Of Capuchins and cappuccinos

As well as being home to the prime minster’s residence, Talbiyeh is sprinkled with Italian buildings.

The Terra Sancta Monastery is shaped like the Hebrew letter ‘shin,’ with the middle prong in the back. (photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
The Terra Sancta Monastery is shaped like the Hebrew letter ‘shin,’ with the middle prong in the back.
(photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
Sometime in the 16th century, as Franciscan friars toiled in the fields of Italy, a group of children ran after them chanting “Cappuccino, cappuccino!” What they were referring to, of course, were the large hoods worn by friars of one branch of the Franciscan order to keep rain and the hot Italian sun off their necks.
It wasn’t long before those Franciscans became known, worldwide, as Capuchins. And one day we would all call that delicious coffee drink that is the color of their hoods cappuccino.
It is no surprise that there are Franciscan churches, monasteries and friars in the Holy Land – quite a few of them in Jerusalem. What is unusual, however, is the location of the Capuchin monastery, for it stands smack in the middle of one of our most exclusive neighborhoods.
Get a peek at the newly renovated Capuchin complex and several other Italian buildings when you follow this week’s Street Stroll through Talbiyeh. Begin with Terra Sancta Monastery, on the edges of Talbiyeh and Rehavia, at the top of Agron Street. End well inside the neighborhood.
Terra Sancta Monastery opened in 1927, shortly after the first houses in Talbiyeh and Rehavia had begun to appear. Shaped like the Hebrew letter shin , with the middle prong in the back, it was planned by the architect who designed the Italian Hospital featured in last week’s Street Stroll, Antonio Barluzzi.
Crowning the top of the monumental edifice, and clearly visible against Jerusalem’s brilliantly blue skies, stands a haloed statue of Mary. Bearing a striking resemblance to a statue atop the Cathedral of Milan, it was prepared in Rome, blessed by the pope and transported to Jerusalem in 1928.
Terra Sancta was intended to house an Arab-language Catholic university, like the grand university in Berlin.
The entire complex is mounted atop an enormous stone platform, placed there perhaps because the ground wasn’t level, but more likely to impress the students it was meant to attract.
But the charitable Catholic organization behind the building, Opera Cardinal Ferrari, neglected to carry out a feasibility study. Not only was it vastly expensive to build the university, but there just weren’t enough suitable professors to staff it and students to attend.
After two years of fruitless operation, the Franciscans took over the building with a new enterprise: Terra Sancta College, an elite, unequivocally Catholic- oriented, elementary and high school that began each day with mass. Yet many of the pupils were Jewish and Muslim, sent here by parents who wanted their offspring ready for further study at Europe’s finest universities. The school operated until 1947.
After the War of Independence, it was impossible to study at the Hebrew University on isolated Mount Scopus. That’s when Terra Sancta’s Franciscan friars leased much of their splendid edifice to the university.
We used to bring our young son to the Zoology Department’s snake club twice a week in the late 1980s. It was at Terra Sancta that he learned to love reptiles – and even brought one home to live.
According to Terra Sancta’s Father Superior, Athanasius Macora, today the monastery is just that: a residence for friars and priests studying at the Biblical Sciences and Archeology Faculty of the Pontifical University Antonianum in Rome. He also noted that despite the building’s exterior glamour, the inside has been completely modernized. Luckily, part of the inner entrance still bears an old-world charm. And the chapel, whose windows shed a warm and welcoming yellow light, has barely been touched.
To reach your next monumental Italian structure, take the left fork into Talbiyeh and follow Balfour Street. While you stroll, enjoy the view of splendid homes on both sides of the road. The prime minister’s official residence is located at 3 Balfour; if you have a camera with you, keep it hidden as you pass, or the guards will pester you with annoying questions.
The newly renovated house at 2 Balfour has retained many of the original features. It was built by Christian Arab Hanna Salameh (look for the name Villa Salameh on the decorative ironwork gate at the entrance).
The bottom level of the building at No. 4 dates back to 1932, while the structure at No. 6 was specially designed to hold German publisher Salman Schocken’s collection of 60,000 books. Further on, and constructed in the 1920s, the dwelling at No. 18 has managed to remain only one story high (cross the road for a better look). And, finally, the entrance to one of Talbiyeh’s most elegant buildings, the meticulously preserved Belgian Consulate, is located at No. 22.
Turn right onto Jabotinsky Street and feast your eyes on the Consulate as you stroll by. Pass Yad Harav Nissim, named for the chief rabbi who bought the place in 1958 and turned what was once a hotel into a religious school.
Then pause at a gray gate with the name Suore Francescane (Franciscan Sisters) written in delicate wrought iron on the top. You have reached the Convent of St. Anthony, a massive complex built in 1936. Intended as a Catholic school for Arab girls called the Collegio San Antonio, the buildings also housed the Franciscan nuns who were their teachers.
Just inside the fence and to your right, there is a strange little structure. At one time it was a guard post manned by British soldiers.
Continue walking, but gaze at the side of the building until you reach the front gate and, if it is open, step into the garden. This gives you the best view of the stunning convent, which is set well inside the property and at the far end of the garden.
Like Terra Sancta, the Convent of St. Anthony was designed by Antonio Barluzzi. And like Terra Sancta, it is shaped like the letter shin (although you can only see that feature from the air). Interestingly, the two monumental buildings mirror one another: Terra Sancta’s main building is convex-shaped, while here it is concave (easily seen from the side).
WORLD WAR II broke out only three years after Collegio St. Antonio was opened. Since the building and its occupants were Italian, and Britain was fighting Italy during the war, the convent and school were shut down. After confiscating the compound as enemy territory, the British established a Supreme Military Tribunal on the top floor.
According to journalist Gavriel Tzafroni, when they walked into the courtroom reporters already knew that a prisoner was going to die, for the judges’ hats would be on the table. Afterwards, the judges put on their hats and read out the sentence. And since many of the prisoners were members of the Jewish underground – with some of them given the death penalty – the British took no chances. They fortified the building, sealed the windows and set up guard posts on the property.
Ironically, after the British evacuated the country in 1948, the IDF used the convent as a convenient base from which troops left to participate in battle for the city.
Retrace your steps so you pass the Van Leer Institute on your right. At Wingate Square, turn right, then head left onto Hovevei Zion Street. Pass houses, each more gorgeous than the other, like the one-story dwelling at No. 3 that once housed Martin Buber. Or the historic building at No. 18, home of Charles Orde Wingate – who trained special Jewish Night Squads to fight the Arabs – from 1937 to 1939.
Finally you reach Jasmin House, at No. 21 Hovevei Zion, built in the 1930s as apartments to rent. For a few years before the start of World War II, Sisters of the Charity Immaculate Conception Order – founded in Ivrea, Italy – ran a kindergarten and elementary school for girls and boys in the building. Patriotic nuns all, they hung three portraits at the entrance: one of the pope, another of Italian King Victor Emmanuel, and a third of Mussolini.
Because the building was not owned by the Italian government or the church, the British didn’t confiscate it as enemy property during World War II.
The British did, however, lock the nuns up in the Old City and close down their school.
In time, the splendid edifice became the Jasmine Hotel, advertising itself as a “home away from home” where Arabs and Jews, British officers, clerks and journalists stayed. And when the United Nations established a Special Committee on Palestine in 1947, they discussed the “Palestine problem” at the Jasmine Hotel.
Turn right on Lev Ha’ivri Street, and left at the corner. The Capuchin Monastery is located directly across the road, between 16 and 18 Disraeli Street. Less grandiose than many another monasteries, it reflects the values of its occupants: Capuchin friars, while Franciscans, prefer a simpler life with more prayer and more penance. Capuchins are among the strictest of Catholic monastic orders and spend significant time communing with the Lord.
Their Holy Land adventure began in 1932. At the invitation of the Latin Patriarch, a Capuchin friar working with the poor and needy in Lebanon named Abuna Yacoub was dispatched to Jerusalem.
After Abuna Yacoub purchased land in the new neighborhood of Talbiyeh, construction began on a friary.
Work on the building, designed by a friar from Lyons, began in 1935. But relations between Italy and Britain deteriorated in the 1930s, and in 1937, as soon as most of the friary was completed, the British commandeered the property and turned it into a military prison. Two friars remained in a little house in the garden, maintaining the property.
When the British finally left the country, the State of Israel asked the Capuchins to rent out the building for use as a psychiatric hospital. The area beneath the gigantic apartment building going up next door once served as a therapeutic garden for the patients.
In the late 1990s, as soon as Israel returned their property, the Capuchins began extensive renovations.
Unfortunately, the hospital was in a state of terrible disrepair and full of the asbestos utilized by both the British and the Israelis in their construction.
It took over a decade, but by 2010 the Capuchin friars had rebuilt about half of the structures, constructed a chapel and removed the asbestos. The former psychiatric hospital’s synagogue remains as it was: the Torah scroll was removed, but the grating on the windows is still covered with Stars of David.
Although they live a communal life, Capuchin friars do not remain cloistered in a monastery. Indeed, they go out into society performing charitable activities.
Today there are Capuchin friars in 107 countries, working in needy communities within hospitals, schools and institutions.
Jerusalem’s Capuchin friars keep busy receiving visitors and pilgrims interested in experiencing a spiritual retreat. Called the Capuchin Center for Spirituality, this tranquil oasis in the middle of Jerusalem provides theologians, scholars and pilgrims who lodge there with a special atmosphere fitting for the Holy City.
Light plays a large part in the impressive chapel, which features skylights for direct sunlight and inset ceiling panels with electric illumination. The white walls and modernistic paintings provide a striking contrast to the heaviness of many older Catholic churches, and reflect the center’s motto – the New Testament teaching “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12).
Two life-sized portraits are prominently displayed just inside the entrance, and the monastery’s friars are obviously very proud of both. One picture portrays Abuna Yacoub; the other, courageous Capuchin friar Father Pierre-Marie Benoît, credited with saving thousands of Jewish lives during the Holocaust. On April 26, 1966, Pierre-Marie Benoît was recognized by Yad Vashem as a Righteous Among the Nations. •