Father Giuseppe Detomaso, Comboni missionary: 50 Years in Ethiopia


Friday, November 25, 2022
It was October 12, 1972, when Abba (Father) Giuseppe Detomaso landed for the first time in Ethiopia. He was 30 years old. He spent the first four years after ordination in Italy doing mission animation and vocation promotion. He arrived full of dreams to remain in the country for half a century and counting. “My dreams? I wanted to go to a mission, to join the other missionaries; to look at the good things the Sidama had, to study their language and culture and take part in their life”, he recalls.

Fr. Giuseppe Detomaso in Hawassa by the monument to the Sidama; in the background the Orthodox Cathedral:
He keeps ecumenical contacts with the Orthodox Bishop of Hawassa. He has been invited to take the stage in some Sidama cultural celebrations.


Two days upon his arrival, and having sorted out his documents, Abba Giuseppe went south for a first contact with the Comboni missions in the Sidamo Province. He stayed ten days in Shafinna, a mission among the Sidama. Then, he was taken to Dilla, among the Gedeo, for two months. Both stations were in their beginnings.

At the end of the year, he moved to Addis Ababa, the capital, to attend a year’s course of Amharic in a Protestant school, staying at the Comboni Provincial House.

The course was divided into three phases: classes from January to May; practice in Gondar from June to August; back to classes from September to December, when he concluded the course with distinction. “I still keep the certificate”, confesses.


In January 1974, Abba Giuseppe was posted to Dilla. His mission companions were Abba Emilio Ceccarini, Bro Ulisse Mendola and three Comboni Sisters.

He started opening catechumenates and feeding schools guided by Abba Ceccarini. In Dilla, he administered his first baptisms and handed out the first school report cards.

In 1975, the military unseated Emperor Haile Selassie to start the Derg, a communist regime that would last until 1991.

“The new regime did not bring serious problems to our missions, because we were working with the poor, although the danger of expulsion was real”, Abba Giuseppe admits.


In January 1976, Abba Giuseppe got his personal belongings and moved to Arramo. Abba Giovanni Migliorati stared the mission two years before. There he met Abba Carlo Bizzarri and Bro Melchiorre Campaci. They were living in a very poor shack without running water or electricity, infested with mice and ants and exposed to the curiosity of passers-by.

After building the school and the clinic, Bro Mendola constructed the houses for the missionaries, male and female. Meanwhile, Abba Giuseppe learned Gedeo, the local language, by himself.

“In order to gain the people’s trust, I dedicated most of my afternoons to curing sick people, using the rudimentary medical notions I learned during my Theology course”, he explains.

When the Comboni Sisters arrived in Arramo, Abba Giuseppe left the healing work to them, concentrating in pastoral. He was also the mission school director.

He found Gorcha, the place were 30 years before an Italian PIME missionary worked for two years. But he had to leave because he did not not agree with the Fascism’s policies. Abba Giuseppe built a chapel and an elementary school in Gorcha. It became the center of a blooming Catholic community.

As the Catholic presence among the Gedeo was growing, the missionaries decided to start a second mission. Galcha, 30 kilometers South of Arramo, was the chosen place.

It started with a chapel, built with mud and zinc, used as a school during the week. One year later, Abba Giuseppe oversaw the building of a proper school, a clinic and a house for the sisters.

“From Arramo, I went to Galcha by motorbike to spend some days of the week to control the works and instruct the catechumens. I used to sleep there and visited families. I was happy and glad”, he confesses.


Life is made of changes! In 1986, Abba Mansueto Zorzato, Provincial Superior, asked Abba Giuseppe to leave Arramo and Galcha’s green hills and move to Hawassa to direct the Comboni Primary School. Abba Giacomo Bellini, the director, was elected provincial.

It was a tough commitment. The school had about 2000 students from kindergarten to grade eight. It was a complex reality with 20 classes, 30 teachers and three teaching shifts: morning, afternoon and evening. However, the good climate of dialogue with the teachers, including some Comboni sisters, built upon mutual trust and effort for qualified teaching gained the school a great reputation.

“During this period I had the opportunity to maintain good relationships with the students’ families and with the local authorities who, despite being Communist, tacitly allowed me to teach religion. Today, many of those students are in important places at government and private sectors, and when we meet, they remember me with gratitude”, he recalls.

On those days, at weekends, Abba Giuseppe did pastoral work in the city and in its surrounding chapels.

In 1991, Ethiopia witnessed another radical change: the Tigrinians, helped by other rebel groups, deposed the Derg. The Communist republic became a Federation of eight ethnic regional states.

After seven years as Comboni Primary School director, and celebrating his priestly silver jubilee, Abba Giuseppe was offered a sabbatical. He spent it in Rome and with his family to restore his physical and spiritual energies.


Back from his sabbatical, rested and refreshed, Abba Giuseppe is put in charge of Dongora parish. There, he found Abba Elio Menegatti, assistant parish priest, and Abba Sebhatlead Ayele, director of the Pastoral Centre. He was also the school director.

Dongora had around 30 chapels, three primary schools and a clinic that was run by the Comboni Sisters. He wanted to give continuity to the work started by Abba Giuseppe Calvi — who initiated the mission — and many other missionaries who followed him.

To develop the pastoral work he created a team with the three best catechists chosen because of their commitment and better education. They were formed to be his closest collaborators and supervisors of pastoral activities.

In Chukko town, Abba Giuseppe opened a tailoring school and a kindergarten and built a beautiful church with the view of creating a new parish in the future.


After Dongora, Abba Giuseppe was appointed parish-priest of Tullo — one of the first missions among the Sidama in the shore of Hawassa Lake founded by Abba Bruno Lonfernini — and vicar-general of bishops Armido Gasparini and Lorenzo Cerezoli.

Those were times of a growth and crisis, collaboration with the local priests and handover of some missions. Times of great joys and also of big sufferings, provoked by Catholic groups that with threats accused the Church leaders of facts that were not true and demanded impossible decisions and aid.

Dongora’s parishioners alerted Abba Giuseppe not to go to Tullo, because there were big problems there. The cold welcome he got seemed to give reason to the warnings. Together with Abba Tesfaye Taddese — who is now Comboni Superior General, they managed to restart the dialogue with the youth and the elders of the parish.

“With God’s help, in a few months we were able to rebuild a climate of peace and enthusiasm, helped by the arrival of a community of young Ethiopian Ursoline Sisters, who immediately opened the kindergarten”, Abba Giuseppe remembers.

The bishop appointed two young local Sidama priests with whom Abba Giuseppe worked for two years. It was a time to learn how to live together and harmonize two very different cultural backgrounds.


New developments were want for him when he returned from home leave. With two local priests in Tullo, Bishop Cerezoli decided in agreement with the Comboni provincial to divide the parish that had about 60 chapels.

The Sidama priests chose Tullo. It had a church, house, kindergarten, school and machinery. The Combonis were left with the mountain side of the parish yet to be developed. Abba Giuseppe was asked to pack again and go to Arosa, an outstation from Tullo, chosen to be the centre of the new mission.

“It was a nice place, near a holy grove where a Sidama chief was buried. I got myself two small rooms at the back of a hall that functioned as church”, he recalls.

With the assistance from the Italian Bishops’ Conference, Abba Giuseppe built a school and a house for the missionaries and drilled a borehole. Meanwhile, fathers Ivo do Vale and Rodolfo Cipollone arrived in Arosa to form a proper Comboni community. Abba Ivo was in charge of the school, altar boys and Mary’s Daughters; Abba Rodolfo was visiting the chapels; Abba Giuseppe followed the youth and the catechists.

In the beginning, the missionaries had to cook and clean the house, prepare hosts and take care of the kitchen garden. However, they found a local woman who was able to cook and keep the house clean.

With the help for some benefactors from Italy, a beautiful and large church was built and the mission connected with the power grid. However, the shortage of personnel led the provincial to hand over Arosa to the local clergy. Abba Giuseppe gave its keys to the new parish priest on November 2008. He spent 18 months with Abba Cipollone and two Sidama priests.


From Arosa, Abba Giuseppe was transferred to Teticha, a very large mission in the Sidamo mountains, at 2,700 meters above sea level. Born in the Dolomites, he dreamed of working in those heights since long ago.

He joined fathers Claudio Altieri, Mitiku Habte, Domenico Andriollo and Abraham Hailu and Bro Pascal Abtosi. The mission had some 70 outstations, many reached only on foot. To ease pastoral work, three catechists were prepared to bring Holy Communion to some of the furthest chapels.

During his stay in Teticha, Abba Giuseppe was asked to go to Fullasa — the biggest parish of Hawassa vicariate and in the country with about 40,000 Catholics — to hand it from the Combonis over to the local clergy. He stayed there from January to October of 2013.


In 2015, time arrived to divide the mission and give Teticha to the Ethiopian Capuchin Friers. The Combonis made the outstation of Daye, in the lower lands, some 50 kilometers South of Teticha, the centre of the new parish. In a vast compound, Abba Giuseppe built a school, a house and dag a well ready to welcome the new community.

Abba Giuseppe joined fathers Paolo Paoli and Rodolfo Cipollone in Daye in September of 2015. The new mission started with 27 outstations.

The missionaries opened first a kindergarten, then the primary school and finally the junior secondary school. Together, they had 700 students.

The number of Catholics was also growing with 200 baptisms per year. Finally, a new temple in Ethiopian style was build as the parish church together with a parish hall and offices.


Internal rotation brought Abba Giuseppe from Daye to Hawassa in July of 2020. This time, he was asked to run the house that receives Comboni missionaries working in the different communities in the Vicariate who come to the city to service or repair cars, for shopping, to attend meetings. He welcomes the confreres with a big smile and helps with his knowledge of the city (shops, offices, etc.).

Though he turned 80 at the end of January of 2022, he celebrates the daily mass early in the morning in turns with the sisters who ran the Bushulo Mother and Child Care Hospital or in the chapel of the Missionaries of Charity in Hawassa. On Sundays, he celebrates two or three masses in Sidama and Amharic in the Cathedral and in some of its outstations. He also lends a hand in Fullasa or Tullo when he is asked.

He keeps ecumenical contacts with the Orthodox Bishop of Hawassa. He has also been invited to take the stage in some Sidama cultural celebrations in town. And he does mission animation through his writings and interviews.


Bolzano’s Mission Office, his home diocese in Northern Italy, concluded a documentary on Abba Giuseppe with these words: “You love the people and the people loves you”. A short sentence that sums up his mission service in Ethiopia.

He summarizes the missionary journey he started half a century ago when he landed in Addis Ababa in a few words too: “During this long journey of 50 years, I have always had a Companion who, in all my pastoral and social works and in all services I did, was my inspiration and fulfillment. To Him honor and glory”.

“I had the opportunity to see the beginning of many missions and then to witness their handover to the local clergy. My missionary service is summed up in St Daniel Comboni’s statement ‘Saving Africa with Africa’”, he concludes.
Joe Vieira, mccj