Educational activities: Schools
In 1342 the Catholic Church entrusted the Franciscans with the safeguarding of the Holy Places. The friars soon came to understand that the importance of these places consisted not only in the stones of the Sanctuaries, but also in the “living stones” of the local Christians. Thus, alongside the sanctuaries arose parishes and schools. More precisely, it was in the second half of the 16th century, shortly after 1550, that the first schools in the Holy Land were opened by the Franciscans, initially in Bethlehem and then in Jerusalem; in the following century a school was also opened in Nazareth.
In these schools, which were very modest and could be called parish schools, along with teaching children to read, write, do arithmetic and learn the basic elements of the Catholic religion, languages were also taught, notably Italian and French and later Turkish and English, in addition of course to Arabic.
For the Christians the study of languages was important because it allowed them to work as interpreters and as guides for pilgrims. A group of well-educated Christians was thus formed that was able to survive in a very difficult environment.
It certainly was not an easy period for the schools, under the rule of the Turks, due to both the political situation and the poverty of the Franciscans, which made carrying out any project very difficult.
Education was free and the friars provided meals for the children who remained in school until midday.
From the account of the Dutch pilgrim Jan van Kootwyck in 1598 we have the first information about a school in Bethlehem. He mentions that the religious were directly overseeing the school. The lessons were held in the cloister of the convent, as there was no need at that time for facilities dedicated specifically for that purpose, which were in fact constructed only in the 1860s.
In the twentieth century instruction was extended to include girls as well, and this led to the involvement of the Sisters of St. Joseph who since then have continuously carried out teaching and educational activities for girls.
The schools, which were initially set up for the local Catholic community, were subsequently opened to the Greek Orthodox community, which found itself facing the same difficulties as the Catholics.
The Franciscans have done everything possible to maintain a Christian presence in the Holy Land. Indeed, despite the difficult relations between the two confessions, on 20 February 1809 the Council of the Custody of the Holy Land took the decision to permit Greek Orthodox students to attend the Franciscan schools, with no requirement to embrace the Catholic religion. Today this might seem an entirely normal decision, but two centuries ago this was certainly not the case.
Today the school also welcomes non-Christians and offers all families the opportunity of education for their children. This has permitted a real opportunity for interchange within the Bethlehem community.
An important educational project carried out at the School of Bethlehem has been teaching young people the craft skills of working with wood, coral and mother-of-pearl. This has aided the local population to develop a sector of employment that has contributed to the town.
The Franciscan Boys Home
The Franciscan Boys Home is one of the numerous social institutions of the Custody of the Holy Land. Founded in 2007, it is affiliated with the Terra Sancta College and seeks to open a new window of hope to confront the darkness of poverty and misery experienced by children living a painful reality, so that the Home can serve as a lifeline and a minaret by which they can be guided towards a better and more pleasant future, despite the numerous hardships and difficulties they face.
The Home is located in the Palestinian town of Bethlehem, on Milk Grotto Street, only a few meters from the birthplace of our Lord Jesus Christ. The idea for the Home initially was born in the house of the Franciscan Sisters, which was subsequently restored and equipped by the Custody of the Holy Land to accommodate children between the ages of six and eighteen who, for a wide range of reasons, have experienced a world of pain and suffering.
The most common reasons for this are being orphaned, the divorce of parents, and drugs and other social and economic problems that confront the Palestinian community. For all of these reasons, a need was felt to find a shelter for these children, to protect them and keep them safe. The Home was therefore based on the belief that “Home is not where you live but where you are understood”. And it was accordingly essential to develop strategies based on education in order to achieve the noble goals that were set for the Home.
The Custody at Bethlehem
Social assistance activities