As a young priest serving in Portugal in the mid-1930s, Ernesto Ferreira envisioned his future filled with lifelong service to his church and its parishioners. He couldn’t know that within just a few short years a simple request from a member of his congregation and the reading of what were to him two unfamiliar books would dramatically alter his course and turn his life upside down.
Born April 14, 1913, in Ericeira, Portugal, to Juliao and Palmira Ferreira, Ernesto was early exposed to the faith of his parents. They reared him to love God, to be kind and helpful to others, and to embrace high moral values. The Ferreiras noted in their young son a strong commitment to spiritual matters, so at the age of 10 Ernesto was sent to a school, and later to a monastery in Spain. He spent 12 years at these institutions preparing for the priesthood. In 1935, at the age of 22, he was ordained as a priest. Just three years later, however, an event occurred that changed his life.
A parishioner approached Ernesto one day and handed him two books that lacked the imprimatur (official church declaration authorizing the publication of a book). They were The Great Controversy, by Ellen G. White, and Our Day in the Light of Prophecy, by W. A.
Spicer. The parishioner had purchased them from a door-to-door bookseller, and she wanted the priest’s permission to read them.
“I’ll need to read them myself before I can give you my opinion,” Ernesto told her. As he perused their pages he was intrigued and puzzled by some of their concepts. Noting that both books had been printed by a Seventh-day Adventist publishing house in Portugal, he contacted the people there and asked if they could put him in touch with someone who could explain the “new” doctrines. Thus began a series of Bible studies with Manuel Leal, a local Adventist pastor, and others. In 1939 Ernesto was baptized into the Adventist Church.
“Ernesto had been troubled by a few of his church’s beliefs for some time because he didn’t see a biblical basis for them,” says Odette Ferreira, Ernesto’s daughter-in-law and director of Adventist Colleges Abroad in the North American Division. “When studying the Bible with Pastor Leal, he became convinced that the doctrines the pastor was teaching him were truth, but it wasn’t easy for Ernesto to leave his church and the people he loved. . . .
“He retained strong friendships with many of the people throughout his life,” Odette says.
Although most Adventists welcomed Ernesto with open arms, there were those who were suspicious of his background. “Maybe he’s a spy!” some said. The concern regarding Ernesto’s motives for joining the Adventists grew, resulting in his receiving no salary during his first year of full-time work for the church.
“He didn’t have enough money even for a haircut,” Odette says.
After that, however, attitudes changed. Church leaders in Portugal offered Ernesto a position teaching Bible at the Adventist seminary in Portalegre, which he accepted. Four years later, in 1945, he was promoted to director of the institution. In 1949 he traveled to the United States to spend a year studying at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary on the campus of Emmanuel Missionary College (now Andrews University), and then returned to Portugal to serve as president of the Portuguese Union Mission.
From his youth Ernesto had longed to serve as a missionary in Africa, so in 1958, when a call came for him to be president of the Angola Union Mission in southern Africa, he jumped at the chance. Together with his administrative and evangelistic roles during more than 10 years in Angola, Ernesto was instrumental in opening numerous
His strong focus on promoting Adventist education continued throughout his career. The General Conference Education Department publicly recognized his significant contribution by presenting Ernesto with the Medallion of Distinction in 1997. This is the highest award that the GC Education Department confers “upon a select number of truly outstanding Seventh-day Adventist educators worthy of inter-division recognition.”*
“Ernesto Ferreira was a respected pioneer in Adventist education in Portugal,” says Humberto M. Rasi, director of the GC Education Department at the time this award was presented. “His long decades of faithful service and his scholarly interests served as a model and influenced the lives of many of the denominational leaders and members in his homeland and beyond. The Education Department was honored to award Dr. Ferreira the Medallion of Distinction for his outstanding accomplishments and lasting impact.”
Ernesto’s influence changed the lives of his own family members as well, including Odette, who credits her father-in-law in large part for her lifelong commitment to Adventist education.
“When I was only 9 years old, I heard Ernesto speak to a group of college students about the important role of Adventist education,” Odette explains. “He then gave an appeal for students to commit to working for Adventist education in some form for at least a few years of their career by going up to the front of the auditorium. Even though I was only 9, I went up front too. That day a conviction took root in my heart to work as a teacher in Adventist education—and that’s what I’ve done.”
Ernesto’s son (and husband to Odette) Teófilo Ferreira, now retired after 43 years of service to the Adventist Church, remembers his father as a very loving, caring parent. Still a child during World War II, Teófilo vividly recalls his father one day giving him an apple—“the only apple he had been able to find for days,” Teófilo says. “He also spent precious money purchasing Adventist children’s books, and he would read stories to me from those books every Friday evening.”
Teófilo credits his father for encouraging him to continue his academic studies—if his purpose in additional education was to better serve the Lord—as well as for broadening his understanding of other cultures as a result of the family’s living and working in various world fields.
“He taught me to love all people in every religion and trend of thought,” Teófilo adds. “He taught me to love the Lord.”
Teófilo also has worked in various capacities during his years of service to the church. He was a pastor, teacher, and editor in Lisbon, Portugal; a field president in Israel; an Old Testament, Hebrew, and archaeology professor in Collonges, France; an Old Testament and Hebrew professor at Sagunto College in Spain; and a Bible translator for the Portuguese Bible Society. His most recent position was as an associate director of the Ellen G. White Estate in Silver Spring, Maryland.
Ernesto served the Adventist Church and its people faithfully throughout the remainder of his life: twice more as president of the church in Portugal; as well as dean of the Theology Department of the Adventist college in Sagunto, Spain; and in various capacities for the Portuguese Publishing House. Following his retirement in 1980, he continued his close association with the publishing work.
Ernesto authored several books and countless articles, many of them for practical use by local pastors and church members on topics such as child rearing, education, and training in improved farming methods for missions.
“He wanted to instruct and educate others as much as he could,” Odette notes.
Ernesto published his book The History of the Adventist Church in Portugal when he was 98 years old. His last work, A Verdade Cristã (The Christian Truth), was published in April 2012, when he was 99. In this book he shared for the first time in print his personal conversion story.
Ernesto fell asleep in Jesus on November 21, 2012, at the age of 99. His wife, Irene—who worked closely alongside her husband in his missionary endeavors—predeceased him at age 74. The couple had one son, Teófilo; two grandchildren; and five great-
* General Conference Education Department, Partners in Ministry: Guidelines on Service Award, p. 7.