BETHLEHEM, WEST BANK – Christian leaders in the Holy Land hope two new Palestinian saints will become intercessors for peace and a bridge among faiths.
“We are having a very big celebration now. Especially now that we are living a very difficult time in the Middle East, to have two Palestinian saints is wonderful,” said Sister Ferial of the Infant Jesus, a member of the Carmelite convent that Mariam Baouardy, Blessed Mary of Jesus Crucified, founded in Bethlehem. Thirteen sisters are members of the cloistered convent, with Sister Ferial the only Palestinian among them. Having joined the order four years ago after renouncing her previous life as a store owner and physiotherapist, she is also the only exterior member who serves as a connection between the sisters and the outside world.
“It is like putting a light in a dark pace. That is what Mariam and Mother Marie-Alphonsine are doing now.”
Blessed Marie-Alphonsine, born Soultaneh Maria Ghattas was born in Jerusalem in 1843 and is the founder of the Dominican Sisters of the Holy Rosary of Jerusalem, the first and still the only Palestinian women’s religious congregation. The Rosary Sisters are well-known in the Holy Land and the Middle East for their numerous educational institutions and were the first to open schools for girls in the villages visited by Mother Marie-Alphonsine, as she is known. They are particularly well-loved by local Catholics for their close connection and understanding of the local people, their traditions and language.
Mariam Baouardy, a Melkite Catholic, was born in 1846 in the Galilee village of Ibillin and died in 1878 in Bethlehem after having traveled to Egypt, France and India. She founded a Carmelite convent in India and one in Nazareth. Also known as the Little Arab, or the flower of Galilee, she was granted a series of gifts such as ecstasy, levitation, the stigmata, transverberation of the heart and the gift of poetry.
At an April 18 ceremony in Ibillin consecrating St. Mary of Jesus Crucified Chapel, commissioned by the Melkite Catholic Church, Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal noted the importance of the two women in the formation of two religious orders in the Holy Land.
“This Holy Land, which is suffering a lot and for which many are suffering, where there are so many soldiers, where there is occupation, war and violence, has produced two examples of holiness. And this must be the vocation of this land, which we hope to follow,” he said. “The example of the two Palestinian women, who will be canonized precisely in the Year for the Consecrated Life, will hopefully be able to galvanize the witness of Holy Land Christians of the 21st century.”
Mother Iness Al-Yacoub, superior general of the Rosary Sisters, said the canonization was a “big grace and blessing from God” for her congregation.
“The canonization gives us hope and determination to continue our mission in this blessed land,” she said. Mother Marie-Alphonsine “inspires us and gives us her message that holiness is not so far … hold your cross with joy and love despite the difficulties. … Walk with Jesus so you will not fall down.”
Sitting behind a grated window in the Carmel of the Child Jesus Convent in Bethlehem, Sister Anne Francoise, mother superior, said Blessed Mary’s message was one of “simplicity and love without limit, and to live with the Holy Spirit.”
“The canonization is a model for ordinary people here,” she said. “Mariam had a very special grace: to help people come closer, connect, with God.”
Sister Ferial said the problems in the Middle East result from “not accepting the other.”
“Mariam asked Jesus: ‘How can I give you more?’ And Jesus answered her: ‘If you love your brothers and sisters, I will love you; if you do well for others, you will do well for me.’ This is very important for us here.”
Mother Marie-Alphonsine is credited with saving at least two girls from drowning, one in 1885 in the city of Jaffa, and another, Natalie Zananiri, a former student of the Rosary Sisters high school in Jerusalem’s Beit Hanina neighborhood. She was among five girls rescued from a collapsed septic tank 12 years ago. The girl’s mother had prayed to Mother Marie-Alphonsine earlier in the morning on a premonition, asking her to protect her daughter, and the rescue was credited to the late nun’s intercession. Her rescue paved the way for Mother Marie-Alphonsine’s beatification in 2009. Blessed Mary was beatified in 1983.
Rimond Hayek, 58, a Catholic from the Galilee village of Deir Hanna, recently visited the Carmelite convent, where the nun’s relics are kept.
“It is a very happy feeling, very emotional [to have the two nuns canonized],” she said. “I feel a strong connection to Mariam. When I came here I cried. I have a sick husband, and I always pray to [Blessed Mary]. She is from here. It is a great pride.”