Between the Old City and new

Built by the French and now owned by the Vatican, Notre Dame de Jerusalem is a meeting point for people from varied backgrounds.

Pontifical Institute Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center 521 (photo credit: Reuters)
Pontifical Institute Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center 521
(photo credit: Reuters)
Ask a Jerusalemite about Notre Dame and he’ll likely regale you about the last time he jetted off to Paris and toured its medieval cathedral.
Which is a shame. Notre Dame here, more correctly called the Pontifical Institute Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center, is also a storied place of worship worthy of a visit.
Moreover, it’s an elegant pilgrim guest house that has welcomed Pope Benedict XVI and offers divine cuisine in four elegant eateries – and the tram fare, at NIS 6.60 (get off at the Safra Square station and walk to 3 Hatzanhanim Road) is a lot cheaper than a flight from Ben-Gurion Airport to Charles de Gaulle.
While the terrace offers a spectacular view of the capital, alas, there are no hunchbacks. Or gargoyles. Notre Dame – meaning “our lady” in French and referring to Mary, the mother of Jesus – has a complex history reflecting the aspirations and conflicts that have shaped Jerusalem over the last century and a half, explains Father Eamon Kelly, the Irish-born cleric and bon vivant who serves as the center’s vice chargé.
In the latter half of the 19th century, the European powers began sending missionaries, pilgrims, educators, doctors, explorers and archeologists to the Holy Land as part of la mission civilisatrice – a colonial campaign in which the Great Powers jockeyed to supplant the ailing Ottoman Empire as the imperial suzerain.
With large contingents of Russian Orthodox serfs newly released from bondage flocking to the Russian Compound just off Jaffa Road, it became inevitable that the czar’s rival France would construct a major pilgrimage center.
In 1874, Baron Marie Paul Amedee de Piellat visited Jerusalem and the hospital that France’s Sisters of Saint Joseph had established in the Old City in 1851.
Appalled by the clinic’s unsanitary conditions, in 1881 he established a modern facility outside the walls – which continues to function today as the 50-bed Hospice St. Louis for the terminally ill.
The following year, de Piellat returned to the Holy City. This time he led le Grand Caravan de Mille, a pilgrimage of 1,000 rich French Catholics organized by the Augustinian Fathers of the Assumption. It was the first penitential pilgrimage to the Holy Land in modern times on such a grand scale. Disembarking at Jaffa, the pilgrims lugged an enormous wooden cross up to Jerusalem. But the Holy City was ill-equipped to shelter so many pilgrims – they camped next to the newly built St. Louis des Français Hospital.
Staying in tents, the wealthy French pilgrims were irked to witness Russian peasants sleeping in real beds with a roof over their heads in the nearby Russian Compound. Returning to France, the pilgrims launched a national fund-raising appeal to erect an enormous monastery and guest house. In 1884, construction began according to a neo-Baroque plan by Abbé Brisacier of Tours. In 1886, Monsignor Poyet of Lyons, the vicar-general of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, proposed naming the then-rising edifice Notre Dame de France. Indeed, Notre Dame – built to house 1,600 pilgrims in its 410 rooms – became a symbol of French prestige in the Middle East. Not coincidentally, the French center obscured the view of the Old City from the Russian Compound.
The first pilgrims arrived in 1888, and the following year the Turks breached the Old City ramparts to create the New Gate accommodating the throngs of pilgrims flocking to the Christian Quarter. By 1904, after two decades of construction, an enormous replica of Our Lady of Salvation in Puy-en-Velay crowned Notre Dame between the pilgrim center’s twin towers.
The original iron statue was cast from 213 melteddown cannons captured in the 1854-1855 siege of Sebastopol during the Crimean War. But unlike sculptor Jean-Marie Bonnassieux’s original, in which the Virgin Mary is embracing the infant Jesus in her arms, the copy created for Jerusalem was altered so Mary has her son resting on her shoulder. The extra height – raising the statue above the dome of the Russian Orthodox Holy Trinity Cathedral – was meant as the Quai d’Orsay’s snub of the Kremlin.
Until 1947 the fathers of the Assumptionist order continued operating Notre Dame, serving as spiritual guides for Francophone pilgrims visiting Jerusalem’s holy places. But with the outbreak of the War of Independence, Notre Dame’s front-line location and massive stone walls made it a strategic bastion.
The building was heavily damaged during the conflict, and its bomb-blasted south wing facing the Old City became uninhabitable. The IDF established a heavily fortified post in the ruins facing the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan’s Arab Legion positions on the Old City walls. The former street in the middle became a no-man’s-land of barbed wire and minefields.
FOLLOWING THE 1948 division of Jerusalem, with far fewer pilgrims in need of lodgings and with the prohibitive cost of restoring the ruined building, the Assumptionist fathers sold their damaged property to the Hebrew University, which had lost use of its Mount Scopus campus as a result of the war. Two decades later, following the reunification of Jerusalem during the 1967 Six Day War, at the personal request of pope Paul VI to prime minister Golda Meir, Israel turned ownership over to the Vatican in exchange for enough money to build the student dormitories known as shikunei ha’elef. Since the center was no longer under French control, Notre Dame de France was rechristened Notre Dame de Jerusalem.
On November 26, 2004, pope John Paul II entrusted the center to the Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ. Father Juan María Solana of Puebla, Mexico, was assigned as the chargé. Besides directing the ongoing renovation of the building to a luxurious standard while preserving its original character, Solana and his adjutant Kelly, who arrived in 2007, have endeavored to turn the center into a venue for interfaith dialog.
Kelly calls Notre Dame “a place of encounter,” noting that in recent weeks, guests have included Baptists, Presbyterians, Muslim women from Jaffa, and Jews stopping by on Saturdays.
“It’s an incredible mix,” he adds. “A special place of meeting.”
Not all those visiting Notre Dame are pilgrims or tourists. Sister Aurelia Narag, originally from Quezon City, Philippines, explains that she works with Filipino migrant workers.
Some 100 members of her community attend Englishlanguage mass every Saturday night and Sunday morning at the center’s Our Lady of Peace chapel. Notre Dame has become a refuge for foreign workers facing deportation, she notes.
The chapel’s 200-year-old organ is one of the finest in the country, Kelly says. It was salvaged from a closed-down Methodist church in northern England by a German antique organ enthusiast who had it restored by experts near Cologne, and donated it to Notre Dame in 2011. The chapel’s tabernacle containing the hosts (holy wafers) was a gift from Pope Benedict XVI during his 2009 visit. Masses in English are held daily at 6:30 p.m. The chapel is sometimes used for concerts as well; the next one is April 20.
Also worthy of a visit is the permanent exhibit “Who is the Man of the Shroud?” – a hi-tech display about the Shroud of Turin that raises intriguing questions about Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection.
While Notre Dame has a papal suite, which Nazareth architect Ranin Nakhleh-Khoury is now renovating, under diplomatic protocol the pontiff resides with the papal nuncio during official visits to Israel.
But he dines at Notre Dame – and the food in its four eateries is infallibly worthy of his grace. La Rôtisserie, the charmingly intimate 80-seat restaurant, is Notre Dame’s flagship gourmet eatery. Chef Rodrigo Gonzales-Elias arrived three years ago from Spain after serving as head chef at Madrid’s legendary Real Café Bernabeu. Under his tutelage, La Rôtisserie has developed a cuisine that mixes the polyglot flavors of Cuba, Spain and France with a dash of the Levant.
Amoury Lecomte, the manager of the Roof Top terrace, is equally proud of his establishment – which arguably boasts the finest panorama in the city from which to savor a glass of merlot or chablis.
His wine cellar is stocked with 62 vintages and six champagnes, as well as 40 kinds of cheese.
“I worked hard on this,” he says of his bar, which opened in March 2011. It offers 56 seats inside and 120 on the terrace – which opened April 1, on Palm Sunday. The terrace, a secluded and peaceful oasis with its nonpareil view of the Old City, is a popular spot for coffee, business meetings and tourists resting their tired feet.
Trained as a lawyer in his native Besançon, France, Lecomte put himself through university by working as a bartender and waiter only to discover that he found the hospitality industry more rewarding than law. Reservations are recommended, he says.
Notre Dame’s cafeteria is open daily for breakfast from 9 to 11 a.m. The 250-seat dining room, with its buffet lunch, attracts some 200 tourists daily, says Husam Musleh, the Cornell University culinary schooltrained catering manager.
“The best one so far,” says Marcello Bobba of Milan about the lunch he is enjoying after a morning spent touring in the Old City, part of a week-long tour of Israel.
“Delicioso!” concurs Laura Mocchetto of Trecate, Italy.
“Pilgrims need to eat well and sleep well,” emphasizes Kelly.
Situated between east and west, between the Old City and new city, the restored Notre Dame has become a “huge treasure.
Obviously for believers even more so,” says Solana.
Come experience its charm, he beckons. “Notre Dame is a place people can meet without prejudice.”