Mekuria Welde Michael was born on September 18, 1917 in a small village called Wotebet located in Amauel District of Debre Markos Town in Gojjam Province. His father’s name was Welde Michael Wondimu and his mother’s Zewditu Kassa. When Mekuria came of age, he joined the Orthodox Church school in the area run by Merigeta (which means “mentor”) Begenaw Wassie. There he learned the Amharic alphabets, to read the Psalms, and to write. He also studied the church music called Wazema. When he had finished studying under this mentor, he went to Bichena District Gojjam Province to a church village called Yerez Saint Michael and joined the school led by Memhir (“teacher”) Lisane Work and studied Qene (poetry).
When he was sixteen years old he left for Sidamo Province and settled in Wolayta District at Sodo (Southern Ethiopia). There he met a virtuous hermit monk called Desta at the Wolayta Sodo Debre Menkirat Tekle Haimanot monastery. Before Mekuria’s arrival, this monk had prophesied to the monks that a great hermit would soon come to the monastery.
At this time Mekuria changed his name to Melaku because he did not want to be discovered by his relatives, who might try to bring him back to his village. At the monastery, he started to help Hermit Desta by bringing him water and dry food to keep him alive.
When his mentor died he replaced him in the monastery and continued his mentor’s work. He was responsible for teaching the people and building schools in the area. The Wolayta people loved and respected him as a father and they obeyed him. He led a life of purity and never begged for a living or received a salary for his work. However, he raised money to build many churches and schools in the area. The people’s contributions were the main source of income for these churches and schools.
When the Dergue Regime took over the government of Ethiopia, Abba Melaku was denied the necessary income to run the institutions because the laws had changed. So he went to Addis Ababa to get money and tabots (duplicates of the Ark of the Covenant) from Patriarch Tewoflos at the Ethiopian Orthodox Church headquarters to supply the most recent churches he had built. He was given two out of five tabots he requested and was told to return later for the other three.
Abba Melaku arrived in Addis Ababa on the day of his appointment to see Patriarch Tewoflos but, little did he know, the patriarch had been forced to leave his position and was under arrest. The main office had established a committee to find a replacement. Abba Melaku went in to the office of the president of this nomination committee and gave him the traditional greeting of respect. As director and president of the board of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church office, Dr. Kinfe Regib, who was earnestly seeking a hermit monk as a nominee for the election of the next patriarch, was very happy to see Abba Melaku walk into his office as if driven by God. Dr. Kinfe Regib asked him the cause of his visit. When Abba Melaku told him that he had an appointment with Abba Tewoflos, he was told that Abba Tewoflos was away for a while and would meet with him at a later date. In the meantime, Dr. Kinfe Regib asked if he was willing to answer a few questions about himself, his job, and his responsibilities. Abba Melaku agreed and gave him the details he wanted.
Abba Melaku told the president that he had built sixty-four churches and twenty-four schools–all this without any salary from the Ethiopian Orthodox Church central administration office. When asked where he was born, he answered: “For a monk, is there any particular place? Any spot of Ethiopia where I live is my country.” He refused to identify his birthplace out of principle. Dr. Kinfe Regib, amazed by the divine providence that had brought him there, took notes on him and put them in an envelope. He then asked Abba Melaku to take the envelope to the main nomination committee secretariat office outside the office where they were meeting. So Abba Melaku obediently took the envelope and delivered it to the secretariat office but he had no clue what was going on at the time. The person in charge took the letter and opened it. Seeing the contents of the mysterious letter, he looked the monk over very carefully and then allowed him to leave.
The next morning Abba Melaku returned to the main office hoping to meet with the patriarch only to discover that he was no longer in charge and had been detained by the government. Shocked, he immediately returned to Wolayta. Soon after that, short profiles of two bishops and three monks, Abba Melaku included, were published and distributed in Addis Ababa. Everybody who read the short biography of Abba Melaku was touched by his personality. Soon everyone knew his name and was talking about him.
On the day of the election, Abba Melaku was elected patriarch by a very high number of voters. Up until that day, he had followed his routine lifestyle of praying, fasting, serving the church, and teaching his followers. Suddenly, he was ordered by the governer of Wolayta to go to Addis Ababa and report to the main church headquarters office. He left immediately not knowing what the rush was.
Upon his arrival, without even having a change of clothes and or any shoes on his feet, he was taken to the Menbere Tsebaot Kidist Sillassie (Chair of the Almighty Holy Trinity) Cathedral, where all the bishops and many thousands of Ethiopians were waiting for him. He wore a brown hand-sewn khaki robe over a wide pair of trousers and over that he had a folded bed-sheet as a shemma (shawl) and on top he had a hand-treated goat skin. This was his habit since he had become a hermit. When he arrived, everyone honored him with respectful applause and great shouts of joy known as Elelta (“Elelelelelel” is a shout of joy that Ethiopian women make when they are overjoyed), and Hotta (“Hohohohohohoho” is a shout of joy for Ethiopian men). After a short introductory speech by Dr. Kinfe Regib, it was announced that Abba Melaku Welde Michael had been elected patriarch of the Ethiopian Tewahdo Orthodox Church. Shocked, Abba Melaku’s eyes filled with tears and he cried. He made a short speech on the election and said: “How can this be? What strength do I have to fulfill the responsibility? However, if it is the will of the God of Daniel, who took him out of the pit of lions, what else can I do?”
This took place in July and August of 1976, and until the final day of celebration, Abba Melaku spent his time in prayer with others praying for him as well in Holy Mary Church. They tried to persuade him to change his clothes and wear shoes but he absolutely refused.
On August 31, 1976, Abba Melaku was appointed the third Ethiopian Partiarch of the Ethiopian Tewahdo Orthodox Church, taking the name Tekle Haimanot. The occasion was celebrated with prayer and special sermons and great joy in the presence of many thousands of people, at the Chair of the Almighty Holy Trinity Church in Addis Ababa. Abba Melaku took his place of authority, and for some time continued to receive guests sitting on the Patriarch’s Chair (Throne) in his common clothes. Later on, his hermit monk friends, persuaded him to change his habit out of respect for the Orthodox Church. He finally agreed to wear a cotton cloth dyed yellow with a proper shemma over it and a pair of sandals-better clothes than the hermit monks at Waldiba monastery usually wore.
Patriarch Tekle Haimanot was very well accepted by the Dergue regime and was allowed to visit Europe in sandals. He visited Greece, Poland, Austria, Germany, Rome, and Jerusalem. He ate only bread and drank only tea the whole time of his visit. The church people of Europe were amazed at his personality and considered his piety unique. As a result, it is said that the archbishop of Poland, out of respect for Patriarch Tekle Haimanot, personally drove him around in a car during his visit to that country instead of using a driver, in order to witness his peity and partake in his blessings.
The Ethiopian head of state, Mengistu Haile Mariam, used these visits by the Patriarch as a political strategy to show the West that he was not against religion and had appointed to this important position a person who represented the workers. He also wanted to change international opinion who viewed him as a ruthless tyrant for removing and killing Patriarch Tewoflos as soon as he came to power.
As Patriarch Tekle Haimanot was assumed to be have little knowledge and administrative ability, one of his assistant officers tried to misappropriate church money which was supposed to go to the government. When the Patriarch opposed him, he began to defame him by saying that he was too old, did not know anything about administration, and should be replaced soon. The Patriarch informed Mengistu Haile Mariam of this individual’s unscrupulous behavior and gave him an ultimatum, saying that if this man was not removed from office in three days, no one would prevent him from returning to his monastery. Mengistu immediately removed the culprit from office and replaced him with another person.
High government officials, being antichurch communists, asked the Patriarch’s permission to convert several old churches located around the government offices in Addis Ababa into museums. He answered, “These churches are not my personal property fo me to give permission, but they belong to all Ethiopian Christians. So I will have to discuss the matter with church members and will let you know.” This was a very smart answer that the officials did not expect from him. Mengistu was aware that this monk was not an easy person to deal with and knew that if he pushed him harder, he would would initiate a clash between government leaders and the Christian nation so he dropped the idea. Therefore, as it turned out, the Patriarch was not a person to be used and abused. Rather, he proved an able leader of the church for twelve years before he died in 1988.
Shortly before he died, the Patriarch went back to Wolayta to start construction on a church building that an outside donor agency wanted to erect in his honor in his area of origin. When he arrived, he gave his blessing and set a foundation stone in place. After the ceremony was over, he was ushered to a beautiful residence that had been prepared where he could rest, but he refused to go in. He wanted to go back to his old hut. He went into the hut and rested. A short while later, he felt a sharp pain, cried out in alarm, and collapsed into unconsciousness. He was brought back to Addis Ababa by helicopter and hospitalized. Shortly thereafter he died, at the age of seventy-one. He was buried at the Chair of the Almighty Holy Trinity Church in Addis Ababa with great ceremony.
Memhir (Teacher) Kidanemariam Getahun, False Testimony [translated from the Amharic] (Refuting the book of) “Firm Testimony” of Abba Melke Tsedeq, published by Computer Typing and Design-Ethiopia Book Center (September 2001). Pp. 147-170.
This article, received in 2006, was researched and written by Dr. Dirshaye Menberu, retired professor from Addis Ababa University and 2005-2006 Project Luke Fellow. She is a graduate of the Ethiopian Graduate School of Theology (EGST), a DACB Participating Institution.