The Passionists in Palestine: 1903-1960

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by Rob Carbonneau, C.P., Ph.D.

The international character, history and ministry of the Passionist Congregation in the twentieth century demands greater exploration. Passionist religious life and the Power of the Cross have been experiences of ministry whereby opportunity, adaptation, and commitment have combined together to sustain a Passionist presence. The quest for a Palestinian homeland remains headline news. For most of twentieth century Palestine has also been home to the Passionists. Their story is a call to Passionists throughout the world, and those who know the Passionists, to understand, discover and reflect on what, is consistent about Passionist survival in a particular region.

Morgan Hanlon, C.P., Editor

The Passionists survival in Palestine is of interest because the survival of Palestine itself remains of interest to the contemporary world. The Passionist presence at St. Martha’s Retreat in Bethany is a witness of suffering presence. In 1953 Passionist scripture scholar Fr. Carroll Stuhlmueller published an anniversary article on St. Martha’s in The Passionist . Years later, many students of Catholic Theological Union in Chicago would travel with Fr. Carroll and others to the Holy Land and stay at or visit St. Martha’s as they went on pilgrimage to sacred sites in the Holy Land. The summary below is based upon articles published in The Passionist .

Passionist exiles in France to a new home in Palestine (1903-1937)

Between 1900-1902 French Passionist Father Charles of St. Ann (Armand de Prichard de la Tour) negotiated for the foundation in Palestine. At first the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem was not favorable. But the French Passionist presence at Bethany came about in 1903 because French anti-clerical laws forced many French Passionists to leave the country. With permission from Pope Leo XIII to establish a foundation in Palestine, twelve French Passionists set sail from Marseilles, France on May 2, 1903. In effect it was expulsion from their French homeland that created new opportunity.

The St. Martha’s property was purchased from the Servants of the Sacred Heart of Jesus (St. Quentin, France) and the Passionist community was installed on October 12, 1903. During the first two decades the foundation combatted hunger, sickness, and departure of religious. At the same time closed retreats were begun. In 1904 a special indult was obtained for novices to spend their year at Bethany. By World War I (1914) the indult had ceased. On April 11, 1913 Father John Charles died at 83. His death and World War I (1914-1918) changed the configuration of the community. Some religious died, some were drafted into military service, others left the Congregation, and the retreat was pillaged. During the war Turkish, German and English soldiers occupied the monastery. But eventually the Passionists returned.

In 1919 reconstruction commenced at St. Martha’s. Dominican priests assisted the Passionists in the reconstruction. Dominican Pere Lagrange presented the Passionists with the altar.

At the same time the Passionists had become known for the ministry they conducted at the Dispensary which had been established in 1904. It had been established in order to gain some inroad of service into the Moslem community. The idea was that service to the people would bring the life of the Gospel to the people. It was a ministry of healing and presence. Over 12-14,000 people were served each year. The catalyst behind this venture was Brother Albert [Aime Vermenlen]; known as “Hakim” (the Arabic term for medicine) his efforts helped facilitate a new three room building in 1912. His presence at the clinic and travelling around the local region visiting the sick gained the respect of both Muslims and Christians. His death in 1935 caused the peoples of the various traditions of the area to come and show their respect at the Bethany chapel. Soon after the dispensary closed. However, it was reopened in 1937 through the work of a Sister of Charity.

Establishing a Passionist homeland (1937-1948)

The Passionist Congregation has always believed that survival of the message and spirituality of St. Paul of the Cross is dependent upon native vocations. In 1937 the Passionists found a homeland in Palestine when two local Arab Christians: John and Alexander Salah entered the Congregation. Their novitiate, the time of preparation to enter the Congregation and take vows, was completed in Italy. During World War II communications with Italy and France remained severed, but in 1946 the Salah brothers were able to return to Palestine as ordained priests, the first Arab priests in the Congregation.

On December 19, 1946 Superior General Albert Deane appointed Father Bonaventure Oberst as superior at St. Martha’s. Fr. Bonaventure, a member of Holy Cross Province in the United States, had served the Passionists in the United States and in Rome. Under his direction, St Martha’s saw sixty Polish refugees who had arrived at the monastery in 1939 at the start of WW II leave the monastery. Once again, Passionist community life of prayer commenced. Fr. Bonaventure began to improve the property. He constructed a wall for protection.

On May 15, 1948 Britain declared an end to her mandate over Palestine. War between Arabs and Jews commenced immediately. Even in this unsettled period, Father John Salah preached a successful mission in his native Arabic; the Passionist observance was kept and the community was in good health. This all despite the fact that the cost of living was on the rise and “a certain amount of danger is always present, being so close to Jerusalem.” On January 12, 1948 conditions had deteriorated to such an extent that French Passionist Bonaventure Euthyme, American Barnabas Ahern, and Polish Brother Michael Wiewiorkowski left Palestine for Rome. For protection, Fathers John and Albert Salah “to avoid having unknown refugees in the house, allowed good, quiet Arabian families, mostly near relatives of the Fathers, to occupy the remaining rooms in the monastery.”

However, tension increased. On May 18, 1948 Fr. John Salah was shot by a sniper. Jewish troops, in command of the heights of the Dormtion Church were shelling Arab positions near Bethany and Salah became a casualty. Albert Salah, brother of John Salah and Fr. Bonaventure Oberst summarized the details: Father John Salah was outside the Bethany Passionist residence and had entered the nearby grounds of the Sisters of Charity when a bullet, reportedly from Mt. Sion hit Salah “through `The Sign'” (the heart symbol on the Passionist religious garb) and entered his heart. Carried to a Bethany first aid station he was in critical condition. The Franciscan Superior of Bethpage was called to hear his confession. Father Salah improved slightly. On the morning of May 20 he was brought to the international Red Cross Hospital at Jesrusalem but at 6PM he died. He was buried on May 22 at Bethany with a military funeral.

Born a Jerusalem Arab, John Salah was educated by the Sisters of St. Joseph and the Christian Brothers, whom after graduating, he joined in the teaching profession; later he taught at the Patriarchal Latin School at Ramallah about ten miles north of Jerusalem. Salah was a novice at Monte Argentario, Italy and studied at San Angelo and Sts. John and Paul, in Rome and was ordained in 1943. His first assignments were preaching in the Italian Sabine Mountains. Back in Palestine in 1946, he and Albert Salah gave retreats in Arabic. John was able to write in French so as to be ready to serve the European Communities. He was able to speak English, French, Hebrew and modern Greek and Italian. Father Albert, ordained July 16, 1944, remained in Palestine after the death of his brother.

Throughout Fall of 1948 fighting continued around St. Martha’s. The relatives of Arab Passionist, Fr. Albert Salah were living at the Retreat. Some Dominicans spent time in residence and the Apostolic Delegate left his car at St. Martha’s for safe keeping as well. Prices continued to rise. As drug stores in the area were destroyed the need for quinine and vitamins became more pronounced. At the same time reverence was growing for Fr. John Salah who had been killed by a “Zionist bullet.” Still, controls were in place and often times mail did not get through to the Passionists in Palestine.

1950-1960 Passionists in Palestine under direction from Rome

In 1949 Fr. Bonaventure Oberst died in the United States. This put the future of the Passionist presence in Palestine in an even more fragile situation. In early February 1950 Father Albert Salah, the sole Passionist in Palestine told how he was “trying to keep the Retreat in good condition and free from being requisitioned by military and other agencies” and advised “against staying in the ordinary hotels, against traveling with some advertising agencies.” Still hopes were that the 28 rooms at Bethany might be available to pilgrims in 1950. In 1950 Albert Deane placed the house under the immediate jurisdiction of the General Curia. Another means of public awareness began when in 1952 Fr. Bernard began the pious association La Lampada dell’Amicizai . Franciscans continued excavations near the Passionist property.

On July 29, 1951 the period of struggle seemed to be ending as the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem celebrated a Pontifical Mass in the restored Chapel and a new painting above the main altar was blessed. The Patriarch requested that St. Martha’s be used temporarily to provide accommodations for pilgrims to the Holy Land. Visitors to the retreat included Eamon de Valera, President of the Irish Free State, several Bishops, and the members of the Pontifical Aid to Palestine.

In 1952 the Passionists at Bethany began publishing Voce Missionaria Passionista . Edited by Father Pius, C.P. the aim was to establish a Quarterly Review in order to speak about Holy Places in Jerusalem and to “pray for their recovery from the hands of the infidel.”

By 1953 St. Martha’s was directly under the jurisdiction of the General Curia in Rome. In 1953 there were four religious de familia: three priests and one brother. Hospitality to pilgrims remained the primary apostolate. In 1954 the Passionist General assisted in completing renovation. Adjacent property had poor soil and lack of water.

In a January 25, 1955 letter, Fr. Pius spoke of the large number of Moslems “who are quite prejudiced and by no means disposed to enter the Church of Jesus Christ.” This though many parishes had been started by the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem in Palestine and the few converts were Orthodox. While adult converts among Moslems were infrequent, the opportunity to baptize infants near death at the Dispensary was a consolation .

Bethany itself remained calm through the turmoil of 1957, but protest in Jerusalem was felt in Bethany. One 1957 report stated: “Ordinarily the crowd goes to Jerusalem to demonstrate and the demonstrations in Bethany are mild and hardly reach the Passionist monastery. The religious stay home at this time until the enthusiasm dies down.” Temporarily there were demonstrations in Jerusalem against America, England, and France. “Flags were torn, consulates were burned and some dead and wounded were left behind.” The report added “all the trouble in Palestine has been on a political basis and not religious.” Jerusalem was not looking towards war which would mean entrenchment and barricades in the city. The report concludes: “With the threat of war is found the danger of a communist regime in Palestine and all know what it would mean to have such a regime in the Holy Land.”

In August 1957, Fr. Pius received official recognition from Jerusalem , published by the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, for the refugee work with Polish refugees at Giordania. Acknowledgement was also given to the work of Passionists at the “Old Folks Home” which was opened February 2, 1957. On Easter Monday a 23 year old Muslim was baptized and received first Communion ” very privately in the Passionist chapel at Bethany.” Such events as this were very rare and special moments in the Passionist presence at Bethany

A 1956 article provided background on the Bethany foundation telling readers how the two story building is “quiet, compact and well arranged” with twenty-three rooms, as well as common rooms, recreation and chapel.

1960 was the third year that Passionists were chaplains at the home for the elderly. It had about 60 residents and with more financial resources more could have been housed. “The one condition to be accepted,” stated one report,” is that one must be too old to be abandoned, to have lost one’s strength and not be desired in the family. There are men there of all religions and rites. The only ones not in the home are the Jews for there is not a single Jew in all of Trans Jordan..”

The above historical sketch indicates that maintaining a Passionist presence sometimes requires an international commitment. It also indicates that there are diversified Passionist ministries. Passionist presence at Bethany has not been strictly sacramental. Witness to the Passion of Jesus has meant setting up a clinic, work with refugees, hospitality for religious pilgrims and work with the elderly. How a Passionist presence sustains itself during financial and cultural strife demands greater attention as well. Perhaps it will be such understanding that will enable others to see that preaching the Passion of Jesus is not only a theological and sacramental experience; preaching the Passion is also a life witness dictated by how well Passionists read and respond to the signs of the times.

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