Jerusalem’s Notre Dame Center, place of peace amid conflict

5 mins read
The Notre Dame Center of Jerusalem has served Christian pilgrims since 1888. Photo by Debbie Hill

As dusk began to fade into evening, the lobby of the Notre Dame Center of Jerusalem filled with guests — some trudging in with their suitcases arriving from the airport, others returning from a full day of visiting holy sites.

Consecrated laywoman Johanna, who asked that her last name not be used, moved easily about the lobby checking in with anybody who seemed to need a little extra help and welcoming others with a smile. Originally from Germany, she has been volunteering at Notre Dame for 10 years.

“We try to be the spirit of the house so that it is not just a hotel,” she explained. She is one of three consecrated laywomen who live on the grounds of Notre Dame and provide spiritual services for pilgrims. “We try to make contact with the pilgrims, to welcome them. Most are thankful. My mission is to introduce them to the mystery so they can connect to God.”

The laywomen occasionally also take small groups of pilgrims who want a more intimate connection to visit holy sites in Jerusalem and elsewhere.

“For them it might not be enough to just see the sites and take a picture. They really want to take time, have prayer time. Only when you start praying does grace start flowing. When pilgrims come here, it is their moment, God pours his grace to them,” said Johanna.

She also takes pilgrim groups to visit the Museum of the Shroud, which is on the Notre Dame grounds and presents the history and significance of the Shroud of Turin.

Remain in the sacred

It is little extras like the presence of the laywomen who connect with the pilgrim’s faith and purpose in the Holy Land that has made the Notre Dame Center of Jerusalem a central place for many pilgrims since its founding in 1885.

“I just saw a priest walking with a rosary behind his back, and I can take that with me. I feel connected to that. Our pilgrimage just continues once we get back to Notre Dame,” said Sheila Weingartz, from Holy Family Parish in Minneapolis, Minnesota, as she sat chatting with other members of her group in the hotel. “You don’t have to explain yourself because people understand the importance of you being here.”

“What I love about our room [is it] has the cross over the bed,” agreed Lynette Peerson, from St. Joseph Parish in Redwing, Minnesota. There are no TVs in the rooms. “It gives me a deeper connection to my Catholic faith. It is all seeped with memory and meaning. It is not just one and done. It brings everything together. You can do the Rosary right here and you don’t have to go far.”

Priests are on-hand to hear confession, and a nightly Mass provides fellowship and communion for pilgrims who have returned from often deeply moving visits to holy sites and want to remain with the sacred a bit more.

Restoration and growth

Celebrating its 130th anniversary this year, the Notre Dame Center began as a pilgrim’s hostel in 1888 run by French Assumptionists who had started bringing French pilgrims to the Holy Land six years earlier. After 20 years of construction, the guest house was completed in 1904 with a replica of the Parisian statue of Our Lady of Salvation crowning the project.

However, the building was heavily damaged during the Arab-Israeli War of 1948. Located on the border between East and West Jerusalem on the edge of the Old City, the building’s south wing was all but destroyed in two bombings and became an Israeli guard post. Eventually the center was turned over to the Holy See, and in 1972 its status was restored as a pilgrim center, a project of deep importance for Pope St. Paul VI. Under Pope St. John Paul II, the center officially became the Pontifical Institute and an ecumenical holy place.

In 2004, John Paul II entrusted the Pontifical Institute Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center to the Legionaries of Christ. Father Juan Maria Solana, L.C., was assigned as the new chargé and oversaw an overhaul for the center.

John Paul II also furthered the focus of the center as a place of employment and education for the local Christian community, which had suffered economically during the two Palestinian Intifadas. A culinary school on the grounds helps prepare local Christian youth for careers in the restaurant and hotel business. Many of the school’s graduates begin their work at Notre Dame itself, in either its coffee shop, restaurant, or rooftop gourmet cheese and wine bar restaurant, which commands an impressive view of Jerusalem.

Long a local landmark, the 150-room Notre Dame Center today employs 170 people, 90 percent of whom are Christian.

And with tourism booming — it has increased 30 percent over the last two years — Notre Dame currently is planning an expansion for some 140 rooms and are waiting for the municipal permits to begin the project, which would create 40-45 new jobs.

General Director Yousef Barakat has been at the center for 30 years. He started off as a receptionist after three years of joblessness following his graduation from Bethlehem University with a degree in business administration at the height of the first Intifada in 1987.

“One of the missions of the Notre Dame Center is to help as much as we can the Christian young people. It was their mission before, but John Paul II put a focus on creating jobs in the Old City,” said Barakat.

Peace amid differences

“Notre Dame is very important for local Christians to feel united and not as a minority,” said Barakat. “The majority of people in East Jerusalem are Muslim, and for Christians it is very difficult. … Here [Notre Dame], the majority are Christians, so we feel at home.”

Muslims also are employed at Notre Dame, but they must feel comfortable with serving alcohol, and women must take off their hijab while working on the premises, he said.

A resident of the Old City, Barakat said there are often conflicts between the city’s Christian residents and Muslim residents over religion.

“Notre Dame is very important for all Christians here. Christians think of it as our stronghold. It is our symbol,” said Eliane Abdinnour, development and marketing manager at Notre Dame. “It’s just a home which welcomes everybody. It is a meeting point.”

Indeed, located on the seam line between East and West Jerusalem, Notre Dame has been host to both Israeli and Palestinian delegations during the now-stagnated peace talks.

“This is a place of dialogue, a place of culture,” Abdinnour said. “Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat uses the rooftop for interviews. Pope Benedict met with Jewish rabbis and Muslim imams at our conference center. For me to see all of that is amazing.” In fact, during his tenure, Barakat has welcomed four popes to Notre Dame Center: Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI, Francis and Coptic Pope Tawadros II.

“I’ve met many international people here, and you just respect one another,” said Rozana Najjar, a Catholic biotechnology student working at the center’s coffee shop. Her green identity card signifies she is a permanent resident of Jerusalem but not an Israeli citizen, limiting where she can work. “You forget to think if the person in front of you is Jewish, Christian or Muslim. When I come here I always feel relaxed.”

“We are a safe place, where people can feel at home,” said Father José Félix Ortega, vice chargé to the center’s Pontifical Institute. “Someplace neutral without any political connotations. The fear people have of one another is because we don’t know each other. We judge one another. Here people see each other.

“We see our differences and we see what we have in common. We are living here together and people see it is possible to be together. It doesn’t mean we have to be best friends, but we can live together,” said Ortega.

Visit the Notre Dame Center website.

Judith Sudilovsky

Judith Sudilovsky writes for OSV News from Jerusalem.