Australian Cardinal George Pell, who died in a Rome hospital on January 10 of cardiac arrest following a successful hip replacement surgery, lies in state in the beautiful and historical church of Santo Stefano degli Abissini (St. Stephen of the Abyssinians).

I have been to this church on numerous occasions and try to visit – if the doors happen to be open, which is rare – whenever I am in Vatican City. One of my favorite places in the Vatican, I remember one of my first visits was in 1998, when I was working at the Vatican, to pay respects to Cardinal Agostino Casaroli, a former secretary of state, who was lying in state in this historic place.

Happy events like weddings have also taken place here.

The church was open today for about 10 hours for visitors. (The photos are from a friend).

Santo Stefano degli Abissini was originally annexed to a hospice for Abyssinian pilgrims in what today is Vatican City.. The foundations of the church can be traced back to Pope Saint Leo (440 to 661) and the first church was named Santo Stefano Maggiore. Entrusted to Coptic monks in 1479 it was extensively rebuilt under Clement the 11th in the early 18th century and restored between 1931 and 1933.

When Pope Sixtus IV restored the church and assigned it to the Coptic monks in the city, its name was changed to indicate it was served by Ethiopians (Abyssinians). Situated right behind St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican Gardens, it has been associated with the Ethiopian diaspora.

In the 20th century, Pope Benedict XV established the Pontifical Ethiopian College, which was enlarged by Pope Pius XI.

On January 11, 2020, Pope Francis received the community of the Pontifical Ethiopian College on the centenary of its establishment by Pope Benedict XV. Francis summed up “the Ethiopian presence within the Vatican Walls” in a single word: “’Welcome’. … At the tomb of the Apostle Peter, the children of peoples geographically distant from Rome, but close to the Faith of the Apostles in professing Jesus Christ the Saviour, have found home and hospitality throughout the centuries.”

Worthy of note is the 11th century portal that is decorated with scrolled ornamental leaves or leaflike motifs. Fragments of inscriptions and sarcophagi walled into the exterior provide evidence that the cemetery discovered under Saint Peter’s – which we know today as the scavi – extended this far. When the first St. Peter’s was demolished to built the current basilica, this small, historical church was spared and is said to be the oldest surviving church, in architectural terms, in Vatican City.

As you can see in the photos, there is a single nave and columns on each side of the church. There is a 15th century fresco of Madonna with Child. (source: Vatican News; Guide to the Vatican, Museums and City, Vatican Museum Editions)