A Church Transformed

text by Father Denis J. Madden
photographs by Joel Fishman

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It was an impressive sight. On the morning of 2 January, in Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, Diodoros I, processed with his retinue to the tomb of Jesus. They were joined by the Franciscans, led by Father Giuseppe Nazzaro, O.F.M., Custos of the Holy Land, and the clergy of the Armenian Apostolic community of Jerusalem, guided by Patriarch Torkom Manoogian.

In a joyful service of prayer, scripture and song, the Greek, Franciscan and Armenian communities unveiled the restored and newly decorated dome that soars above the holy sepulchre. As the curtain was drawn away a burst of golden light drew our eyes from the empty tomb to the heavens.

Mr. and Mrs. George Doty, whose benevolence had made this event possible, and Msgr. Robert L. Stern, Secretary General of CNEWA and President of the Pontifical Mission for Palestine (PMP), joined the leaders of all the Christian communities in Jerusalem, Israeli and Palestinian leaders, the consular corps, the artist and his wife, the CNEWA-PMP Jerusalem staff and pilgrims from around the world in celebrating this historic occasion.

For decades, visitors to this holiest of Christian shrines – known in the East as the Church of the Resurrection – have left disappointed, even repelled. Expecting a shrine that related to their spiritual or aesthetic understanding of the Paschal Mystery – the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ – the pilgrims instead entered a dark, cavernous space containing a number of chapels, each used exclusively by one of the Christian communities.

As the status of the individual Christian communities fluctuated (often influenced by the whims of the Ottoman sultan), so too did their rights to the sanctuaries. In one seven-year period in the 17th century, for example, the right of preeminence in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre among the Greek Orthodox and Franciscans changed at least six times.

In 1852, the sultan issued an order delineating the rights of the ecclesiastical communities in the Holy Sepulchre and all other holy places, thus unraveling the web of decrees that had been drawn up by the Ottomans, the Russians (who represented the Orthodox) and the French (who represented Latin Catholics). Scrupulous adherence to this Status Quo continues to maintain the delicate balance among the churches and their access to and custody of the holy sites. Through the years, however, this fidelity has often paralyzed restoration efforts in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Since the promulgation of the Status Quo, two major fires, an earthquake and wartime shelling (1948) had damaged the dome and the rotunda of the Holy Sepulchre.

The British Mandatory authorities, who succeeded the Ottomans following World War I, offered to restore the crumbling building, erecting iron braces in the rotunda to shore up the dome. A comprehensive restoration plan, however, could not be agreed upon. A joint plan of action was approved in 1959 and the dome was eventually repaired in the late 1970s, but the scaffolding remained, veiling the dome and enveloping the tomb of Christ in darkness.

George and Marie Doty, members of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre, had visited the church on numerous occasions since the 60s and found the condition of the dome and church a distraction. During one such trip, George Doty asked Msgr. Stern how he might help.

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Tags: Jerusalem Funding Revival/restoration Marie Doty