Contemplative sisters work the land at Ein Karem convent. (photo: CNEWA files)
In the workroom. (photo: CNEWA files)
Ecce Homo Basilica: the main altar. (photo: Yaron Ya’ari)
They have come to Jerusalem from twelve countries around the world, including Turkey and Sweden. At their convents the Mass is sometimes celebrated in Hebrew, and they can bargain in fluent Arabic. They provide shelter for tourists, and they produce some of the finest honey in the Holy Land.
The Sisters of Our Lady of Sion are a unique Catholic community, dedicated to reminding Christians that their faith has Jewish roots. In 1984, the sisters celebrated the centenary of the deaths of their founders, Father Marie-Theodore Ratisbonne and his brother, Father Marie-Alphonse Ratisbonne. The brothers themselves were converts from Judaism.
Born in the Alsace region of France in 1802, Theodore was baptized secretly because of his familys bitter opposition. Alphonse was deeply hurt by his brothers conversion, but 15 years later he too entered the Church, converted by a miraculous apparition of the Blessed Virgin in Rome.
Both brothers took the name Marie at baptism and were later ordained to the priesthood. They collaborated in founding two religious orders to engage in a special apostolate on behalf of the Jewish people: the Congregation of Our Lady of Sion in 1843 and the Fathers of Sion in 1852. Today the congregations seek to promote understanding between Jews and Christians.
In 1855 Alphonse traveled to Palestine, where he spent the rest of his life working among Jews and Moslems. He founded two houses for the Sisters of Sion, Ecce Homo and Ein Karem, and one community of priests, Ratisbonne.
About 20 sisters live at the Ecce Homo Convent on the Via Dolorosa in the Old City of Jerusalem. A guest house and a youth hostel take up a large portion of the 120-year-old convents premises. Staying at Ecce Homo, however, means more than just room and board. Sister Donna, the superior of the community, explains that most guests have no real opportunity for contact with many aspects of daily life in the country.
We want this place to serve as a kind of window on Jerusalem and the Holy Land, she says. In the evenings, visitors at Ecce Homo can attend lectures by Christian, Jewish and Moslem speakers who discuss the land, its history, and its myriad problems.
Every year, some 250,000 pilgrims from all parts of the world step across the threshold of Ecce Homo Convent near the site of the Second Station of the Cross. They come to see the flagstoned Roman courtyard preserved in the convent basement. This is the Lithostrotos, mentioned in the Passion according to St. John, where Pilate presented Jesus to the crowd with the words, Ecce Homo (Behold the man.) Nearby is the place where Pilate pronounced his judgment and washed his hands, declaring himself innocent of the blood of this just man, yet delivering him up to be crucified.
It is not possible to fix the precise position of these events, but it is highly probable that the crowning with thorns took place on the flagstones marked by the game of the king. It is one of several games cut into the surface of the Lithostrotos by Roman soldiers.
The game of the king was a cruel burlesque that was popular among the soldiers. They would choose a mock king, pay him sarcastic homage, and finally put him to death. From the Gospel accounts of the Passion, it seems likely that the crowning with thorns and the torturous mockery of Jesus before His execution were part of the game of the king. The marks for the game, still visible in the stone, include a spiked crown.
The site for the convent, alongside Ecce Homo Arch, was acquired by Father Alphonse Ratisbonne in 1857. Mother Marie Godeleine of Sion and Father Vincent, O.P., professor at the French Biblical Archaeological School of Jerusalem, began scientific studies of the site in 1930. Their conclusions were presented as the subject for a doctoral thesis by Mother M. Aline of Sion at the Sorbonne University in Paris in 1955.
Next to the convent is the Basilica of the Ecce Homo, built under the guidance of Father Alphonse. Two French architects, Daumet and Mauss, designed the basilica in Roman-Byzantine style to harmonize with the ancient artifacts it enshrines. Work was begun on the basilica in 1864 and it was completed in 1868. Above the small northern arch is a semi-circular section lined with red marble and surmounted by a dome of gold mosaic. In the dome, the symbols of the four evangelists surround a Byzantine cross.
The old stone building where the sisters live is arranged around a small courtyard garden. Rising skyward are three luxuriant date palms that are watered from 2000-year-old cisterns hewn out of the rock below the Lithostrotos. The water collected in these cisterns once slaked the thirst of the Roman troops garrisoned in the Antonia Fortress on the same site.
The convent rooftop offers an unobstructed view of the Mount of Olives to the east; on the west rises the dark gray dome of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
When you look at Old Jerusalem up here, muses Sister Donna, it gives you a sense of closeness and intensity. She gazes over the city, its streets bustling with shoppers, tradespeople, and tourists. But to tell the truth, she confesses with a smile, it is good to be able to retreat once in awhile to our house in Ein Karem.
Set on a hilltop and ringed by a crenellated stone wall, the Ein Karem Convent is a well-known landmark in its quaint village. Nineteen Sisters of Sion share the rambling house and gardens; seven belong to the contemplative branch of the community, and twelve are working in the local apostolate. The contemplative sisters live in seclusion and devote their time to prayer and to working in the gardens.
The villagers, many of whom the sisters have known since they were children, come to the convent to buy homegrown pomegranates, artichokes, and the sisters celebrated honey. Guests from many different backgrounds enjoy the rustic, homelike atmosphere of the convent in the tradition of Christian hospitality. It is especially appropriate that they are warmly received here; Ein Karem is the village where Mary was welcomed into the home of her cousin Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist.
Through prayer, work, and service to neighbors and visitors alike, the Sisters of Sion embody the ideals of their founders. Their apostolate, says Sister Donna, is expressed in the message of Pope John Paul II for the World Day of Peace in 1984:
Only through the conversion of hearts can brothers and sisters build the common future of the human race and construct the great and lasting edifice of peace.
Our work is like a canopy of peace, says Sister Donna. We try to stretch it a little further each day.
Norman A. Rubin writes from Israel.