In faith, in love and in peace

The Ecce Homo hostel in the Old City has been welcoming Christian pilgrims since 1856.

sister rita nun 248 (photo credit: Sarah Levin)
sister rita nun 248
(photo credit: Sarah Levin)
Some Christians make their visit to Jerusalem even more memorable by staying at one of the hostels located along the Via Dolorosa. One of the oldest Christian hostels in the Old City is Ecce Homo at 41 Via Dolorosa, which is jointly run by five Sisters of Sion and the Roman Catholic Community of Chemin Neuf. The latter, founded in 1973 in Lyon, France, is ecumenical in its outlook; its members actually represent more than a dozen Christian denominations. Chemin Neuf is dedicated to world peace through prayer and study, and in 2000 launched a worldwide Net for God prayer network which is constantly growing. The Congregation of the Sisters of Sion has been functioning in Jerusalem since 1856 and has welcomed pilgrims since 1860. The order was founded by Theodore Ratisbonne, who was born into an affluent Jewish family of bankers in Strasbourg, Alsace-Lorraine and converted to Catholicism. Theodore eventually became a priest as did his brother Alphonse, the youngest of the nine children in the family. Theodore, who never had much time for religion in his early years - not his own or anyone else's - came to Catholicism through his studies of philosophy. Alphonse, who had shunned religion, was visiting Theodore in Rome in January 1842. While waiting for him in a church, he had a vision of Mary that completely changed his life, and he too converted and became a priest. In 1843, with the encouragement of his brother, Alphonse founded the congregation of Our Lady of Sion. "We owe a lot to Theodore and Alphonse," says Sister Rita Kammermayer who, like the Ratisbonne brothers, may have Jewish roots in that her surname could be either Jewish or German. Sister Rita, a pleasant, cheerful woman who is a mine of information, hails from Canada and has been at the convent for 12 years. She originally came to study at the Ratisbonne Monastery in 1971, and after a year went back to Canada to teach. When it was suggested in 1997 that she could be useful in Jerusalem, she was delighted to return. There is nothing about her appearance to suggest that she's a nun. She's wearing slacks and a casual top and explains that the habit and the large crucifix were abandoned some years ago, after prolonged discussions with the Vatican, because the Sisters of Sion engage in frequent dialogue with Jews, and some Jews - particularly the religiously observant - found the crucifix disturbing. "How do you dialogue with people under such circumstances?" she asks. Instead of the crucifix, she wears a ring fashioned with a much smaller cross. The nun's habit was modified in 1965, and secular dress was adopted in 1968. Secular dress has since been adopted by other orders, but the Sisters of Sion were among the first. The Sisters of Sion are extremely well disposed toward Jews and reach out to them not for proselyting purposes but to foster understanding. In fact, part of their calling is to give witness in the church and to the world to God's love for the Jewish people. "Jesus was a Jew, lived as a Jew and died as a Jew. If we don't have a good understanding of that, we'll never understand the Scriptures," says Sister Rita. "It's important that the covenant with the Jewish people has never been revoked. Theodore and Alphonse were Jews who became Catholics and priests, but they never left Judaism," she notes. "You can't understand the New Testament without understanding the Old Testament," she adds, quoting one of their precepts. Some historians have written that the Ratisbonne brothers wanted to convert other Jews, and indeed some of their friends did convert, but whether claims that their intention to convert other Jews are true or not, this is not the policy today. During the Holocaust, many European convents of the Sisters of Sion provided havens for Jews, some of whom were subsequently baptized. After the Holocaust and Vatican II, a special study program was set up for young nuns in Jerusalem to enable them to learn about Judaism, Israel and the Jewish people. There was also a change in direction in the convent's educational system. From its very beginnings it had maintained a school attended by children from different parts of the Middle East whose parents sent them there because the standard of education was so high. After the 1967 war, when Jerusalem (which had been divided since the 1948-49 War of Independence) was reunited under Israeli sovereignty, the number of students dwindled drastically, and the school was closed. However, education is part of the calling of the Sisters of Sion, so in conjunction with the Hebrew University they set up an ulpan (language study) system whereby Arabs studied Hebrew and Israelis studied Arabic. The idea was that the two groups, which in those early postwar days were extremely suspicious of each other, would at least be able to understand each other. The Sisters of Zion were happy to be the facilitators. After a decade, the program was transferred to the Hebrew University, but Jews and Arabs - or Palestinians, as Sister Rita refers to them - continued to go to Ecce Homo for lectures, Bible studies and other events - and they still do. The Sisters of Sion maintain two facilities in Jerusalem. The other is Notre Dame de Sion in the picturesque, hilly area of Ein Kerem, which is bursting with biblical connotations and houses several churches and social welfare facilities. The responsibility of managing their institutions became a little too heavy for the handful of nuns in each, so they invited the Chemin Neuf Community to help. The invitation was accepted, and in 2001 Chemin Neuf began working in Ein Kerem. The experiment proved successful and was expanded to Ecce Homo in 2006. Valentine Hodara, who is in Jerusalem with her husband, Marc, and the youngest of their children, is the key representative of Chemin Neuf at Ecce Homo. She and her husband, who is a deacon, were first in Jerusalem in 1983 on a three-week pilgrimage. They found the country interesting and wanted to know more. When the opportunity came to return, they seized it. Here, too, there is a Jewish-roots connection. Marc Hodara's father is Jewish, and this was an influential factor in the Hodaras' desire to explore the Jewish religion. "We want to learn where they all came from," says Valentine Hodara. The Sisters of Sion and the Chemin Neuf have achieved a harmonious relationship, which Valentine Hodara attributes to a mutual commitment to reconciliation and respect for the other. Since coming to help manage Ecce Homo, Valentine Hodara has become increasingly fascinated with the environment, which she loves to explore from both a religious and a philosophical standpoint. "It takes a lot of time to see, to look, to hear, to be there," she says. "The more we are here, the less we know." The two women concur that Jerusalem is a melting pot of cultures. Ecce Homo is situated in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City, almost within touching distance of shrines that are specifically holy to Jews, Christians or Muslims. The spirit of ecumenism that permeates the area comes not only from the surroundings but also through the many pilgrims from around the world who come as volunteers for various projects in which Ecce Homo is engaged; as tourists for overnight stays; for meals served to tour groups; as Bible students; or as audiences for lectures and seminars. Sister Rita is a people person who thoroughly enjoys meeting all those who come through the doors of what has become her home. She is in charge of the volunteer program and engages in many other tasks but refrains from listing them - perhaps out of modesty. However, on a tour of the very impressive building, it is clear that her heart, her soul, her mind and her finger are on the pulse of everything. She points to a small open space in which there is a rock garden, where she was told that nothing would grow. The greenery that casts a mood of tranquility over the stones testifies to her faith in God and nature. She loves to watch the expressions on visitors' faces as she takes them up to the rooftop terrace in the elevator that permits its passengers to see the panoramic views as they ascend. From the top of the terrace, the Old City looks like a giant-sized relief sculpture which in miniature has become part of Israel's souvenir trade. The golden Dome of the Rock is almost within reach, and many visitors put out a hand as if to touch it. Going down, the elevator stops at ground level. Below ground, down a steep staircase, is a high-domed basilica for silent prayer and Eucharist celebrations. It is at once spacious and intimate. The church-like atmosphere is also reminiscent of a synagogue because there is a gallery high above floor level which, in a synagogue where men and women sit separately, would be occupied by women. At Ecce Homo it serves the overflow congregation that comes to pray. The organ is in the center gallery. At an even lower level are the Herodian Strouthian cisterns dating back to 35 BCE. Also dating back to the same era are paving stones salvaged from the ruins of the Antonia Fortress. There is also a mini museum showcasing some of the antiquities found during excavations of the building. At street level, the arch that spans the Via Dolorosa is somewhat more recent but, nonetheless, has survived many centuries of history. An arch that spans the width of the Via Dolorosa was built by the Roman emperor Hadrian and dates back to 135 CE. Inside one of the three dining rooms is an unusual painting of The Last Supper in that the artist included women. This is a painting that Sister Rita enjoys showing people because it indicates that the artist realized that women would also have attended a Passover meal. On the opposite wall is a very simple but expressive wooden crucifix fashioned from the branches of a grapefruit tree by one of the Muslims who work at Ecce Homo. The guest rooms are spartan compared to even a three-star hotel, but the beds are comfortable and there are storage and bathroom facilities. The rates are a fraction of what is charged for hotel rooms and can include meals. In one of the large sitting rooms-cum lecture halls, the walls are lined with photographs and posters detailing some of the history of the institution. There is a genealogical chart replete with portraits of the Ratisbonne family. When Sister Rita is asked what happened to the Jewish progeny of the family and how many survived the Holocaust, she confesses that she doesn't know; but she quickly adds that the Sisters have been looking for a new project, and tracing the fate of the Ratisbonnes might be a good one. Given that this is the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II and the fact that understanding Jews and Judaism is ingrained in the very beings of the Sisters of Sion, it's certainly a project worth considering.