This story of two Augustinians appears so improbable, yet is well-supported by archival material and was compiled by one of the best professional Augustinian historians of the twentieth century.
Nicholas Melo was born in Portugal in about the year 1548 of noble parentage. After serving at the court of King Sebastian of Portugal, he joined the Order of Saint Augustine in 1577 at Puebla de los Angeles, and made his first profession on 28th June 1578 at the age of thirty years. He was ordained to the priesthood before 1582, when he went to the Augustinian missions in the Philippines. He served there for fifteen years, by which time because of his abilities he was working in Manila on the administration of the Augustinian Order.
Nicholas Melo was also the Master of Novices, and on 29th August 1597 he was appointed Procurator of the Augustinian Philippine Province of the Holy Name of Jesus (i.e., its official liaison person) with the Holy See (Rome) and with the Royal Court (Spain), with the right to vote at Augustinian General Chapters. Having to voyage to Europe, it was decided to have him travel westwards via India rather than eastwards via the Pacific Ocean, Mexico and Atlantic Ocean. Another reason for this may have been that he could then accompany to Macao or Malacca Augustinian candidates for priestly ordination, for there was no bishop in the Philippines.
Map of Iran (above). The bottom red arrow shows the coastal island of Hormuz, where Nicholas Melo disembarked from a boat coming from Goa in February 1599. From there he moved to Isfahan (Esfahan: red arrow in centre of map). Late in April 1599 he sailed north across the Caspian Sea (the top red arrow).
Photos (at right) Picture 1: Boris Godunov (tsar 1598-1613). Picture 2: Marina Mniszech, the Polish widow of two tsars. Nicholas Melo O.S.A. was executed while he was one of her chaplains. Picture 3: Michael Romanov, tsar in 1613-1645. During his second year in office Melo was executed.
One of his travelling companions to Europe was to be an eighteen-year-old Augustinian lay brother, Japanese by birth. He had come to the Philippines as a child, and had been baptised there by Nicholas Melo. As a baptismal name he chose Nicholas. In honour of Fr Melo, who was his novice master, as his profession name in 1597 he chose Br Nicholas of Saint Augustine O.S.A. They left Manila in November 1597. When they reached Goa (Augustinians had been there since 1572), they learned that the annual convoy from Portugal had not arrived, hence there were no ships waiting to return to Europe. They could not, therefore, expect passage for Goa to Europe for another year. Rather than be delayed, Melo decided to travel overland. They left Goa in February 1599. He sailed to the Portuguese port of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf, which is now part of Iran (Portuguese Augustinians were serving there between 1573-1622). (Refer to the map above) Hearing (incorrectly) there were ambassadors of Spain visiting the Shah a few hundred kilometres away at Isfahan, Melo quickly moved to Isfahan and met the Shah. (Portuguese Augustinians ministered at Isfahan from 1604 for a few years, i.e., five years after Nicholas Melo had passed through there.)Although not the first Catholic priest to venture into Persia, he was the first one to meet the Shah personally. The “ambassadors” were in fact English adventurers, yet the Shah made all of them his envoys with the task of gaining him support from the Pope and Christian European monarchs in his conflict against the Turks. Melo was to prove to be innocent and also vulnerable in the political wiles of the Shah and the web of intrigue of the two unscrupulous Englishmen who constantly were very troublesome for their travelling companions.
Map of Russia (at left): Illustrating information in the text, this map shows Astrakhan (bottom red arrow), where the Volga River enters the Caspian Sea. Melo's group sailed northwards across the Caspian to Astrakhan in September 1599, and then went to Moscow (top red arrow). Melo was back at Astrakhan in 1613, and was executed there late in 1614 or early in 1615.
Towards the end of April 1599, Melo and Brother Nicholas were part of a large party that left Isfahan and headed to Europe by means of a long and circuitous northerly route through Russia. Because of Turkish hostility the group purposely avoided Turkish territory, although the latter offered a much shorter western route well to the south of the Black Sea. Along with Melo, Br Nicholas of St Augustine O.S.A. and Melo’s servant, the group comprised the two Englishmen, who had five interpreters and fifteen English companions).The Shah’s ambassador had four secretaries and fifteen servants, and thirty-two pack camels with gifts of the Shah for the princes of Europe. With camel drivers, the group numbered well over fifty persons. From a port on the Caspian Sea, sailed in slow stages to the mouth of the Volga River by early September 1599. They then moved up the Volga in galleys as far as Astrakhan two weeks later. After two weeks there, they boarded five barges with sails and oars, provided by the tsar, Boris Godunov (tsar 1598-1613). One hundred soldiers tsarist guarded them when they slept at night in the fields beside the river. The 1,300 miles of river took seven weeks to traverse.
After that, it required smaller boats and sleighs before they arrived at Moscow in late December 1599 or early January 1600 – the depth of winter. During this journey it is reliably reported that one of the English adventurers twice tried to murder Fr Melo, whose physical protection thereafter was voluntarily provided by the Shah’s ambassador. In Moscow, the Shah’s ambassador was feted, and the Englishmen and Augustinians were initially thrown into prison as suspected foreign spies. Upon his release, Melo lodged with a Catholic physician from Milan, and began celebrating Mass for the small number of Latin rite Catholics in Moscow. Melo then baptised the doctor’s daughter when she was eight days’ old. This enraged the local Ruthenian orthodox Catholics, who held that a child must not be baptised before the fortieth day. Melo was returned to prison. It is thought that the English adventurers may have intentionally formented the situation by saying that the baptism was evidence of a Popish plot against the Tsarist throne.
The incarceration was in a monastery prison, and the tsar directed its monks to force Melo to convert to Orthodox Christianity. Refusing to be coerced, Melo, Brother Nicholas and Melo’s servant were imprisoned there for six years. A pretender then assumed the throne in Moscow, and his wife was a Polish Catholic, Marina Mniszech. In May 1606 the new tsar released Melo and his companions, but this tsar was assassinated ten days later.
Painting (above): "Marina Mniszech under arrest with a priest" is an oil painting by Michail Kostantinowitsch Klodt (1832-1902), painted on canvas in 1883. It is in the Art Museum of Vologda, Russia. Nicholas Melo O.S.A. was one of the two priest chaplains to Marina at the time being portrayed.
His successor offered Melo the post of an Orthodox archbishop. Melo refused, was scourged, and was returned to prison. After three years, Brother Nicholas of Saint Augustine O.S.A. and Melo’s servant were then beheaded in front of him, in another vain attempt to break Melo's will. He remained in prison alone for another year – his tenth year in Russian confinement. Yet another Russian uprising occurred, and the Polish Catholic noblewoman, Marina Mniszech, the widow of the previous assassinated pretender, now wed this second pretender. The couple had a son, who Marina hoped would be the next tsar. Melo was freed by this tsar in 1613. He moved down to Astrakhan on the Volga River, and became one of the chaplains of Marina Mniszech. There Melo shared community with a Carmelite priest and a Franciscan priest.
Then Michael Romanov claimed the Tsarist throne, and the days of the tsarist pretender were numbered. In desperation, Marina Mniszech asked that one of the priests go to Persia to seek military help from the Shah. The Carmelite went to Persia. Melo stayed behind in Astrakhan, but gave the Carmelite a long written report for his Augustinian superiors about his fourteen torturous years in Russia. This report was safely delivered to the Augustinians who were by then based at Isfahan (in Iran). The armies of the new tsar, Michael Romanov (tsar 1613-1645) stormed Astrakhan late in 1614 or early in 1615. Marina Mniszech and her infant son were slain, and Nicholas Melo was once again imprisoned. This time he was sentenced to death, flogged and thrown alive into a fire. He was then about sixty-eight years old.
Augustiniana (April 1959), Augustinian Historical Institute of Louvain: Fr Nicholas Melo & Bro. Nicholas of Augustine, Augustinian martyrs by Arnulf Hartmann O.S.A. AN4531