Bethlehem – Franciscan Monastery
Santa Caterina “ad Nativitem”
P.O.B. 45 Bethlehem
Tel: +970. 02 / 274.24.25
The Activity of the Custody of the Holy Land in Judea
The activities of the Custody in the Holy Land in Judea (excluding Jerusalem and its surroundings, to which we have devoted a specific section) are concentrated exclusively in two ancient cities, certainly the most famous among those administered and controlled by the Palestinian Authority: Jericho and Bethlehem.
Jericho was the most ancient fortified city of the world, dating back to 8,000 or 9,000 years ago: through its long history, the city has lived periods of great splendor and total destruction.
During the time of the British Mandate (1920-1948) the Friar Minors contributed to the rebirth of this oasis – located in that segment of the Jordanian valley that crosses the Judean desert – by introducing the cultivation of plants like the papaya and the pomelo.
In Jericho, where Jesus healed the blind Bartimaeus and converted the rich Zaccheus, the Custody oversees the Catholic parish of the Good Shepard with its 200 members and manages the Terra Sancta Schools, attended in the vast majority by Muslim students. Near Jericho, on the banks of the Jordan river, the Custody leads every year a pilgrimage in the place where Jesus was baptized: after the procession of Palm Sunday that takes place in Jerusalem, this is the biggest Christian public event in the Middle East.
In Bethlehem and its environs, the Custody of the Holy Land takes care of the complex represented by the convent and the Church of St. Catherine situated right next to the Basilica of the Nativity, where the Franciscans oversee the celebrations of Latin Rite in the grotto where Jesus was born.
Pilgrims can stay at Casa Nova, the hotel built inside the complex or in the one immediately in front. Other sanctuaries managed by the Custody and frequently visited by pilgrims are the “Milky Grotto and the Shepherds’ Field.”
The contribution of the Franciscan to the city of Bethlehem is carried out on various levels. One is represented by the activities that are aimed directly at the territory: the parish mission, the schools of boys, the ACL center and the Franciscan Social Services Office. Then we have activities that are connected to the Custody but not managed directly by it like, for example, the Società Antoniana.
Finally, many centers have grown out of the Franciscan presence in Bethlehem: not directly connected to the Custody, these centers are run by religious institutions that work together with the Franciscans.
As a sign of its social commitment and particularly of the importance of its work in the field of education, in 2013 the Custody of the Holy Land became a shareholder of Bethlehem University with an agreement, which formally sanctions the creation of a shared property (shared ownership between the Custody and the University).
It is interesting to note that all services offered are aimed at the entire population, without distinctions of creed and religion.
The Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem
According to the tradition, the grotto of the Nativity is the place where Christ was born of the Virgin Mary. On this grotto, a Basilica with a nave and 4 aisles was built and it is accessible through a humble entrance.
The Franciscans share with the Armenians and the Greek Orthodox the right to celebrate the mass and to pray in the Grotto. Luckily, for the three denominations, the date of Christmas falls on three different days, so that everyone can celebrate the birth of the Savior with solemnity and quiet. On December 24, the Latin Patriarch celebrates the Mass of Christmas Eve in the adjoining Franciscan church of Saint Catherine. The importance of the Mass on Christmas Eve in Bethlehem goes beyond the liturgical celebration of the Christians of the Latin rite: it stands as the main social event of Palestine because it’s being broadcast worldwide and because it is attended by the President of the Palestinian National Authority.
The Organ of the Church of St. Catherine
In 2002 – year of it’s construction – the organ of the Church of St. Catherine in Bethlehem was in its own way a “martyr” of the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis, when the Basilica of the Nativity and the adjoining Franciscan monastery were occupied by one side and besieged by the other side. The organ was a “martyr” in the original sense of this word meaning a witness of the events who has suffered personally.
An article published on the magazine Terra Santa in 2004 and signed by Fr. Armando Pierucci and Fr. George Lewett (who was present when the events occurred) tells how the story went.
“The installation work began in March 2002 and continued until, in early April, the basilica was besieged for 39 days: the Palestinians inside, the Israelis outside. Some Palestinians died there, many lost their health; the parish hall was completely burned in a night attack. And the organ pipes that were stored there? The wooden ones were incinerated, the metal ones melted. Fortunately other pipes had already been placed in the church. In June 2002, the Austrian organ builders returned to fix at least the material that was saved from the siege. But only in November 2003, once the destroyed pipes had been rebuilt, the work was completed and the organ was finally heard in all its glory.”
In the same article, a technical description of the organ is provided.
“In the initial phase of the project, the engineers of the “Rieger” company came several times to Bethlehem, to study the most suitable location for the placement of the pipes. The solution was found in dividing the body into two parts: the positive organ was placed in the apse under the stained glass window depicting the Nativity; everything else went into the gallery that is above the door. The sound project was, however, managed by the principal organists of the Holy Sepulcher and Bethlehem, Father Armando Pierucci and Father George Lewett, together with the director of the “Rieger” company Dr. Christoph Glatter-Gotz.
The goal was not to regret the old organ and to create an instrument that evokes the charm of Bethlehem that everyone keeps in his heart: the bagpipes of the shepherds, the angels’ song, the bells of childhood and, perhaps, even the bells of Santa Claus. But above all, they wanted to create an organ that, through its 53 registers, not to mention the nightingales, and the set of 3443 pipes, offered the ability to play a large part of the organ literature. “
Grand Organo I. Manual C – g3
Positivo II Manual C – g3
See specification below
Recit III. Manual C – g3
Pedale C – f1
Magnetic card capture system
Campane (Tubular bells) g0 – g2
Campanelli (Hand bells) c0 – f2
Specification – Postiv Organ
Positivo Manual C – g3
Pedale C – f1
Christoph Glatter-Götz, “Die neue Rieger-Orgel der Kirche St. Caterina (Geburtskirche) in Bethlehem” in Ars Organi, Heft 3, p. 172, September 2002.
Armando Pierucci, George Lewett, “Il nuovo organo per Betlemme. Ha 3443 canne e va canonizzato” in La Terra Santa, III-2004, Franciscan Printing Press, Jerusalem, 2004.
Sabin and Gerard Levi, Organ culture in Israel and Palestine, (2005), Lexington KY, 2011.