ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

A Church Transformed

The events surrounding the unveiling of the newly restored dome of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

It was an impressive sight. On the morning of 2 January, in Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, Diodoros I, processed with his retinue to the tomb of Jesus. They were joined by the Franciscans, led by Father Giuseppe Nazzaro, O.F.M., Custos of the Holy Land, and the clergy of the Armenian Apostolic community of Jerusalem, guided by Patriarch Torkom Manoogian.

In a joyful service of prayer, scripture and song, the Greek, Franciscan and Armenian communities unveiled the restored and newly decorated dome that soars above the holy sepulchre. As the curtain was drawn away a burst of golden light drew our eyes from the empty tomb to the heavens.

Mr. and Mrs. George Doty, whose benevolence had made this event possible, and Msgr. Robert L. Stern, Secretary General of CNEWA and President of the Pontifical Mission for Palestine (PMP), joined the leaders of all the Christian communities in Jerusalem, Israeli and Palestinian leaders, the consular corps, the artist and his wife, the CNEWA-PMP Jerusalem staff and pilgrims from around the world in celebrating this historic occasion.

For decades, visitors to this holiest of Christian shrines – known in the East as the Church of the Resurrection – have left disappointed, even repelled. Expecting a shrine that related to their spiritual or aesthetic understanding of the Paschal Mystery – the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ – the pilgrims instead entered a dark, cavernous space containing a number of chapels, each used exclusively by one of the Christian communities.

As the status of the individual Christian communities fluctuated (often influenced by the whims of the Ottoman sultan), so too did their rights to the sanctuaries. In one seven-year period in the 17th century, for example, the right of preeminence in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre among the Greek Orthodox and Franciscans changed at least six times.

In 1852, the sultan issued an order delineating the rights of the ecclesiastical communities in the Holy Sepulchre and all other holy places, thus unraveling the web of decrees that had been drawn up by the Ottomans, the Russians (who represented the Orthodox) and the French (who represented Latin Catholics). Scrupulous adherence to this Status Quo continues to maintain the delicate balance among the churches and their access to and custody of the holy sites. Through the years, however, this fidelity has often paralyzed restoration efforts in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Since the promulgation of the Status Quo, two major fires, an earthquake and wartime shelling (1948) had damaged the dome and the rotunda of the Holy Sepulchre.

The British Mandatory authorities, who succeeded the Ottomans following World War I, offered to restore the crumbling building, erecting iron braces in the rotunda to shore up the dome. A comprehensive restoration plan, however, could not be agreed upon. A joint plan of action was approved in 1959 and the dome was eventually repaired in the late 1970s, but the scaffolding remained, veiling the dome and enveloping the tomb of Christ in darkness.

George and Marie Doty, members of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre, had visited the church on numerous occasions since the 60s and found the condition of the dome and church a distraction. During one such trip, George Doty asked Msgr. Stern how he might help.

Through the years, when traveling to Jerusalem, besides visiting the office and programs of CNEWA-PMP, Msgr. Stern has called on Christian, Muslim and Jewish leaders, even civil authorities, in the city. As he repeated the visits, apprehensions dissipated, motives grew clearer and mutual trust developed. Monsignor contacted the custodians of the Holy Sepulchre through the Jerusalem office, whose director at the time, Brother Donald Mansir, F.S.C., had also established close relationships.

The custodians were informed of the Dotys’ interest in restoring the dome. CNEWA-PMP offered its full though quiet support, promising technical and professional assistance if such a proposal were accepted.

Conversations with individual custodians led to the creation of parameters by which the artist, Mr. Ara Normart, was guided.

“A flurry of faxes and courier mail,” wrote Brother Donald in these pages, “traveled between New York and Fresno, Calif., home of the artist, as thoughts on design, which had to follow the directives established by each custodian, were exchanged.”

The final design was presented by Msgr. Stern to the custodians in the patriarchal hall of the Greek Patriarchate on 17 August 1994. This “historic day,” as Patriarch Diodoros described it, signaled the beginning of a new era of cooperation between the brother custodians.

Work on the dome began immediately. A special platform, utilizing the existing scaffolding, was laid out high above the tomb. To help the dream become a reality, the London firms of Jaques and Muir (architectural) and Campbell Reith Hill (engineering) were secured. After the plans of Campbell Reith Hill’s representative, Mr. Stuart Goodchild, were approved by the custodians, the plaster was cleaned and lighting placed in the void between the inner and outer domes.

Meanwhile, Mr. Normart supervised the casting of the decorative elements, which were cast from light, reinforced gypsum and fixed to beams imported from Great Britain. These elements were secured to the dome, then gilded with sheets of 23-and-a-half karat gold. The background was painted in a luminous mother-of-pearl. The lantern of the dome was cleaned and the glass replaced with special low transmission, high reflection glass that would keep the harsh sun from damaging the work. The lighting was carefully designed to enhance the dome interior at different times of the day. A complex ventilation system, which will divert the smoke of candles and incense from the decorative elements, was also installed. The project, scheduled for completion before the end of 1996, was completed as planned.

The approved design, which reflects symbolic elements common to the custodial communities, represents the glory of God that enveloped the risen Christ. Twelve streams of gold, representing God’s glory revealed through the church, founded on the 12 Apostles, burst from the brilliant light of the lantern. And from each ray stream three branches of light, an illusion to the Trinity. The mother-of-pearl background, a reminder of the biblical description of the luminous cloud of the Divine Presence, brightens as it ascends, sparkling with gilded stars.

During the 2 January ceremony – which for only the second time in recent history, brought the Greek, Franciscan and Armenian communities together – the benefactors were presented with a hand-carved model of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre with a partial view of the dome’s interior.

Mr. Doty offered words of thanksgiving and appreciation, not only for the gifts, but for the opportunity to see this project completed together by the Greek, Franciscan and Armenian communities:

“I am deeply grateful to be able to participate in this great deed,” he said.

The spirit of goodwill continued as the three custodial communities recessed together to the patriarchal hall of the Greek Patriarchate. At a festive reception, Patriarch Diodoros prayed that this cooperative effort would be but the beginning of many joint efforts:

“The stage we have reached today is very significant for this holy place. It is also a significant sign of progress of the work that the three Christian religious communities have undertaken [here]….

“It is an expression of our brotherly coexistence in this place, which teaches forgiveness, reconciliation, love and unity. [This event proclaims] Christianity’s centuries-old presence in this Holy Land, which in three years will celebrate the holy jubilee of the birth in flesh of Christ, our Lord.

“Therefore, we pray that this event may become the spark of our spiritual approach. That in deep consciousness of our responsible mission, we may enter the third millennium, led by the truth, which is Christ.”

A dinner hosted by the three custodians closed with the Lord’s Prayer, which was recited by all, each in his own language. To hear these words of praise, hope, forgiveness and love recited in Arabic, Armenian, English, French, Greek and Italian was almost as moving as the event itself.

One of the great joys of this event was to see the reaction of the people of Jerusalem to the restored dome. Most Jerusalemites, indeed the majority of all Christians who have been fortunate to go as pilgrims to the holy city, have never seen the dome and the lovely 11th-century arcades of the rotunda; for 68 years, the dome had been concealed from public view. With mouths open, heads tilted back, and audible signs of delight, all looked up to the heavens, to the brilliant light that represents the glory of the Lord.

Father Denis Madden, who spent a greater part of the last two years working on the dome, is Associate Secretary General of CNEWA and Vice President of PMP.

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