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Jerusalem’s Hidden Treasure

A prominent church in the Holy Land undergoes a profound renovation with remarkable results.

text and photographs by George Martin

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“If you have ever wanted to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, this is the place to do it,” Father Hani Shehadeh told his group of pilgrims, pointing to the irregular stone steps leading down the eastern slope of Mount Sion outside of Jerusalem Old City.

In the time of Jesus, these steps linked the upper part of Jerusalem with its main water supply, the pool of Siloam. Ancient tradition places the Last Supper in the upper city, making these steps the path Jesus would have taken on his way to the Garden of Gethsemane, which lies beyond Siloam. Father Shehadeh pilgrims eagerly made use of the opportunity to walk where, in all probability, Jesus had walked to his passion and death. Some pilgrims, perhaps influenced by the Roman Scala Sancta tradition, walk these steps barefoot.

These ancient steps run alongside the Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu, which is today one of Jerusalem most beautiful and interesting churches. The site was a jumble of ruins when in 1887 a wealthy benefactor acquired the property and donated it to the Assumptionist Fathers. Amidst the ruins were remains of ritual baths and cisterns from the time of Jesus, evidence that houses once stood there. Also found were the remains of three churches built successively on the site: a fifth-century Byzantine church, destroyed during the Persian invasion of 614; a seventh-century church, destroyed in 1009; and a twelfth-century church erected by the Crusaders and destroyed a century later.

Diaries kept by early Christian pilgrims indicate that the house of Caiaphas, where Jesus was interrogated before his crucifixion, was on or near this site; the churches were therefore dedicated to St. Peter and commemorated his threefold denial of Jesus in the courtyard of Caiaphas house. By the time of the Crusaders the church had become known as St. Peter in Gallicantu – St. Peter at Cockcrow.

The Assumptionists – who were founded in 1847 to promote pilgrimages – built the modern Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu in the 1920 over the remains of the earlier churches. Today the dome of the church is crowned by a golden cock, or rooster, the only church in Jerusalem so crowned. This rooster has become the symbol of the church: nearby, a sign depicting a rooster and arrow guides pilgrims to the site.

I first visited St. Peter in Gallicantu in the 1980. It struck me as a dark, cluttered building focused on a “prison of Christ” – a cistern where Christ may have been held between his trials before Caiaphas and Pilate. Some other purported prisons of Christ can be found in Jerusalem today, none of which seem authentic. Aside from the ancient steps beside the church, St. Peter in Gallicantu did not draw me into prayer. Not at first.

The church changed quite radically in the 1990, however, thanks in large part to the vision and effort of Father Robert Fortin, A.A., the Jerusalem superior of the Assumptionists. A native of Worcester, Massachusetts, Father Fortin found the church and the adjoining residence in need of considerable repair and modernizing when he arrived in 1990. Water seepage had damaged both the foundation and the roof of the church; the ceiling mosaics were deteriorating. Unless major repairs were made, the church would slowly crumble.

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Tags: Jerusalem Holy Land Pilgrimage/pilgrims Revival/restoration