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Bl. Zepherin Namuncurá (1886-1905)

Seminarian of the Society of St Francis de Sales


Zepherin Namuncurá was born in Chimpay, Argentina, on 26 August 1886, the eighth of 12 children to Manuel Namuncurá and Rosario Burgos. His father was the Mapuche Chief of the Araucanian-speaking Indians of the Argentine Pampas. This tribe was particularly known for its fierce resistance to encroaching European domination.

Three years prior to Zepherin's birth, a decisive battle took place in which his mother and four siblings were captured along with approximately 2,000 Indians. At this point surrender was the only alternative to extermination.

Arbitration with the Argentine Government gave the Indians their tribal lands and granted their chief, Manuel Namuncurá, the role of colonel in the Argentine army.

In 1894 the treaty was modified to their disadvantage, secluding them to a valley high up in the snowy Andes Mountains.

In order to maintain leadership among the Araucanian People his father destined Zepherin to be raised in the "white man's religion", and on Christmas Eve 1887, he was baptized by a Salesian missionary, Fr Dominic Milanesio, his father's friend.

Colonel Manuel entrusted the toddler to the priest in the hope that his son's association with the colonists would prove beneficial for the Araucanian People.

A boy destined for service

In 1897 Colonel Namuncurá exercised his right as part of the Argentine army to have his now 11-year-old son enrolled in military school at El Tigre. His father hoped that learning Western military tactics would later serve the future leadership position to which Zepherin was slowly being groomed.

But being the only native Indian in the school Zepherin found himself mistreated by the other students and he soon fell ill.

Fr Milanesio interceded and had the boy transferred to the Salesian mission school in Buenos Aires. When asked what he liked most about his new school, the "Little Chief" replied:  "The Church and the food".

At times, teachers reported that the young Zepherin appeared to be daydreaming during class, but his gaze was actually fixed on Our Lord in the tabernacle which he could see across the hall in the school chapel.

On 8 September 1898 he received his First Holy Communion, and in 1899 he was confirmed.
As an adolescent Zepherin developed a well-rounded personality, enjoying his studies, sports and his classmates' friendship. He was known to play card tricks for them or teach them archery.

He exercised true Christian meekness and never retaliated when friends' insensitivity hurt his feelings.

Once when asked what human flesh tasted like, his only reply was a large tear.
Zepherin loved the Blessed Mother and prayed the Rosary as his favourite devotion. Often he could be found praying before the Blessed Sacrament, where his desire to bring his people the true religion increased.

Some of his classmates instinctively compared him with St Dominic Savio, who was a student of St John Bosco and on whom the students were encouraged to model their behaviour.

The aim: spiritual leadership

As his studies drew to an end Zepherin announced his wish to study for the priesthood. The Salesian superior, Bishop Antonio Cagliero, helped him enter the minor seminary at Viedma. There he organized a procession in honour of Our Lady of Mercy on 24 September 1903.

The following day he woke up coughing and vomiting blood, clear signs of tuberculosis. He was admitted to the hospital and his time there was passed in a spirit of prayer mixed with patience, gratitude and obedience.

Evidently he had taken to heart the words of a missionary priest who told him to "serve God with joy".

In April 1904 when Bishop Cagliero was appointed Archbishop and summoned to Rome he invited Zepherin to accompany him. He hoped a change of climate would prove beneficial to the young man's health without disrupting his studies for the priesthood.

They arrived in Turin on 19 July 1904. Zepherin continued his studies but his health did not improve.

As a result he was moved to Villa Sora, the Salesian Institute in Frascati near Rome, with the hope that the warmer and drier air would be good for his health.

This holy seminarian's short stay in Turin, however, had made a lasting impression on his rector, who later said he had "a heart of gold and sees no evil in anyone.... He loves God like we love our mothers".

A personal highlight in this seminarian's short life was his trip with Archbishop Cagliero to an Audience with Pope Pius X on 27 September 1904.

By March of 1905 Zepherin's health had deteriorated to the point of requiring hospitalization at the "Fatebenefratelli" Hospital on Rome's Tiber Island. Even with the horrible pain and alarming weight loss, he always had a smile and kept his same gentle and patient spirit.

Zepherin Namuncurá died on 11 May 1905 and was buried in Rome.

Later, through the insistence of his compatriots, to whom he had sought to bring the Gospel, his body was returned to Argentina in 1924 and buried at the Salesian School of Fortin Mercedes.

He was declared Venerable by Pope Paul VI in 1972. On 6 July 2007 Pope Benedict XVI promulgated the decree concerning a miracle attributed to his intercession.