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Franciscan Friary
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Terra Sancta Schools - Historical Synopsis

by Fr. Halim Nujaim ofm

It is not that easy to find accurate and adequate historical documents regarding the establishment, growth and development of the Terra Sancta Schools during the past centuries, especially during the first three centuries of the establishment of the Franciscan Order in Palestine and the Middle East

I- Terra Sancta Schools in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries
Among the first tasks of the Franciscans since the beginning of their existence in Palestine, was to care for the European pilgrims coming to visit the Holy Places. In order to insure an easy and fruitful visit for these pilgrims to the Holy Land, and for the sake of securing work for a number of local citizens as tourist guides, the Franciscans were keen to create a group of educated citizens who were fluent in European languages, especially Italian which was considered as the principle European language during those centuries.

The Custody of the Holy Land began its educational institutions at the beginning of the sixteenth century. The beginnings, needless to say, were quite humble. However, with the passing of time, these ventures grew in size to the extent of constituting an important positive dimension, which was added to the other human dimensions of the Catholic and Franciscan existence in the Middle East.

TS school at Amman

One of Terra Sancta Schools - Amman

The first reference for a school established and administered by the Franciscans dates back to the year 1598, when Giovanni Cootwyck visited the Holy Places and wrote in his diary that a school was built near the Franciscan convent next to the Church of Nativity, fifty years prior to the date of his visit, that is in the middle of the sixteenth century. The aim of that school was to secure elementary education to Christian boys, both Catholic, and Greek Orthodox as well. In his description of the life in Bethlehem, at that time, he says: "The majority of the Christians in Bethlehem are Greek Orthodox and the minority are Catholics. However, they are all fluent in Italian which they call the language of the Europeans and is spoken by the children. The adult citizens use this language to serve the Western pilgrims as guides for them and for the Friars. These citizens are keen that their children learn this language in order to continue serving the convent".

From the above quotation one can surmise that the Franciscan Friars were zealous in teaching the Italian language. In fact the citizens of Bethlehem were using it in the service of the convent and for pilgrims. We can also conclude that this language was widely known by the citizens of this city and hence an indication of the success of the school in it's educational mission.

In the General Chapter of the Franciscan Friars held in Toledo, Spain, in 1645, the attendees decided to entrust the Friars with the responsibility of raising the children of the guides and interpreters serving in the convents of Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth and instructing them in the principles of the Christian religion until the age of nine. The Friars also provided lunch for the children and send them home in the evening.

In his report the Custos of the Holy Land stated that the Custody administered about twenty schools more or less in the following countries: six in Palestine, six in Syria, five in Egypt, two in Cyprus and one in Constantinople. The overall number of students in these schools totaled 188. During the seventeenth century schools were attached to every convent. Although it has been difficult to find an accurate date for establishing each school, it is evident that the Custody of the Holy Land used to run schools in Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth prior to 1645. Our records show that some schools were vacant during certain periods of time for various reasons.

With respect to the school in Bethlehem, Father Bernardo Surio, who visited Palestine during the period 1644-1647, says the following: "The Franciscan Friars teach the children of Bethlehem religious studies and the general sciences so as to succeed their fathers in working as guides and interpreters for the Friars. This is beneficial for them spiritually and materially".

The Jesuit Monk Nau, who visited the Holy Places in 1674 says: "The Franciscans teach between thirty to forty children in Bethlehem free of charge... These children pray with the Friars...and participate in the religious procession, in an orderly and pious manner, from the church to the Grotto and kiss the place where Jesus was born...".

With respect to the Jerusalem school, Knight D'Arvieux said in1600: "A number of Franciscan Friars teach Christian children singing and music, others teach them reading and writing in Latin and Italian, while other Friars teach them religious studies". He added, "Nobody can imagine the help which the Custody of the Holy Land needs to provide for the living of the Friars ...as well as of a big number of Christian families, in addition to securing the funds necessary for raising up the children of Jerusalem, Bethlehem and many other places free of charge".

In 1687, the Custodian of the Holy Land wrote the following to the Vatican: "At the convents in Jerusalem and Bethlehem there is a school for teaching humanities, Italian, religious singing and religious principles for the Catholic and Greek Orthodox children. All children, Catholic and Orthodox, are provided with a meal". However, at that time, Greek Orthodox children were being accepted in our schools in the hope of one day embracing the Catholic faith

II- Terra Sancta Schools from the Eighteenth Century Till 1840:
The following factors caused an interruption in the growth of the educational mission of the Terra Sancta Schools:
A. Political changes
B. The economic situation of the Franciscans.
C. The spread of plague, which forced the Friars to close a large number of schools.


Children's faced during the morning assembly

It is well to note that during this era society did not give much importance to the free professions. In addition, Christians were deprived of assuming any high positions in the government since these positions were restricted solely for Turks. Hence, it became necessary for Christians to learn handicrafts in order to secure a living. The schools unfortunately did not provide such learning.

Consequently, in 1740 the Franciscans at Saint Saviour's Convent in Jerusalem established a vocational school to teach students the different professions such as carpentry, iron smith, printing, etc., professions which still exist today attesting to their long history.

During the eighteenth century, the schools continued to provide their services to students, though with great sacrifices, so as to help people meet the above-mentioned difficulties. It is interesting to note the comments of one visitor named Giovanni Mariti, who in 1767 visited the Jerusalem school. He says: "There is one teacher at St. Savior's Convent in Jerusalem who teaches the Catholic children of the city reading Latin, reading and writing Italian, as well as religious studies and singing. The number of children ranges between forty and fifty. They are provided with one meal at the convent and leave at sunset. They continue to receive this education till the age of twelve... These Friars perform a noble deed which benefits the children, their parents, and the Friars themselves because they help them in the church service, work as guides for them and for the pilgrims, and some of these students conduct commercial activities in the East and in Europe".

Before ending the discussion on this era of history, it is important to mention that at the outset of the nineteenth century it was only the Custody of the Holy Land who began to accept Greek Orthodox students without any pressure of embracing the Catholic faith. In fact, there had been an explicit decision taken by the Council of the Custody on February 20, 1809 allowing the acceptance of Greek Orthodox students in the Bethlehem school if the students so wished to do so and their parents requested. Needless to say they had to abide by all the rules and regulations of the school. Violators would naturally be dismissed from the school.

III- From 1840 To the Present Time:
After Sultan Abdul Hameed had issued his famous constitution in 1840 in which he granted specific freedoms in the field of education, the Custody of the Holy Land exerted enormous efforts for developing its schools for both boys and girls. Consequently, the Custody schools were either established or re-opened in Palestine, Syria, Egypt and Cyprus. Likewise, a new regulation was approved for schools in all the areas of the missionary parishes.

Our schools were not restricted to male students only. Later on our schools were opened for girls. The administration of these schools was handed over to religious nuns such as the Sisters of St. Joseph and the Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. This was in compliance with the wish of Pope Pius IX who sent a letter to the Custodian of the Holy Land in 1846 saying: "The Terra Sancta schools now existing should stay and develop, and the Custody of the Holy Land should sacrifice anything for the growth of these schools. In every parish, especially if it is large, there should be a school for boys and another for girls". The Custody has been faithful to the contents of this letter ever since.

Consequently, a new chapter in the history of the Terra Sancta schools had begun. For the first time the "Sisters of St. Joseph" and the "Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Egypt" were requested to organize and administer the Terra Sancta Schools for girls.

The above-mentioned Turkish Constitution had given new life to the educational institutions of the Custody of the Holy Land, especially the schools. The Custody was finally awakened from its deep slumber. In a report written in 1842, we read that the principle concern of the Custos of the Holy Land who had assumed his new responsibilities in June 1841 was that the education of boys and girls would begin in Jerusalem. Schools were then established in Cyprus as well.

The Custody had opened the first school for girls in Jerusalem in 1841, in Bethlehem the following year, and in Acre around 1844. During this period, the Superior General of the Franciscans asked the Custody to increase the number of schools for boys and girls. Hence, the Custody opened two more schools, one each in Beit Jala and Beit Sahur near Bethlehem in 1842 and being administered by the Friars.

In 1848, the Custody had called the Sisters of St. Joseph to administer the Terra Sancta Schools for girls in Jerusalem, Jaffa, and later on in Bethlehem.

In 1852, the Custody opened a school in Tripoli, Lebanon.

In 1856, the Custody opened a large school in the city of Alexandria, Egypt and handed it over to the Christian Brothers Schools ( the Frères ).

In 1861, the Custody opened a school for boys in Ramleh, and later on another school for girls.

During the same period, the Custody opened an orphanage for boys and another for girls in Jerusalem.

In 1923, the Custody opened a school for girls in Limassol, Cyprus.

In 1929, in response to the wish of the Vatican, the Custody bought Cardinal Ferrari's school later to be known as "Terra Sancta College - Jerusalem". Teaching continued in this college until the Arab-Israeli War of 1948. This college became a springboard in the field of education for after its establishment, Terra Sancta schools aspired to develop and establish secondary schools. Various schools furnished the college with excellent students who, in turn benefited from special scholarships given by the administration of Terra Sancta College in Jerusalem.

In 1933, the new school in Jaffa was built.

In 1946, the Custody acquired the Frères school in Latakia, Syria.

In 1947, the Custody started building the new college in Aleppo because the old school which was built in 1859 became too small to accommodate the large number of students.

In 1948, the Custody opened the Terra Sancta College in Amman.

In 1967, the Syrian Government nationalized all the schools of the Custody of the Holy Land. The Government also nationalized all the private schools which refused to abide by the new instructions regarding education. Consequently, the Custody lost, as a result of this nationalization, seven schools with 3495 students

The subjects taught in the past centuries were religious studies, Arabic, Italian, French, English, Turkish, Mathematics, Geography, History, etc. At present, however the Terra Sancta schools have adhere to the government curricula with special emphasis on other subjects.

At present, the Custody owns and runs the following schools:

1. Palestine: Two schools in Jerusalem, one for girls from kindergarten till tenth grade, and another for boys from kindergarten till ninth grade, and co-education from the tenth grade till the twelfth.

2. Israel: One school each in Nazareth, Acres and Ramleh; and two in Jaffa, elementary and secondary.

3. Jordan, Cyprus and Argentina: one full school in each and two elementary schools in Lebanon.

The above schools total a student body of ten thousand students.

As stated above, the Syrian government nationalized the private schools in 1967 and hence only some kindergartens remain. Although the Syrian courts have recognized the right of the Custody in owning its schools, they still have not been handed over to their rightful owners.

The Custody handed over the administration of its schools in Egypt to the Egyptian Friars of the St. Family's vice - province when an agreement was reached in 1992. Eight schools were handed over to them with a student body of 7,000.

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