21 September 2023

An overview of the St Saviour’s convent workshops, from yesterday to today


In the heart of the Christian Quarter in Jerusalem, St Saviour’s convent is a hive of activity. If the old pharmacy and the Franciscan Printing Press are now well known, other traditional workshops, which have remained out of sight, show the dynamism of this convent and of the missions of the friars of the Custody of the Holy Land. Here is an overview.

The flour mill and the bakery where work went on day and night to provide the daily bread for 5 convents. The oven on two levels used a ton of flour per day and baked 2,700 loaves in a day, 12,000 in a week, most of which were distributed to the poor and the rest was for the convents.

When mission rhymes with education

“I used to work with my hands and I want to work; and I strongly want all the brothers to do honest work,” wrote St Francis of Assisi in his Will. In the Franciscan spirit, work is conceived as a virtue. It is also a necessity in the context of the Holy Land where the Friars have learned to live self-sufficiently as they were the only Latin Christians allowed to live in Jerusalem. In the early days, they developed a wide range of trades to meet their needs: miller, baker, blacksmith, organ-builder, cobbler, bookbinder, laundryman, tailor, joiner, cabinet-maker, stone-cutter … Later, a good number of Arab apprentices from the Franciscan orphanage and their schools, were trained to open their own workshops almost everywhere in Palestine.

In 1730, only a few apprentices were recorded. There were 120 skilled workers in the middle of the 20th century and their activities continued until the 1970s. For the sake of transmission and education, the Friars contributed quite significantly to the economic development of the Old City of Jerusalem and beyond. Tribute was paid to the workshops by an exhibition at the convent and their traces are still visible in the labyrinth which is the parent house of the Franciscans of the Holy Land.

Some workshops that have disappeared

To approach this description of the old workshops of St Saviour, it is essential to have at hand the indispensable album of the Franciscan Mission of the Holy land, 1st volume Judaea and Galilee (Gualassini & Bertarelli) of 1893 as well as the album dedicated to the convent in the 1895 directory Sanctuaria Terrae Sanctae. They show, through the photographs that were among the first to be taken in the Near Orient, the daily life of the Friars in Ottoman Palestine. Some reveal surprising installations…

The incredible steam machine 

From the 19th until the early 21st century, the “workshop courtyard” housed the activities on the ground floor, starting from an extraordinary steam machine ! It was made up of a mechanical system with a rotating axle on which straps were fixed which provided power to all the machine-tools in the convent : in the forge, the joinery, the printing press, the flour mill… The axle of rotation of this super dynamo measured the length of the building housing the present-day library of the Custody. It was solidly fixed to the wall by powerful supports such as the one that can still be seen in the reading room, the last remaining trace of it.

The friars’ forge

This source of energy disappeared with the workshops that it powered and, first and foremost, the forge. At the beginning of the last century, the forge employed 8 workers under the supervision of a friar. Gratings, parapets and wrought iron articles of all sorts were made at St Saviour. Some can be found in the churches of Palestine, although certain elements have been reworked since. In the souvenir photo of the workshop, the metallic volutes can be seen, the same as the wrought iron parapets of the present-day Department of Cultural Heritage of the Custody. They were actually decorative elements made for the ancient Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth. These parapets were placed at the level of the altar and on both sides of the steps going down into the crypt. Too small, the basilica was rebuilt in 1969 by the architect Giovanni Munzio and today it is the largest in the Near East.

Start on the right note” : the organ factory 

To accompany the liturgy in the Holy Land, it was important to give the churches pipe organs, in particular the mother church of the Holy Sepulchre and to teach music! Agostino Al’Ama, from the orphanage of the Friars, spent almost 70 years at the Holy Sepulchre as the organist. Director of the “Schola Cantorum of the Holy Land” he was also a talented composer and at the origin of many innovations in contemporary Palestinian music. The Friars still remember the Spanish Franciscan Delfino Fernandez Taboada, the last organ-maker of the Custody. Today it is the Austrian specialist Rieger that ensures the technical upkeep of the Custody’s organs. 

The oldest traces of organs known are kept in the collections of the Terra Sancta Museum. It is the organ of the church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. It was probably brought to the Holy Land by the French Crusaders before being buried at the end of the 12th century and rediscovered, almost by complete chance, in 1906 ! It will be on display at the heart of the historical museum currently being built at the St Saviour Convent. This tradition of organ music has continued to the present and in several countries of the Custody with the Terra Sancta Organ Festival.

The craftsmen of thread: cobbling and bookbinding

The 1893 album shows the existence of an active cobbler’s in St Saviour. Seven workmen and apprentices made sandals for 500 religious but also for “orphans and the needy.” Their models can still be found today in local stores.

Bookbinding is a craft which allows ensuring a long life for books by sewing together their pages. The master-binder was also responsible for rebinding old books. The halls of the convent preserve alongside the old presses from Central Europe, a perforator which allowed cutting the edges of cardboard and leather after printing to finish the binding. If this manual craftsmanship has disappeared from the convent, the Franciscan Printing Press still exists and its machines have been relocated to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives.

Workshops that are still functioning

The workshops of St Saviour show the long and close bond between the Friars and the Arab populations of the Holy City. Following this tradition, the Custody today has almost 1200 employees, including a large number of workers and craftsmen in the convent itself.

The tailoring shop or Franciscan haute couture!

“It is a calm and quiet affair that the venerable white beard of the head tailor illuminates with a patriarchal aura”… this is how Father Bonaventure Sanson described the tailoring shop in 1939 in the magazine of the Holy Land. With about ten employees, this service which groups together the laundry and the tailor’s shop is one of the most dynamic activities of the Custody. The tailoring shops runs the cycle of laundry, the religious vestments and, each year, makes about one hundred Franciscan habits, at the service of the friars, the sanctuaries, the schools and the pilgrims.

Its activities took place, in the heart of the convent, in the present-day courtyard occupied by the Pro Terra Sanctaassociation which helps the charities of the Custody. The location of the laundry can be recognized by its tank, the water of which was used for washing. The pulley with its basin allowed drying the laundry in the upper courtyard where it was ironed and darned. 

A modernized joinery

At the end of the 19th century, the joinery of St Saviour employed 28 workers with their apprentices. The pews in the sanctuaries, the confessionals and the doors of many churches were made at St Saviour. Maurizio, a professional joiner and volunteer at the service of the Cultural Heritage expresses this emulation : “When I see what has been done, I see in it the faith of the craftsmen who like me today, were at the service of the Custody. (…) I found out that some of the furniture I like best in the Custody was created at the time when there was a joinery here, run by friars who had as their assistants and apprentices inhabitants of Jerusalem and its surroundings. (…) And the local craftsmanship has also been influenced by their presence.

The expertise of the joiner-cabinet-maker is handed down today with Khalil Shaeed and his colleagues. For solemnities such as the Visitation on 31 May, the craftsmen built for example a monumental altar dedicated to the Virgin Mary which is honoured at the end of a large procession  in the Christian Quarter.

The Technical Dept. and its heritage

Directly descended from the stone-cutters and the builders of yesterday, the Technical  Dept. carries out the maintenance work on the sanctuaries and the convents of the Custody. The renovation of the Latin chapel in the Holy Sepulchre, of the Refectory of St Saviour, works for the Terra Sancta Museum… its 8 workers backed up by external technicians are on all fronts. The workshops of yesteryear have naturally become more professional and also include architects, engineers and communicators …

Today, although needs have evolved, the Custody continues to offer this type of training for manual trades to the local community. This is the case with the Mosaïc Center of Jericho or during the organization of courses on architecture organized by the Terra Sancta Museum at the University of Bethlehem. The project of the Terra Sancta Museum as it is being implemented by a young Palestinian and international team is part of this continuity: the spirit of learning and sharing knowledge, but even more the taste for beauty, inherited from the line  of craftsmen of St Saviour’s Convent.

(Translated from French by Joan Rundo)

Acknowledgements :

Thanks to Br. Stéphane Milovitch ofm, Director of the Office of Cultural Assets of the Custody of the Holy Land, and Marie-Armelle Beaulieu, Director of Terre Sainte Magazine, for gathering the archives and memories.

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