Saint Anne’s Church, Jerusalem

The Church of St. Anne is located in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. It stands near the Lion Gate on the north side of the Temple Mount adjacent to the pools of Bethesda and at the beginning of the Via Dolorosa. The present structure dates back to the Crusader era in the 12th century and is the best preserved and one of the largest Crusader churches in the city. Earlier churches stood on the same site dating back to the Byzantine era in the 5th century. The Roman Catholic Church of St. Anne marks the site believed to have been where the Virgin Mary was born in the home of her parents, Anne (Hannah) and Joachim. Beneath the church is a cave which is the traditional site of Mary’s family home.

History of the Church of St. Anne

At the time of the Second Temple water was scarce and large cisterns and pools were used to catch and store water. One of these was the nearby Bethesda Pool where people came for the water’s curative abilities. This was where Jesus cured a paralyzed man. On the land which now encompasses the complex of the Church of St. Anne there are also ancient cisterns.

Although the location of St. Anne’s home is not mentioned in the Bible it is recorded in the apocryphal Gospel of James which dates back to c.150AD which places the home of Jesus’ maternal grandparents close to the Temple.

In 450AD the Byzantines constructed a church over the pools and a dike to commemorate the healing of the paralyzed man and the birthplace of Mary in her parent’s home.

In 614 the Persians partially destroyed the church but it was soon restored and flourished until being destroyed again in 1010.

The Crusaders took Jerusalem in 1140 and built the present church south of the pools above the cave believed to be Mary’s childhood home and dedicated to St. Anne and Mary’s birth. A small monastery called Moustier was attached to the church commemorating the miracle of healing.

The Mamlukes captured the city in 1192 and under Saladin the church was converted into a school of Islamic law (madrasa). Thanks to the reuse of the building St. Anne’s was saved from destruction unlike many other Christian structures during this period. You can still see an inscription above the church entrance which reads “al-Madrasa as-Salahiyya.” Christians were still allowed access to the grotto but at a fee.

The church was abandoned after 200-300 years and remained vacant. In 1878 the ruling Ottoman Turkish Empire gave the church to France in thanks for their support during the Crimean War (1853-1856). The French restored the church to its 12th century appearance and the White Fathers were entrusted with the running of the church and its auxiliary buildings.

In 1967 the church was once again repaired and restored following damage incurred during the Six Day War.

The White Fathers

The White Fathers have been entrusted with the church complex since 1878 and until present day. They are a Roman Catholic community of 21 missionaries of Africa from 14 different nations focused on evangelism and education. They get their name from the white robes they wear. On their arrival in the 19th century they opened an apostolic school (a seminary) and in 1886 a second, larger seminary was opened for training priests of the Greek Melkite Catholic Church. Today this seminary is located in Lebanon. The White Fathers follow a tradition of ecumenical openness; to respect other Christian denominations from the Orthodox to the Oriental Catholic Churches. The present community at St. Anne’s maintains the ecumenical dialogue with the Christian orthodox world and with the neighboring Muslim community. The church organizes religious retreats for missionaries and welcomes many pilgrims to the church. At times the church can accommodate more than 3,000 pilgrims.

The Church Today

Enter the church complex through a wooden door leading to a garden and courtyard surrounded by several buildings. The White Fathers are housed in one building and missionary students are housed in another building. Then there is the church itself which stands in the courtyard surrounded by trees and plants. Not far away are the excavations of Bethesda; the Sisters’ house and a carpentry workshop. The excavations include a Roman temple dedicated to the god of medicine and the 5th century Byzantine church which was built over the temple. There is a museum within the complex but it is not open to the public due to a lack of personal.

The church is an example of Romanesque architecture completed in 1138 but then expanded by shifting the facade a few meters forward. Although there have been restorations since then the structure is almost completely from the 12th century. The church has a fortress-like appearance with thick walls and strong asymmetrical lines. The interior is divided into a nave and two aisles by two rows of columns. There are magnificent high cross-vaulted ceilings. Each aisle culminates with a round apse; the central nave apse holds the main raised altar. The main altar was designed by sculptor Philippe Kaeppelin. The altar is adorned with scenes from Mary’s life – the Annunciation; the descent of Jesus from the cross and the nativity of Jesus. A painting on the left side of the altar shows Anne educating Mary and on the right side you can see Mary being presented at the Temple.  Unusual features of the church include the mismatched columns, different sized windows and the buttresses which differ in height and thickness.

A flight of stairs leads down to the crypt where there is a small domed chapel dedicated to the birth of Mary. The crypt holds the cave believed to have been where Mary was born.

Sometimes the church hosts choir recitals within the church which has excellent acoustics. The church was designed for Gregorian chants and throughout the day you can hear pilgrims singing religious songs in the church. Even the smallest sound is magnified by the brilliant acoustics. There are Masses held in the church and pilgrims place prayer notes in the cracks of the 12th century church walls. The church has a multi-cultural and multi-denominational atmosphere welcoming pilgrims from across the globe including Protestants, Evangelicals, Orthodox and Catholic Christians. A small group of missionaries from Africa stays on the 2nd floor of the monastery and studies theology at the Silesian Institute for 4 years.

The church is open April-September 8m-noon and 2pm-6pm and October-March 8am-noon and 2pm-5pm. For more information call 972 2 6283285.

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