After three years on the waiting list, my time had come to live & volunteer at Ecce Homo Convent Guesthouse on the Via Dolorosa in Old City Jerusalem.
On the way, I stopped in Jerash, Jordan to see one of the largest and most well-preserved Roman cities. Here’s the gate built in honor of Emperor Hadrian in 129AD and the unique Oval Plaza.
The history of Ecce Homo is another story worth telling. It starts with two Jewish brothers named Ratisbonne from France. The older one, Theodore, converted to Christianity. His younger brother Alphonse was not pleased with his conversion and went on a European tour. While Alphonse was in Rome, a friend asked if they could stop by a church to plan a friend’s funeral. Alphonse waited in the church while his friend met with the priest. When the friend returned, Alphonse was on his face on the ground. He had seen a vision of Mary and converted to Christianity himself. He took the baptismal name Mary. Both brothers became Catholic priests and Alphonse became Fr. Mary. They were encouraged to start an order of nuns. In 1848, Theodore founded the Congregation of our Lady of Sion, and felt led to start a house for the Sisters of Sion in Jerusalem.
During the Ottoman Empire, when the Nazareth Hospital was getting started (see my 2015 post below) and the US was fighting the Civil War, Jerusalem was in rubble without many inhabitants. The Ottomans allowed foreigners to buy property but it had to be historic property. The brothers found a good spot with arches from a gate built for Emperor Hadrian about 135AD (that originally looked a lot like the gate above at Jerash). Here is how it looked in 1864. Today, the large arch is over the road and the small left arch is the altar for the Basilica in the convent.
Here is the basilica as it looks now. The people singing here are a wonderful group called Harpa Dei that’s worth looking up on YouTube!
As you might imagine, there are some pretty fascinating things in the basement. One is the Game of Kings Stone. It is believed that the Roman soldiers were playing this game, where one is king for a day and then killed, when they put the purple robe and crown of thorns upon Jesus. I have seen a few stones with similar carvings around the Holy Land and this one is especially clear.
There is also a plaza where some think that Pontius Pilate said, “Here’s the man,” or, in Latin, Ecce Homo, at the trial of Jesus in John 19:5. Hence, the name of both the convent and the large arch.
It’s thought that the paving stones in this photo might have been striated as a safety measure for horses in the wet weather.
There is also a cistern built by Herod the Great about 32 BC to provide water for animal sacrifice at the nearby Temple, for mikveh baths around the Temple Mount grounds, and for the Roman soldiers’ Antonia fortress. A small museum there contains things like oil lamps, pottery and animal knucklebones used in games.
Today many guests and visitors come to see these well-kept treasures. Some groups sing hymns and have Communion services in the Basilica or the Lithostrotos (“pavement”) below. Sometimes on my days off, I would explore the ancient moat, leftovers from Roman-era battles and much more. If only those walls could talk!
Here’s a view of Ecce Homo on the Via Dolorosa (“Way of Suffering”) today. Tradition says that this is where Jesus carried His cross. The somberness of that struck me over and over again as I lived there for three months.
The property is still owned by the Sisters of (Notre Dame de) Sion. Their time here includes teaching Hebrew to local Arabs, and teaching Arabic to incoming Jews in 1948. They are now assisted in managing the house by another religious group called Chemin Neuf. Here are some of the Sisters of Sion from Australia, England, Egypt and Canada.....wonderful ladies!
I was one of four volunteers and we worked very hard, but also received many rewards. My jobs were to help run the front desk, work with meals and do some gardening. When I could, I explored the old city and added to my list of secret nooks and crannies to share with friends. At the front desk, they called me Indiana Jones & would send people to me that wanted to know what interesting things to see during their visit.
Jerusalem has vibrant cultural offerings. We got to attend fascinating lectures on things like history and politics, a great concert in a venue overlooking the old city, and be in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve. I have so many stories of the wonderful people I met and things I got to see. Here’s a view from the rooftops, where just walking around after dinner was pretty amazing.
It was truly a privilege to be part of this family and make new friends. Two of those special souls are Maha-on the right, head of the dining room, & her assistant Nazira. Sometimes when I worked in the kitchen, I could hear them chanting the rosary together in Arabic – so sweet!
This statue was in a courtyard outside my bedroom. During these very special 3 months, I learned more about this land, it’s people and God. Thank you for sharing it with me.