French Baron Amadeus Marie Paul de Piellat was born in 1852. Along with the intense Christian education he received as he was growing up, de Piellat became enamored — some say obsessed — with the Crusades and the people who led their exciting campaigns.
In 1874, after joining a Catholic religious order, de Piellat made his first pilgrimage to the Holy Land. It was then that he visited Jerusalem’s only Catholic hospital, which consisted of three vastly overcrowded rooms within the Latin Patriarchate inside the Old City walls. Appalled at its terrible conditions, he bought land on the spot where a Lazarist leper’s hospital had operated in the 12th century. Coincidentally, or not, this was also the spot on which the Crusaders had camped in 1099 before breaching Jerusalem’s city wall.
Le Hȏpital Saint-Louis, designed in what architect David Kroyenker calls Baroque Renaissance style, was named for King Louis IX of France. De Piellat himself decorated the interior walls of the French Hospital, covering the wards with the brightly colored coats of arms belonging to Crusader families. Indeed, when he died in 1925 — at the hospital — de Piellat was deeply involved in restoring those earlier paintings, for the Turks who had been in control of the country before World War I had covered the crosses over with black paint.
Last year, a water pipe burst in the hospital storeroom, and during the clean-up, the nuns discovered some hitherto unknown Crusader paintings by de Piellat. By chance, says hospital director Monika Duellmann, experts from the Israel Antiquities Authority happened to be in the building, located near the Old City’s New Gate, next to City Hall. Excited, they promptly dispatched an expert to explain the art of cleaning the walls without damaging the newly discovered decorations: paintings by de Piellat depicting Crusader towns in the Land of Israel.
Sister Monika, warm and full of humor, has been running the hospital for past 11 years. Born in Germany, she first came to Jerusalem to study theology at Dormition Abbey in 1985. Then, having caught the Jerusalem Virus — “not the Syndrome,” she laughs, “for that they would have put me away” — she returned afterwards to volunteer at the hospital as an aide.
In 1989 she decided to join the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Apparition – the Order, founded in France in 1832, that was entrusted with care of the hospital. She later studied nursing in France and returned in 1999 as both nurse and nun.
While Jerusalem’s French Hospital is famous in the Holy Land as a hospice for the terminally ill, that’s not how it started out. Le Hȏpital Saint-Louis was actually founded as a general hospital, with an operating theater and a maternity ward.
In 1948 the hospital found itself on the extremely hostile border between Jordan and Israel. It stopped taking in patients, who, for a short time, were rerouted to St. Peter’s Church on Mount Zion.
In the early 1950’s, when Jerusalem suffered from a severe lack of facilities for cancer patients, the French Hospital re-opened as an oncological facility and the first – and only – Catholic monastery in the world with a kosher kitchen and a rabbi. Later, patients left the French Hospital for treatment at Hadassah Ein Kerem in the morning, and returned in the afternoon.
After Hadassah opened an oncology department complete with wards, the only cancer patients to reach the French Hospital were those who needed palliative care. And so the French Hospital became the country’s first hospice for terminal patients.
Later, in addition to people suffering from cancer, the French Hospital began taking patients in a coma and suffering from other forms of terminal illness. But there was a problem: some of the patients continued to live. So today the hospital contains three wards: oncology, complex nursing care, and a residence for former terminal patients whose families want them to continue getting the kind of wonderful care they had always enjoyed.
Unless mass is being held, visitors are welcome in the curiously decorated chapel. Take a look at St. Francis, pictured in one of the windows: a bullet passed through his hat during the War of Independence in 1948.
Sister Monika stresses that patients “don’t come here to die, but to live until they are dead.” So patients are taken out, to museums, to festivals, for walks in the city. “If they don’t need oxygen, they go out,” she says. “Even people in a coma, pushed in a wheelchair. And the reaction of the public has been very positive; they stop to watch us sing and dance – and we invite them to join in.”
The hospital is well connected to the community, which helps the patients feel integrated into society. On Fridays, for example, the “Shabbat Ladies” from Mea Sha’arim bring home-baked cakes to the patients; children belonging to B’nei Akiva come often to sing.
Because they are united by a common bond of suffering, the people who come together at the French Hospital get to know each other on a common ground. And with Jewish, Christian and Moslem holidays to celebrate, parties are frequent. Sometimes the result is rather unusual: every December, for example, patients and their families enjoy Klezmer music played between the Hanukkah menorah and the Christmas tree.
Any time is a good time for a party, says Sister Monika. One recent event was held for a man with little time left to live. When the music began playing he used his last strength to get up from his wheelchair, held by his wife as the two danced together. The patient died two days later, leaving behind a wonderful memory and pictures showing the love that beamed on their faces.
Financial assistance from donors here and abroad helps keep this amazing institution up and running. But these days there is an even more pressing need, for among the patients receiving care are terminally ill asylum seekers from Africa – ineligible for medical insurance.
To help the Hȏpital Français Saint-Louis, write to email@example.com.
Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel.
Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.