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Kinderhilfe Bethlehem: A Small Bridge for Peace

by Klaus Röllin

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The year was 1952. As the bells of the Church of the Nativity rang out, calling Christians to the Christmas services, a Swiss priest, Father Ernst Schnydrig, stood watching a father bury his child in the muddy ground before his tent. A child had died of hunger near the very place where Jesus was born.

Profoundly moved by this incident, Father Schnydrig, who was working for Caritas Switzerland to help war refugees in Palestine, rented two rooms in a house and installed 14 cots to form the nucleus of what he confidently named the Caritas Baby Hospital.

The hospital grew gradually, with the help of a local doctor and a refugee worker from Switzerland. Meanwhile, Father Schnydrig began working for the German Caritas Association. Caritas was not in a position to run the hospital permanently, but Father Schnydrig was able to find church members in both Switzerland and Germany who were ready to form an association that would sponsor the children’s hospital and manage its legal, financial and organizational affairs. Thus Caritas Kinderhilfe Bethlehem, now known as Kinderhilfe Bethlehem, was born in 1963, with its headquarters in Lucerne, Switzerland. Later, offices were established in Geneva and Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany.

Kinderhilfe Bethlehem’s association members include all of the Catholic dioceses of Switzerland, several German dioceses, church associations from both countries and some individuals. Also, there has been a close relationship with Catholics in Italy ever since several Italian nuns from the Franciscan Sisters of St. Elizabeth came to work at the hospital in 1975.

Father Schnydrig continued his work on behalf of Kinderhilfe Bethlehem for more than a dozen years. In April, 1978, however, only two days before the inauguration of the present hospital, he succumbed to a heart attack in Freiburg im Breisgau. His memorial is inscribed on the foundation stone of the hospital: “We have helped the poorest as best we could and we have never asked after their race or religion.”

Today the hospital that began with 14 cots in two rooms has 80 beds and offers care to some 2,700 hospitalized babies each year. The staff of 200 includes six pediatricians and six assistant doctors, eight Franciscan Sisters of St. Elizabeth, and from five to eight specialists from Germany and Switzerland.

Attached to the hospital is an outpatient center providing about 16,000 consultations a year, a nursing school that graduates about 20 qualified nurses every two years, and a social service program that is available to patients, their families and to the socially disadvantaged throughout the region. A school for mothers and a range of preventive health care activities round out the hospital’s services.

Currently under expansion, the Caritas Baby Hospital is still the only children’s hospital in the West Bank and Gaza. Since its inception, the hospital has been of immense service to the disadvantaged children of the Bethlehem region, the area around Hebron and the entire West Bank.

Following the death of Father Schnydrig, an American-born Swiss priest, Msgr. Dr. Robert Füglister, was appointed Vice-Chairman of the Board of Kinderhilfe Bethlehem in 1978. Ten years later, Msgr. Füglister was named Chairman of the Board.

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Tags: Gaza Strip/West Bank Children Health Care Bethlehem