On any given Saturday, hundreds of Filipino, Sri Lankan and Indian migrants fill a small Catholic chapel in a run-down Tel Aviv neighborhood to celebrate a series of multilingual masses.
The church, a converted whitewashed house with plaster peeling off its walls, has become a spiritual and social center for a community of worshippers living in a country where they constitute both an ethnic, and religious, minority.
But their humdrum workaday existence in Israel — where the majority work as laborers or carers to send money home to their families — has this month been transformed as they eagerly await the arrival of Pope Francis.
Days before his arrival, T-shirts featuring a picture of the pontiff and Jerusalem’s holy sites sell fast outside the chapel, which has a poster trumpeting his visit sellotaped to the entrance.
“It will be the first time I’ve seen Pope Francis, and I’m really excited about it,” said Marilyn Lupita, a mother-of-two who has not seen her family in the Philippines for two years.
“I’m going to Bethlehem for the mass,” she beamed, holding a T-shirt against herself for size.
Newly opened in March, the Our Lady, Woman of Valor pastoral center is organizing five buses to take the faithful from Israel’s commercial hub to the West Bank town of Bethlehem, the traditional birthplace of Jesus, where Pope Francis will say mass on May 25.
But many disappointed parishioners will not be able to make the journey, underscoring the toilsome existence of a community working thousands of miles from their loved ones.
“I’m very excited about the visit, but unfortunately I can’t go, as I’ll be working,” said Diana Blanco, a Filippino care worker in her twenties.
“I look after an elderly Israeli lady. It’s an almost 24-hour-a-day job, and I use the one day I do get off to come to Church,” Blanco told AFP.
Most parishioners are women working as carers.
There are some 60,000 Catholic migrant workers in Israel — more than double the number in the 1990s — most of them living in Tel Aviv alongside tens of thousands of illegal African immigrants, according to figures from the Roman Catholic Church in the Holy Land.
Members of the Our Lady center say numbers attending mass are growing as the migrant population increases and Catholics seek a continuation of their spiritual lives, as well as a familiar social milieu.
Masses are given in English, Tagalog and several Indian languages, as well as in French for west African migrants.
“It’s not easy for migrant workers to keep the faith, but they don’t give up and they use their time to attend mass,” said Filipino Sister Regina, who is based at the center.
“When they’re confronted with the challenges of life here, particularly an existence in quite a secular and non-Christian society, they turn to God and to the Church.”
“Compared to European or majority Christian countries it’s perhaps more difficult” to be a practicing Catholic in Israel, said Salesian Brother Arcadius Puwein, from northeastern India.
“A center like this takes care of people who don’t know where to go to strengthen their faith. The congregation’s numbers are increasing.”
The challenge for those who bring families or have children in Israel is assimilating into society without losing their Catholic identity — especially as the Catholic community becomes increasingly dwarfed by the faster-growing Jewish and Muslim populations.
“Within a generation we can lose all of our children to assimilation into the secular Jewish Hebrew-speaking world where church-belonging simply doesn’t make any sense, and where there is also a strong anti-religious element to secular education… and still a large degree of suspicion towards Christianity,” said Father David Neuhaus of Jerusalem’s Latin Patriarchate.
For now, at least, the Our Lady center appears to be booming, as hymns ring out from the chapel into the dusty backstreet.