ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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

Jerusalem’s Hidden Treasure

A historic church marks the site where Peter heard the cock crow thrice.

“If you have ever wanted to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, this is the place to do it,” Father Hani Shehadeh told his group of pilgrims, pointing to the irregular stone steps leading down the eastern slope of Mount Sion outside of Jerusalem Old City.

In the time of Jesus, these steps linked the upper part of Jerusalem with its main water supply, the pool of Siloam. Ancient tradition places the Last Supper in the upper city, making these steps the path Jesus would have taken on his way to the Garden of Gethsemane, which lies beyond Siloam. Father Shehadeh pilgrims eagerly made use of the opportunity to walk where, in all probability, Jesus had walked to his passion and death. Some pilgrims, perhaps influenced by the Roman Scala Sancta tradition, walk these steps barefoot.

These ancient steps run alongside the Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu, which is today one of Jerusalem most beautiful and interesting churches. The site was a jumble of ruins when in 1887 a wealthy benefactor acquired the property and donated it to the Assumptionist Fathers. Amidst the ruins were remains of ritual baths and cisterns from the time of Jesus, evidence that houses once stood there. Also found were the remains of three churches built successively on the site: a fifth-century Byzantine church, destroyed during the Persian invasion of 614; a seventh-century church, destroyed in 1009; and a twelfth-century church erected by the Crusaders and destroyed a century later.

Diaries kept by early Christian pilgrims indicate that the house of Caiaphas, where Jesus was interrogated before his crucifixion, was on or near this site; the churches were therefore dedicated to St. Peter and commemorated his threefold denial of Jesus in the courtyard of Caiaphas house. By the time of the Crusaders the church had become known as St. Peter in Gallicantu – St. Peter at Cockcrow.

The Assumptionists – who were founded in 1847 to promote pilgrimages – built the modern Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu in the 1920 over the remains of the earlier churches. Today the dome of the church is crowned by a golden cock, or rooster, the only church in Jerusalem so crowned. This rooster has become the symbol of the church: nearby, a sign depicting a rooster and arrow guides pilgrims to the site.

I first visited St. Peter in Gallicantu in the 1980. It struck me as a dark, cluttered building focused on a “prison of Christ” – a cistern where Christ may have been held between his trials before Caiaphas and Pilate. Some other purported prisons of Christ can be found in Jerusalem today, none of which seem authentic. Aside from the ancient steps beside the church, St. Peter in Gallicantu did not draw me into prayer. Not at first.

The church changed quite radically in the 1990, however, thanks in large part to the vision and effort of Father Robert Fortin, A.A., the Jerusalem superior of the Assumptionists. A native of Worcester, Massachusetts, Father Fortin found the church and the adjoining residence in need of considerable repair and modernizing when he arrived in 1990. Water seepage had damaged both the foundation and the roof of the church; the ceiling mosaics were deteriorating. Unless major repairs were made, the church would slowly crumble.

Father Fortin used this opportunity not only to shore up the church structurally, but also to transform it into a far better place for worship. Primarily through the generous support of George and Marie Doty of Rye, New York, Father Fortin reconfigured and refurbished the entire structure. He created a lower church in the crypt beneath the upper church, providing two independent spaces for liturgy. He rerouted the stairs and built a glass wall so pilgrims could visit and view the site without disturbing worshippers. He removed the many side altars originally built for private Masses and added religious art portraying the events commemorated by the church. A heating system was added, as winters in Jerusalem are often damp and chilly. The acoustics in the upper church were also improved with the addition of sound absorbent material hidden behind decorative wooden screens. Father Fortin told me that his aim was to make the church “eloquent in itself,” with the hope that it would draw visitors into meditation on Jesu passion.

The main doors of St. Peter in Gallicantu are a bronze portrayal of Jesu warning to Peter during the Last Supper: “Before the cock crows this day, you will deny three times that you know me.” (Luke 22:34) The upper church commemorates Jesus being brought before Caiaphas, depicted in a large mosaic in the apse. The lower church has three large icons as its focal points: Peter denials of Jesus (Luke 22:57), his weeping and repentance after the cock crowed (Luke 22:62) and Peter reconciliation with the risen Jesus on the shore of the Sea of Galilee (John 21:17). Stairs from the lower level lead to cisterns and other remains from the time of Jesus or out to the ancient steps running down the side of Mount Sion.

Along with the church renovation and the Assumptionist residence, Father Fortin made other improvements to the site. A convent was built for the Religious Sisters of the Assumption, who with the Assumptionist Fathers staff St. Peter in Gallicantu. The flat roof of the convent provides pilgrims and the sisters with a panoramic view of the south of Jerusalem. Next to the convent is a lodge for youth groups on pilgrimage. Nearing completion is a visitor center with a gift shop, meeting room, snack bar and rest rooms. The gift shop features handicrafts from about 20 monasteries in the Holy Land, which depend on the sale of these items for subsistence. In addition, an elevator will soon link the visitor center with the upper level of the church, allowing more accessibility to those who have difficulty climbing stairs.

The ultimate test, of course, is whether all these changes make St. Peter in Gallicantu a better place for prayer. I spent time observing how pilgrimage groups made use of the church and I was edified by what I saw. One guide gathered his group in the upper church for an explanation of the site, followed by a reading of Psalm 88, one that foreshadows the sufferings of Christ. Then he gave his pilgrims time for private visits and prayer in the lower parts of the church. Some made their way to a chapel located off the lower church, where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved. Another group gathered on the ancient steps outside the church for a prayer service.

When I lead pilgrimages to the Holy Land, I have to choose which of the many sites we will visit during our limited time there. I take three factors into consideration: the probable historical authenticity of the site, the veneration of the site by earlier pilgrims and whether the site is a good place to pray.

St. Peter in Gallicantu is now a notable spot for prayer and reflection on scenes from Christ passion. It is also a place with a long history of Christian veneration, mosaic remains and Byzantine crosses carved into the cisterns and ancient bedrock floor – all these attest to the antiquity of the site and the esteem held by early Christians for the church.

For centuries, pilgrims have journeyed here to commemorate Jesu trial before Caiaphas and Peter denials of Jesus. Modern pilgrims simply follow in their footsteps.

George Martin, a frequent visitor to the Holy Land, filed this story from Jerusalem.

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