Jerusalem's Notre Dame hotel turns 130

An important symbol for Christians, the Jerusalem hotel has hosted three popes and serves as a rare interfaith meeting place.

The ‘Our Lady of Peace’ sculpture, which sits atop of the Notre Dame Center is made from concrete in two parts; it was created by French Assumptionist Father Etienne Boubet who was the architect of the Notre Dame Center and the Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu (photo credit: NDF COLLECTION)
The ‘Our Lady of Peace’ sculpture, which sits atop of the Notre Dame Center is made from concrete in two parts; it was created by French Assumptionist Father Etienne Boubet who was the architect of the Notre Dame Center and the Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu
(photo credit: NDF COLLECTION)
One of Jerusalem’s historical and architectural landmarks, the Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center is celebrating its 130th anniversary. Though many Jerusalemites may not know what it is, the opulent 19th century building located across from the Old City’s New Gate with its two imposing towers, statue of the Virgin Mary – a replica of the statue of Our Lady of Salvation in Paris – and yellow Vatican flag is today an integral part of the city’s crowded skyline.
When its first cornerstone was laid on June 10, 1885 by French Catholic Assumptionist priests, it was one of the first buildings to be built outside of the Old City walls. It was meant to be a guest hostel to accommodate the influx of French Catholic pilgrims coming to the Holy Land at the time. Built in the European style of the day, the structure also incorporates the Middle Eastern Moorish style, and a neo-Gothic styled chapel with Roman influences. Behind the reception desk, a mosaic of the Virgin Mary as the Queen of Peace welcomes pilgrims.
In September, the Notre Dame Center marked its 130th anniversary year of welcoming pilgrims to the Holy Land with the launching of a photo book by Italian photographer Enrico Formica who used a 360 degree photo technique. Text descriptions were written by Franciscan Father Eugenio Alliata. The event began with a Thanksgiving Mass, which was attended by religious leaders of the different churches, diplomats and members and friends of the Notre Dame Center.
At the time of its founding, many Christian pilgrims began making the laborious trek to the Holy Land and to Jerusalem where the Russian and Greek Orthodox Churches had already established guest houses for their pilgrims. Large groups of Catholic pilgrims began arriving as well under the direction of the French Assumptionist Fathers starting in 1882. But with no guest house of their own, these pilgrims were forced to camp outside the Old City walls in rudimentary tents and in rustic conditions. Determined that the French and Catholic Church not be left out, French Baron Amadeus Marie Paul de Piellat, a devout Catholic who had begun bringing large groups of wealthy French Catholic pilgrims to the Holy Land as well, purchased a 4,000 sq meter property next to the recently built French St. Louis Hospital, which he had also financed. Today the hospital serves as a hospice for terminally ill patients of all nationalities and religions.
In 1889, the New Gate of the Old City was opened across the street from the new guest house, allowing pilgrims easy access to the Old City’s Christian holy places.
After 20 years of construction, the guest house was finally completed in 1904 when it was crowned with its famous statue of the Virgin Mary. After World War II, however, the building was heavily damaged during  the War of Independence in 1948. Located on the border between East and West Jerusalem on the edge of the Old City, the building’s south wing was all but destroyed in two bombings, and became an Israeli guard post. The structure was also damaged during the Six-Day War and eventually the center was turned over to the Holy See. Only in 1972 was its status restored as a pilgrim center, a project of deep importance for Pope Paul VI. Under Pope John Paul II the center officially became the Pontifical Institute and an ecumenical holy place.
The first and second intifadas had a severe effect on the numbers of pilgrims arriving in the country, as well and the situation got so bad that the center closed its doors for a whole year in 2001.
In 2004, Pope John Paul II entrusted the Pontifical Institute Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center to the Legion of Christ. Spaniard Father Juan Maria Solana was assigned as the new Chargé and oversaw an overhaul and revival of the center. He has infused it              with a shock of new enthusiasm with a Latin flavor, attracting more Latin American pilgrim groups and volunteers.
Pope John Paul II also furthered the focus of the center as a place of employment and education for the local Christian community, which had suffered economically during the two Palestinian uprisings. A culinary school on the grounds helps prepare local Christian youth for careers in the restaurant and hotel business.
Today, nestled on the seam line between East and West Jerusalem and abutting an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood, the center sees itself as a place of dialogue and encounter based on its Catholic principles and faith.
“We are a safe place, where people can feel at home,” says Father José Félix Ortega, Vice Chargé to the Pontifical Institute Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center. “A neutral place without any political connotations. The fear people have of one another is because we don’t know each other. We judge one another. Here people see each other.”
Pilgrims from abroad who might have an image of Palestinians as terrorists meet the Palestinian waiter or barista or receptionist and realize that Palestinians are people just like them, he says. On the other hand, Palestinians, who view Israelis as bloodthirsty soldiers also get to interact with the Jewish restaurant guests and workmen who come to repair the elevator or bring in supplies and begin to see their human side, as well.
“We see our differences and we see what we have in common. We are living here together and people see it is possible to be together. It doesn’t mean we have to be best friends, but we can live together,” says Ortega. “Yes, we are not from here and we don’t pretend to be. But we bring a new vision. We don’t see everything as ‘the conflict.’ We welcome everyone and they learn how to overcome their fears and misconceptions.”
The center has hosted three Roman Catholic popes during their pilgrimages – Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis – as well as Coptic Pope Tawadros II during his rare 2015 visit. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Pope Francis on May 26, 2014, while the latter was staying at the hotel.
The center has welcomed ecumenical and interreligious encounters, and meetings between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators and leaders. Outgoing Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat has been fond of using the center’s expansive rooftop view as a backdrop for TV interviews.
In addition to its international character, for local Christians Notre Dame is a symbol of their presence in the city.
“Notre Dame is very important for all Christians here. Christians think of it as our stronghold. It is our symbol,” says Eliane Abdinnour, Development and Marketing Manager at Notre Dame.
Her father would often bring her to Notre Dame as a child; her family has celebrated many of their life-cycle events at the center and now her own grown son prefers to study for his university medical exams in a quiet corner of the coffee shop rather than at home, she says. “It’s just a home, which welcomes everybody. It is a meeting point.”
The center is currently planning an expansion of some 140 rooms and is waiting for the municipal permits to begin the project, which would create 40-45 new jobs, notes General Director Yousef Barakat, who has been at the center for 30 years. He started off as a receptionist after three years of joblessness following his graduation from Bethlehem University with a degree in business administration at the height of the first intifada in 1987.
The project is six years in the planning and will take four years to complete, he said.
For Catholic pilgrims the unabashed Catholic character of the center which includes evening Mass, the possibility of on-site confession with priests, the presence of consecrated laywomen who are ready to deepen their understanding of the significance of the holy sites, and the Museum of the Shroud, means their spiritual pilgrimage continues even after their visits to the sites. They don’t have to leave the sacred world of their pilgrimage to enter into the profane everyday life of a downtown tourist hotel.
“I just saw a priest walking with a rosary behind his back and I can take that with me. I feel connected to that. Our pilgrimage just continues once we get back to Notre Dame,” said Sheila Weingartz, 64, from Holy Family Parish, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, as she sat chatting with other members of her group in the hotel lobby. “You don’t have to explain yourself because people understand the importance of you being here.”
“What I love about our room is the cross over the bed,” agreed Lynette Peerson, 62, from St. Joseph Parish in Redwing, Minnesota. She was not bothered by the fact that there are no TVs in the rooms. “It gives me a deeper connection to my Catholic faith. It is all seeped with memory and meaning. It is not just one and done. It brings everything together. You can do the rosary right here and you don’t have to go far.”
David Delgado, director of marketing and development of Notre Dame, notes that for some Israelis the center continues to be a mysterious building in the center of Jerusalem, some people thinking it is a mini-Vatican or a foreign embassy.
“It is a very imposing building. It is very big and beautiful,” he says. “People see the Vatican flag flying on top of the roof and don’t know what it is. We have a discreet sign saying it is the Notre Dame Center.”
Unlike other Catholic properties, the center has not had any problems with vandalism or defacement, he says. Forty percent of the clientele of their non-kosher gourmet rooftop restaurant are Israelis, he said. On any Friday evening, the restaurant will be hosting a wide variety of people ranging from Palestinians from the Mount of Olives to Israelis from Tel Aviv and families on a pilgrimage from the United States or Europe, he said.
“People come here for the energy, the vista and the food. We have cordial relations with all our neighbors,” he says. For Delgado, who was born in Mexico but grew up in the United States, Notre Dame has a special significance as this is where he met his fiancée, Elena, and where they will be married this summer.
On a balmy autumn evening Israelis Nadav Raviv, in his 40s and Chen Elmaleh, 34, from Tel Aviv decided to try out the rooftop restaurant during a visit to Jerusalem.
“We came for the view and the good food. Look at this atmosphere,” said Raviv, gesturing towards the expansive view of the Old City. “You can’t get that in Tel Aviv. You can’t get five square meters of peace and quiet in Tel Aviv. We may have stumbled on a real find here.”
With Israeli tourism at an all-time high of almost 4 million visitors this year, Notre Dame has also taken part in local tourism fairs to present itself to incoming pilgrim and tourist groups, he said. They have also cooperated with the municipality on such events as the Giro d’Italia Jerusalem bicycle race this past spring.
“We really value openness and respect of all faiths and religions. Neutrality is one of our missions. We want to be a part of this city. We want to help,” he says. “I think it is important to participate in these events because it also helps Notre Dame become known and not seen as a mysterious building. We welcome everyone. The building looks nice and new, but we are not new here. Christians are a very small group here, under two percent of the population but we showcase the presence of the Christians here, our rich history here and that is important, too. Jerusalem is a mosaic of cultures and Notre Dame is one part, a small part, of that.”