19th-century frescos uncovered in Jerusalem Catholic hospital

A broken pipe in this room at St. Louis French Hospital in Jerusalem revealed 19th-century frescoes depicting Crusader-inspired art. (CNS/Courtesy St. Louis French Hospital)

A broken pipe in this room at St. Louis French Hospital in Jerusalem led hospital administrators to discover 19th-century frescoes depicting Crusader era- inspired images. (CNS/Courtesy St. Louis French Hospital)

By Judith Sudilovsky

JERUSALEM — Riding on the wave of interest of all things Catholic prior to Pope Francis’ visit to the Holy Land, the Israel Antiquities Authority invited journalists to take a peek at a series of fascinating 19th-century frescos depicting the city’s Crusader history discovered at the St. Louis French Hospital.

The hospital is located next to the Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center where the pope will meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Normally the hospital does not allow journalists to walk around its halls in order to protect the privacy of patients.

The frescos were discovered in the course of reorganizing  a storeroom. In addition, a water pipe had burst in the building earlier, loosening the modern plaster and paint on a wall revealing 19th-century paintings.

“When we got everything out we saw this beauty-filled room. We are blessed to be in a place like this, so full of history. We have to maintain it for the people who come after us even if we don’t have money to fully restore it,” said hospital director Sister Monika Dullman as she showed a journalist around.

She noted that even though the narrow doorways of the hospital are sometimes unsuited for wheelchairs and hospital beds, it is unthinkable to widen them because it would mean destroying some of the paintings.

In the wake of the discovery, conservators with the Israeli Antiquities Authority assisted the sisters in cleaning and stabilizing some of the paintings. The conservators told the sisters the paintings are in the style characteristic of monumental church decorations of the 19th century, with close attention to small details and motifs from the world of medieval art.

The building itself is a two-story structure built in the Renaissance and Baroque style, and is named for St. Louis IX, king of France and leader of the seventh crusade (1248-1254). The hospital it houses was founded by French Count Comte Marie Paul Amedee de Piellat, a Catholic who visited Jerusalem many times in the second half of the 19th century.

De Piellat built the hospital between 1879 and 1896. He considered himself to be a descendant of the Crusaders. He chose to build the hospital at the historic area where the army of the Norman King Tancred camped before brutally breaching Jerusalem’s walls with his allies.

Also an artist, de Piellat decorated the walls and ceiling of the hospital with large paintings portraying Crusader knights in their armor and brandishing swords alongside the heraldry symbols of the French knights’ families. He added the symbols of the Crusader cities, symbols, military orders and monastic orders.

The count later went on to build the Notre Dame Center as a hostel for Christian pilgrims.

When the Turks took over the building during World War I, they covered the frescos with black paint. At the end of the war the count returned to the hospital and devoted the rest of his life to removing the black paint. He died in the hospital in 1925.

Hospital administrators said they have no intention of turning the facility into a tourist attraction, preferring that the “humble and quiet sacred work” of caring for the sick continue undisturbed.

A ‘Top Ten’ list about Jesus

Unlike David Letterman’s “Top Ten” lists, this list starts with the smallest number and then proceeds from there.

The list is from Jesuit Father James Martin, editor at large of America magazine and author of the new book “Jesus: A Pilgrimage,” which documents his own pilgrimage to the Holy Land as part of his preparation to write a book about Jesus.

Jesuit Father James Martin on pilgrimage in Holy Land (Photo courtesy Fr. Martin)

Jesuit Father James Martin on pilgrimage in Holy Land. (Photo courtesy Fr. Martin)

Father Martin is no stranger to comedy, what with his being the chaplain to “The Colbert Report”; host Stephen Colbert, even when he isn’t using the French-sounding affectation of his surname, is a honest-to-goodness Catholic.

But Father Martin plays it straight with his own “Top Ten,” driving home some essential points about Jesus’ earthly life and ministry while deflecting some of the suppositions others tend to make about Jesus.

Take a look for yourself. It’s a deft four-minute video.

Jerusalem welcomes Vatican official who works with Jews

By Judith Sudilovsky

JERUSALEM — Swiss Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations With the Jews, was warmly welcomed by a largely Jewish audience to an intimate gathering focusing on Jewish-Catholic relations.

Sharing the stage with him were two rabbis: Austrian-born Rabbi Mordechai Piron, who was Israel’s second chief military rabbi and today serves as the chairman for the Israeli Jewish Council on Interreligious Relations, and Rabbi David Bollag, a fellow Swiss and a lecturer and senior research fellow at the Institute of Jewish-Christian Research in Lucerne.

Pope Benedict XVI rekindles the eternal flame at Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem May 11, 2009. The flame commemorates the six million Jews killed by the Nazis in the Holocaust. (CNS photo/Ronen Zvulun, Reuters)

During the May 24 event at the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, Cardinal Koch’s message reiterated his statements to journalists a week ago emphasizing the binding nature of the Second Vatican Council and “Nostra Aetate.”

Rabbi Piron, a nonagenarian, reminded the audience of times when any encounter between Jews and the Catholic Church had been “a tragic and difficult moment; a reality of blood and tears and persecution.”

“But now all this has changed, totally and radically,” said Rabbi Piron.

While denying any direct connection to the Nazi Holocaust in which some 6 million Jews were murdered, Cardinal Koch said that Christians did not display the “vigor and vitality” one would expect from them in opposing Hitler’s regime, which Cardinal Koch said was also anti-Christian.

“So we Christians have every reason to remember our complicity,” he said.

Rabbi Bollag said he felt there was a direct connection between the long history of Christian anti-Semitism and the Nazi killing machine. He said he felt troubled by the Vatican’s return to limited use of the Tridentine Mass and Pope Benedict XVI’s rewriting of a Good Friday prayer for the conversion of the Jews.

“I have no intention as a Jew of suggesting to the Vatican that or even how it should change this prayer,” he said. “It is our duty to respond and to express how we hear this prayer. We hear it as a regression … to a very painful episode of relations between Christians and Jews. I admit we are oversensitive a bit, but we are traumatized,” said Rabbi Bollag.

A young Israeli woman, Hana Bendcowsky, program director of the Jerusalem Center for Jewish-Christian relations, noted that as an Israeli Jew she no longer felt traumatized and wondered what were the steps specifically Israeli Jews needed to take so that young people could learn about Christianity.

“In our 2,000-year history in reality we are still strangers to each other,” she said.

Reflections on a visit to the Gaza Strip

Sami El Yousef, regional director in Palestine and Israel for the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, just returned from his first trip in seven months to the Gaza Strip.

In reflections posted on the website of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, he writes of the “the heroes in Gaza and how brave they all are to live under these difficult conditions, yet how they are still able to smile and laugh and continue to hope that tomorrow will be a better day.” Israel controls traffic in and out of the Gaza Strip, although Egypt has opened a border crossing to people only.

El Yousef speaks of fuel shortages and their cascading ramifications; trying to lift the spirits of Christian university students; and seeing goods that had been smuggled through tunnels from Egypt.

His reflections can be read here.

Passover is around the corner — that means it’s matzah time

In the last couple of decades Catholic parishes have conducted Christianized “Seder” suppers. These “Seders” are not true Seders, of course, since they usually include Catholic prayers and symbols. However, they serve a couple of great catechetical purposes. The ceremony brings home the story in the Old Testament of the Jews flight from Egyptian captivity in Moses’ time. It also helps Catholics understand how Jews today celebrate that important event in their history.

One of the things served at every Seder is matzah, the bread of affliction, unleavened because the fleeing Hebrews had no time to wait for their bread to rise before they left for the Promised Land. And at Passover, not just any matzah will do. Seders require shmurah matzah, made from wheat that has been carefully grown and processed.

Our friends at the Jewish Telegraphic Agency went inside the Manischewitz shmurah matzah factory in Newark, N.J., for an inside look at how this ceremonial bread is made. Watch the fascinating video story.

So next week, when you are at a parish “Seder” or if you’re fortunate enough to celebrate a Passover Seder with a Jewish friend, when they pass the matzah you can say, “You know, I’ve seen this made.”

A glimpse of life along the Via Dolorosa

JERUSALEM — The sound of schoolboys playing and roughhousing echoes off stone walls as they run up an alley on their way home after a day of classes. An elderly man follows, admonishing them to settle down and stop disturbing the neighborhood.

Shopkeepers urge visitors to check out their wares. “What can I show you?” is a regular refrain.

Life along the Via Dolorosa in the Old City of Jerusalem near the third and fourth stations on Jan. 30. (CNS/Dennis Sadowski)

Two fashionably dressed young women walk briskly, talking quietly, smiles on their faces. The sound of their ankle-high boots striking the stone walkway announce their presence. A few men look up to catch a glimpse.

It’s daily life on the Via Dolorosa — Latin for the Way of Grief — in the Old City of Jerusalem.

Even on a cold, foggy day with a steady rain falling — as it was yesterday — the sights and sounds along the 2,000-foot path that Jesus is believed to have followed to Golgotha leaves a multitude of thoughts and questions: What was Mary thinking as she saw her son pass? Did Simon of Cyrene volunteer to help Christ struggling with his cross, or did the Roman soldiers force him to step in because he said something that raised their ire? How did Jesus keep going after falling, not once, but twice onto the hard stone pavement — with people who did not know him likely jeering all around? Who were the crying women he met? Were they mothers? Friends of Mary? Followers of their messiah? Did Jesus think he could escape or did he face the inevitable knowing he was carrying out a plan far greater than he could ever imagine?

And more.

The Via Dolorosa is most easily reached by entering through the Lions’ Gate — also known as St. Stephen’s Gate — on the east side of the walled Old City of Jerusalem. Along the path, simple black round metal markers bearing Roman numerals indicate the first nine Stations of the Cross. In several locations churches have been built to recall a specific incident in the final hours of Christ’s life.

The final five stations are commemorated inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, a structure dating to at least the fourth century. During excavation, St. Helena is said to have discovered pieces of the original cross at the site.

Hundreds of pilgrims crowd into the church daily. Some have followed the Via Dolorosa; others have come to venerate the place where Christ died, was buried and rose from the dead. They patiently wait to see relics, pray at Christ’s tomb and view the rock where the three crosses are believed to have been erected. Some kneel, some weep, some watch in silence. During Lent, the number of pilgrims visiting the church will increase until events culminate in the Easter triduum.

The church remains under the shared administration of several Christian churches under a long-ago arrangement. It is home to Roman Catholic, Eastern and Oriental Orthodox churches.

It remains the holiest place on earth for Christians.

Dennis Sadowski is traveling in the Holy Land with other Catholic journalists from the United States under the auspices of the Catholic Press Association in an arrangement with the Israeli Ministry of Tourism.

Holy Land retreat connects New York cardinal-designate with his priests

Cardinal-designate Timothy M. Dolan of New York greets Catholic journalists from the United States in Jerusalem Jan. 29. (CNS/Bob Mullen, The Catholic Photographer)

JERUSALEM — Traveling with a busload of his fellow priests through the Holy Land is giving Cardinal-designate Timothy M. Dolan of New York the opportunity to reflect on what his upcoming investiture as cardinal means for his priesthood.

“Just to be here … at a pivotal moment in your life, a time of transition, (that) you would turn to the Lord in prayer and reflection, this is good,” Cardinal-designate Dolan said at the Pontifical Institute Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center during a brief meeting with a group of Catholic journalists from the United States also visiting Israel.

Cardinal-designate Dolan is leading 50 priests of the New York Archdiocese on what he describes as a retreat pilgrimage. They have so far visited the Mount of Beatitudes, the Jordan River to renew baptismal vows and the Qumran National Park, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered.

Cardinal-designate Dolan said the priests also celebrated Mass yesterday at the Church of the Good Shepherd in the ancient city of Jericho in the Judean Desert east of Jerusalem.

He described the trip as one full of emotion.

“A pilgrimage, of course, is intended in Catholic wisdom to be a microcosm of life,” he said. “So you have all the emotions, right? You got fatigue, you got joy, you got smiles, you got tears, you got restlessness.”

With several days to spend in Jerusalem, Cardinal-designate Dolan expects more of the same, especially as the priests gather for daily Mass and visit the sites of Christ’s passion and death, resurrection from the dead and ascension into heaven.

The retreat pilgrimage is the third that Cardinal-designate Dolan has led for his fellow priests in his three years as archbishop of New York. The first was during the Year for Priests in 2010 to Ars, France, home of St. John Vianney, patron saint of priests. Last year it was to Italy, to Assisi and Rome particularly.

Next year, to mark the Year of Faith, a pilgrimage to the sites of church councils is being considered. On the agenda are Nicea, Constantinople and Ephesus, all in Turkey.

“When I came (to New York) I said I wanted to get to really know my priests well because there’s so many of them. I said, ‘There’s no better way to know somebody than traveling with them,’” Cardinal-designate Dolan said.

“We’ve limited it to a busload of priests because you really want to get to know the guys. You laugh together. You pray together. You eat together. You can yell at each other,” he said with a laugh.

The American Catholic journalists were in the Holy Land on a trip sponsored by Israel’s Ministry of Tourism.

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