he had completed his classical education at the César-Vendôme College, he ended up etering the Order in 1818 at twenty years of age. 


A Disciple of “the Grey Eminence”

On entering the Novitiate at Le Mans, Francis Noury received the religious name Brother Agathangelus of Verdôme. His Novice Master was Brother Giles of Monnay After his Perpetual Profession one year later, he was sent, in 1620, to Poitiers to study philosophy and theology. One of his lecturers in Poitiers was the famous Brother Francis of Paris, better known as François Leclerc du Tremblay. Brother Francis was an influential advisor to Cardinal Richelieu, the most powerful man in France, and he would later would play a significant role in the life and mission of Brother Agathangelus and that of his Confrere, Brother Cassian of Nantes. (Due to the grey colour of the original Franciscan habit and Brother Francis of Paris’s powerful influence over the Cardinal, he soon received the nickname,  ‘la Eminence grise’ or ‘the Grey Eminence’!) Another significant personage of the French Capuchin Order was Brother Francis of Treguier was Brother Agathangelus’s Theology Professor at Rennes where he continued his theological studies form 1624 until he was ordained a priest in 1625. After his ordination, he spent three years as a traveling preacher, evangelising and re-evangelising various centres of population in Western France; these included the city of Poitiers and his own hometown, Verdôme. The primary objective of his preaching, at this time, was to counter growing influence of Huguenot Protestantism on French public life by bolstering the Catholic Faith of his hearers. 

An ‘Accidental’ Foreign Missionary Becomes a Dedicated Labourer in the Lord’s Vineyard. It was while he was at preaching at Rennes in 1628, that a fortuitous turn of events in Brother Agathangelus’s life occurred - guided, no doubt, by the hand of Divine Providence but also by the political manoeuvring of his erstwhile Professor, ‘la Eminence grise’, Brother Francis of Paris. One member of a group of Capuchin missionaries that were to leave for the Middle East sick before departure and Brother Agathangelus of Verdôme was sent as his replacement. Brother Francis of Paris saw the numerous energetic young men who flocked to join the now well established but still spiritually flourishing Order of Capuchin Friars Minor in France as ideal instruments of his grand plan to bring about a reunion of Eastern Churches with the Church of Rome. He undertook this grand project of universal evangelisation for the greater glory of God, as well as for the enhanced influence of France, ambitious to play a leading role on the international stage! Brother Agathangelus duly landed at Aleppo, a major Syrian port on the Mediterranean coast, on the 29th of April 1629. He immediately threw himself into studying Arabic, the common language of communication used by most inhabitants of that culturally diverse and ethnically heterogenous Middle Eastern land. Syria was also a society in which many different minority religious denominations coexisted peacefully with a large Muslim majority. Besides the Syriac Eastern Churches who still use Aramaic, Jesus Christ’s mother tongue, in their liturgies, there were also Greek Orthodox, Lebanese Maronite-rite Catholics, Armenian Christians and a handful of Latin-rite Catholics. Brother Agathangelus soon realised that instead of preaching to vast crowds, like he had done in Europe, personal contacts and patient dialogue with local Church leaders would prove to be far more effective in winning souls for God. He learned to tailor his message to the individual and would prepare a little talk which he adapted according to the circumstances of the person with who he was speaking. After just a year studying the language, he was able to preach competently in that everyday spoken Arabic, which differed somewhat from the classical literary form of the language used mainly in literature. Brother Agathangelus was convinced that academic studies and the mastery of Arabic was essential for any missionary hoping to be effective in the Middle East. In his letters home, he urged new missionaries to bring along good books in Arabic and Latin. He himself ordered the Guiggeus’s Latin-Arabic dictionary, ‘Thesaurus linguae arabicae’, but, since it did not arrive till he had left for Egypt, he left the useful dictionary to his Confreres still laboring to evangelize the Middle East. Despite being better at Arabic than any of his Capuchin Confreres, he lamented the fact that his Arabic language skills were still insufficient for engaging in a more scholarly refutation of erroneous doctrine and providing better explanations for the Catholic Church’s position on dogmatic truths. In Syria, and later on in Lebanon, he sought to further the reconciliation of divided Christians by promoting inter-Church dialogue and to some extent his efforts were successful. He even managed to convert a Syrian bishop to Catholicism and this  prelate proved be of tremendous help in consolidating the Capuchins mission in the region. brother Agathangelus’s preaching throughout Lebanon drew massive crowds. While the Maronite Catholic Patriarch of Antioch approved of his mission, some Maronite prelates were not so easily impressed. The unrelenting enmity of the “Maronite Grand Vicar” meant that he was often chased out of towns where he was preaching, yet his missionary activity in Lebanon was very successful. Wherefore some people even christened him ‘the Apostle of Lebanon.’


His First Steps Towards Inculturation in Egypt

In 1633 Brother Agathangelus was sent to the Capuchin Mission in Egypt. Egypt, at the time, seemed to be a country were a promising dialogue could be carried on with the Patriarch of the Coptic Church, Pope Matthew III. He made contact with the leadership of the Coptic Church there. Since Coptic Bishops are invariably chosen from among the monks, Brother Agathangelus began his work by visiting the monasteries in Egypt. He spent several months living with the Monks of Saint Anthony in the Thebaid Desert and also stayed for a few months at the larger Monastery of Saint Macarius in the Wadi El Natrun. Soon extra missionaries were sent fro  France to Egypt and Brother Cassian of Nantes was among the first of these to arrive in Alexandria.


The Childhood Dream of an Immigrant’s Son

Brother Cassian had been born in the town of Nantes in North Western France on the Loire River the 16th of January 1607. His parents, John Lopes Neto and Guida d’Alamras were merchants who had emigrated from Portugal and settled in Nantes. Their newborn son, together with his twin sister, were baptized the next day in the  Church of Saint Similian. The boy was given the baptismal name ’Gundisalvus’, but for some reason everyone just called him ’Vasenet’ for some unknown reason. The twins were raised in a pious household and from a young age, Vasenet began to visit the local Capuchin Friary. Deeply imppressed by the Capuchin Friars’ way of life, the boy first asked to join the Order when he was only nine years of age. Told to continue his studies before trying again later, he attended Saint Clement’s College in the town where he received a good classical education. He excelled at language studies and mastered Hebrew in no time at all. In the meantime, he steadily advance in virtue and, in preparation for entering the Capuchin Order, he learned to practice self-denial and mental prayer. At school, he was well liked by his teachers and noted not only for his keen intelligence but also for his childlike innocence. Eventually, at the age of 15, he asked once more to enter the Order in 1622, but due to parental opposition, he had to wait until he was 17 years old before he was accepted as a Novice.


A Young Capuchin Linguist Who Aspired to Go to the Foreign Missions

Gundisalvus Lopes-d’Alamras was vested as a Novice on the on the 6th of February 1624 at the Capuchin Novitiate Friary of Angers and received the religious name ‘Brother Cassian of Nantes’. As a Novice he was noted for his humility, obedience and mortified. After his profession in 1625, he was sent to Rennes to study Philosophy and Theology, where one of his Professorsthere was Brother Francis of Treguier who had taught Theology to Brother Agathangelus a few years earlier in the same Friary. Despite having lived in the same places and studied under the same Professors, Brother Cassian and Brother Agathangelus never actually met each other in their home country of France. During his studies Brother Cassian dreamt of being a missionary and, with this in mind he continued to hone his language skills. Brother Cassian had no problem passing the examinations and was ordained a priest in 1631. As he waited to be assigned to the missions, an epidemic broke out in Rennes and raged through the city between 1631 and 1632. The newly ordained Brother Cassian asked for and received permission to join a group of Capuchin Brothers who were nursing the sick in a hospital outside the city. Afterwards he took up his studies once more before being assigned, one year later, to the Capuchin Mission in North Africa by the famous ‘Grey Eminence’, Brother Joseph of Paris who was Minister Provincial of the Paris Province of the Order. Therefore, together with a companion Brother Benedict of Dijon, he departed from the port of Marseilles and arrived in Alexandria in 1634. 


Blessed Agathangelus and Blessed Cassian Form One Formidable Team

Capuchin ‘Ecumenists’

In Egypt, Brother Cassian collaborated with Brother Agathangelus in his ecumenical endeavours and inter-Church dialogue with the Coptic Patriarch. Not only did Brother Cassian bring to this project that enthusiasm which is a characteristic of youth, but also his academic brilliance and facility with languages. By way of contrast, Brother Agathangelus brought the practical experience, the prudence and know-how of a seasoned missionary. Together they made a formidable team. Having made contact with the leaders of the Coptic Church, they engaged them in dialogue about the truths of the Faith. Doing their best to clear away any mutual misunderstandings and obstacles and they put all their trust in the Holy Spirit, letting him work slowly and patiently to smooth the road towards full Church unity. At the same time they urged Church officials in Rome to take a more flexible approach to the so-called schismatic Copts, especially when it came to worshipping together. Brother Agathangelus wrote that he felt such decisions should be left to the judgment of the men on the ground.  


Ethiopia, a New and Seemingly Promising Capuchin Mission

By now, they had set their sights on Ethiopia which looked like being a promising mission territory. The Capuchins had been assigned there by the Roman Pontiff to replace Jesuit missionaries who and been expelled by the new King of Kings, Emperor Fasilides(ፋሲለደስ). (The Ethiopian Emperor’s title ‘King of Kings’라는 is a literal translation of the vernacular words ‘Negusa Nagast (ንጉሠ ነገሥት)’.) He had succeeded his father, Emperor Susenyos(ሱሰኒዮስ) I, on the Throne of Ethiopia but. unlike Susenyos, a Catholic convert, Emperor Fasilides detested the Catholic Church and was not slow to persecute foreign missionaries and native Catholic Christians alike. Against this backdrop, the appointment of an worthy successor to the Coptic Metropolitan Archbishop of Ethiopia by the Coptic Patriarch of Alexandria was of vital interest to the Pope of Rome and the Catholic Church in general. The Capuchin missionaries felt confident in recommending for the post an Egyptian monk, named Arimimios, who seemed well disposed to Catholic doctrine and Catholics in general. Father Arimimios was duly consecrated Metropolitan Archbishop or ‘Abuna’ of Ethiopia. But, the new Metropolitan Archbishop, who taken the regnal name, ‘Abuna Marqos’, soon became hostile to Catholic missionary activity and turned against his former friends, Brothers Cassian and Agathangelus.  This was because he had fallen under the anti-Catholic influence of a travelling German Lutheran, Peter Heyerling of Leipzig (who called himself Peter Leo), and also because he was being pressurised by many reactionary Ethiopian Coptic clergy. 


Arrested on the Border, Tried in the Capital, Betrayed by Their Former Friend

They had set out for Ethiopia in late December 1637. Following the Patriarch’s advice, they wore Coptic priests’s robes over their Capuchin habits for the last part of their journey to avoid attracting unwelcome attention. Their plans, however, to set up a mission in Ethiopia were already known to their enemies in that land. The two Missionaries crossed the Nubian desert, accompanied along the way by various local Pashas’ caravans. Nevertheless, their journey was a long and arduous one. Eventually they reached the Ethiopian high plains but they had barely set foot in the border village of Deborech, when they were arrested and tortured. Their letters of recommendation from Patriarch Matthew III of Alexandria were confiscated and proved of little use in ensuring their safe passage. At the instigation of Peter Heyerling, they were tied to the tails of mules and dragged to Gondar, the Imperial Capital, on the 5th of August 1638. As their hands and necks were being fettered with chains, Brother Cassian exclaimed, “These are the precious jewels, that we come to seek in distant lands!” Interrogated by members of the Emperor’s court and maltreated by their jailers, they appealed to their erstwhile dialogue partner, Abuna Marqos. But unfortunately, Peter Heyerling already had spoken to the Archbishop and convinced him that Brother Agathangelus had come to Ethiopia to depose him. So Abuna Marqos delayed in coming to the missionaries’ aid. When he did eventually make his appearance at the Capuchins’ trial on the 7th of August, it was not to defend but to condemn his one-time friends. It seems that he felt betrayed by his Patriarch as well. While verbally attacking the Capuchin missionaries, he did not hesitate to pour forth all sorts of invective on his superior, Patriarch Matthew III, whom he blamed for being involved in a plot against himself and the whole Coptic Church in Ethiopia. In the end the two missionaries were given an ultimatum; if they did not embrace the Coptic creed, they faced the death penalty. In response, Brother Cassian, who had the local language, started to confess aloud the Catholic Church’s creed on behalf of both of them. 


Hanged from the Same Gallows by Their Own Cords

Before Brother Cassian could finish the Creed, the mad, unruly mob, incited by Peter Heyerling’s impassioned speech, dragged Brother Cassian and Brother Agathangelus to the scaffold to be hanged. In their bloodthirsty haste, the crowd neglected to bring along ropes with which to hang them, but the two Brothers removed their Franciscan cords and offered them for use instead. And so the two holy Capuchin priests, having given absolution to each other, were hanged from the scaffolding by their own cords. But since the nooses around their necks tightened slowly, due to the roughness of the cords, the enraged crowd began to stone the Capuchins to hasten their deaths and increase their suffering. One of those stones hit Brother Agathangelus in the eye and knocked it out. Some time later that day, August the 7th, 1688, the Martyrs of Gondar, Brother Agathangelus of Verdôme and Brother Cassian of Nantes breathed their last.


A Pillar of Fire Above Their Grave

Their bodies were buried in a nearby grave and covered with stones. Locals used to testify that sparks rising from the stones at night to form a pillar of fire over their grave. This phenomenon occurred every night, until local Catholics removed their remains to a grave near the entrance of the remote Muslim village of Azazo. They did this to ensure the grave was not violated by the local authorities who were anxious to remove every trace of the crime they had committed. It was this second grave that locals pointed out to Cardinal Massaia some 200 years afterwards. In 1928, a local priest showed the grave site to an Italian who had travelled to Ethiopia and simply explained,  “Here is the burial place of the two foreigners who came up from the plain. They were killed by Fasilides’s people.” 


The Martyrs of Gondar - Witnesses to Mission, to Ecumenism and to Capuchin Fraternity

Blessed Agathangelus of Verdôme and Cassian of Nantes were not only heroic Martyrs for the Faith, they were extraordinarily gifted missionaries who strove, according to the norms of the time, to understand the peoples among whom they worked, to learn their languages, religious cultures and histories and engage with them in genuine ‘ecumenical’ dialogue. They were men who were ready to adapt themselves to the cultural and religious environment in which they worked, while all the while remaining steadfast in their loyalty to the Catholic Church and to the essential truths which She teaches. They were true Lesser Brothers who, despite differences of age, background and character, lived, worked and died in communion with each other and Christ. Their co-mingled Martyrs’ blood not only serves to crown their missionary, cultural, ecumenical and religious endeavours but also bears convincing witness to the genuine beauty of Capuchin fraternal living.

“To form a judgement, one must have full and accurate knowledge of all the circumstances – of place, time, persons, rite and other things of this kind. The teachers of Christianity cannot have such knowledge, since they are ignorant of the practice of these countries. Wherefore it seems to me that the decision about these things ought to be left to the missionaries. In former times, they judged that such communcation in sacris should not be forbidden. The opposite destroys every means and hope of doing any good in the mission ; indeed it causes many difficulties. .... the mission Here we have many Copts in whose liturgical books I have found no error apart form the invocation of the heretics Dioscorus and Severus. We have therefore allowed priests to use these books for the celebration of Mass with the obligation of omitting these invocations of heretics ; and they do this without in any way scandalising the people.” - Blessed Agathangelus of Verdôme

“These (chains) are the precious jewels, that we come to seek in distant lands!” - Blessed Cassian of Nantes


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