In the spring of 1882, French Baron Amadeus Marie Paul de Piellat led the first penitential pilgrimage to Jerusalem. It was called the Grand Caravan de Mille: the Pilgrimage of the Thousand. Anxious to atone for their sins, 1,000 rich, devout French Catholics made the trip to the Holy City.
Unfortunately, there were not, as yet, suitable overnight accommodations in Jerusalem for such a large group. So de Piellat pitched tents on land he owned just outside the Old City walls, next to the hospital he had founded a few years earlier (see At Crusader-themed French Hospital, patients of all faiths find joy amid their suffering). Which was lucky, for the wind that rocked their tents and the rain that leaked inside caused quite a few of them to become ill.
Just beyond their tent city, just a few dozen meters away, the French group viewed, with envy, Russian Orthodox pilgrims being happily ensconced in brand new hostels. Worse still, their lodgings offered an unobstructed view of the Old City.
As soon as the pilgrims returned to France they took up a collection, and in 1884 construction began on the enormous Notre Dame monastery and guesthouse situated next to the hospital. The French Consul was present at the groundbreaking ceremonies, turning this into a national enterprise which, coincidentally, blocked the Russian view. Called Notre Dame de France, this was the largest single building constructed in Jerusalem before World War I and could house 1,600 pilgrims in its 410 rooms.
Today the splendid complex is officially known as the Notre Dame de Jerusalem Center. Adjacent to the French Hospital it is, day and night, one of the most magnificent structures in the city.
Tall, charming Father Eamon Kelly, in charge of guest relations, receives visitors to Notre Dame with a big, welcoming smile. “Tourists can be apprehensive about coming to the Holy City,” he says. “They worry about the tension they have heard about in the news, and are also anxious that in this place where ‘God got involved’ they might have some surprises in store.”
Kelly continues to smile as he strolls through the restaurants and the lobby, effectively cutting through the inevitable distance between priest and visitor. And he smiles at everyone he passes on the streets of Jerusalem, as well. Why? “Because they all have such serious faces. Of course, there is a reason behind it, there is a history here, and I think Jerusalem needs some smiles, some heartwarming.”
Born on an Irish farm with no electricity, no telephone, and located over a kilometer away from the nearest house, Kelly began cycling five kilometers to school each day from the age of six: “When they finally paved a road I had to be careful – in a month, as many as three cars might pass me by,” he jests.
A chance lecture at high school by a priest from the Mexican-based Legionaries of Christ captured his imagination, and Kelly eventually joined the Order. Following his ordination, he was sent to Germany and Austria, finally landing in New York. He was there, and intimately involved, during the events of 9/11 in 2001.
In 2004, headed by Father Juan Solana, the Legionaries of Christ took over the pastoral care of Notre Dame de Jerusalem; Father Kelly arrived as second in command two years later.
Exuding a warmth that seems to envelop everyone around him, Kelly finds the human experience in Jerusalem as rich as any in the world. “Of course you could say that about New York, and other cities, as well,” he adds. “But here there is a spiritual intensity as well.
He also finds that the Holy Land is the perfect venue for a priest. “Working with indifferent Christians is hard, for modern society has an invisible bullet proof shell that can be difficult to penetrate,” he reflects. “But when even the most hardened, secular Christian comes here and sees that the Sea of Galilee is not a myth, and they climb the Mount of Olives, visit the cave in Bethlehem, tour Nazareth and Jerusalem — their protective superstructure melts. This is one of the gifts of this place, for you don’t go to the people – they come to you asking questions, seeking. It may not produce a major change in their belief structures, but something opens up.”
This, explains Father Kelly, is the essence of Notre Dame, which acts as a nerve center and a resource for pilgrimage – a kind of touring that can be unusually exhausting, for it engages their souls as well as their bodies. “Often I tell incoming groups that we want them to enjoy two things at Notre Dame: a good meal and a good sleep — to restore them for the next day’s hard work.”
Nobody ever complains that there isn’t a television in his room, adds Kelly, for pilgrims to the Holy Land are not on vacation. “Their hearts and souls are so full that they don’t need entertainment. It’s would be like eating potato chips after a great meal, you just don’t want them.”
Some of our Shabbat guests are Jewish, he continues. “I say Shabbat Shalom and they are kind of taken aback, but pleased. I ask them to help me with a little Hebrew – and I take out my Old Testament and they help me to read a psalm. Now, at least, these non-religious Jews are doing something they might never do on Shabbat: reading a psalm.”
A special piece of linen cloth lies preserved at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Turin, Italy. Called the Turin Shroud, many believe it was the very same cloth that covered Jesus when he was prepared for burial.
Notre Dame boasts a museum-like exhibit that, along with replicas of the cloth, offers detailed, scientific explanations and photos that raise questions about whether it could, indeed, be that very shroud. Visitors often find that, while their minds are stimulated by a description of the shroud’s trek through time and space, their hearts may be touched, as well. Perhaps, suggests Father Kelly, this is because issues related to suffering are a universal human experience.
The museum is free and open daily to the public (donations are more than welcome). But tourists and locals who wish to get the most out of their visit should do so with staff from Notre Dame on a free guided tour: email 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.