A recent initiative of our General House in Rome has been the organisation of a three-month Renewal Course on Mount Carmel (Haifa), the “cradle” of the Order.
The most recent course was for English-speaking friars, though surprisingly only six friars took up the offer – two from the Anglo-Irish Province and four from the Indian Provinces.
The Course ran from early December (2012) to the end of February (2013) and we stayed in the community of Stella Maris, on Mount Carmel. There are eight permanent members in the resident community, from seven different countries! They made us most welcome.
The Prior and Vicar is Colombian; there are two Poles, one Israeli, one Mexican, one Korean, one Italian and a man by the name of Patrick from Madagascar. Fr Jose Colon, from the Mexican Province, was the Director of the Course, and Fr Francisco (Paco) Negral, from the Castile Province, was our guide on our visits to the various locations outside Haifa. Fr Paco is resident in the Carmelite parish in Haifa. He has been in the Holy Land for over 30 years, and he has the distinction of being an official guide, approved by the State of Israel.
The Course was a nice mix of substantial and excellent input in a class setting, as well as very interesting visits to all the appropriate sites, far and near. Being a course on spiritual renewal, full participation in the life and prayer of the community was an integral part of the experience. While the language of the community is Italian, we had Evening and Night Prayer in English (projected onto the chapel wall by Jose!).
1. Stella Maris Monastery from the shores of the Mediterranean
2. Stella Maris - the view from the rooftop
Stella Maris itself is a lovely setting, right out on the promontory of Mount Carmel, with the blue Mediterranean on three sides (Photo 1). It was a joy every morning to go up on the flat roof and take in the view (Photo 2). For 90% of our time there, the weather was beautiful, with temperatures in the high teens or low 20s. The present monastery was built in 1836, and has gone through various phases of use (Photo 3). In the early 1900s, it was a College of Philosophy for the Order, but this was interrupted by the First World War, when the monastery was taken over, first by German soldiers, and then by the British at the beginning of the British Mandate in the early 1920s. To this day, the Lighthouse, just below Stella Maris, is leased by the Order to the Israeli army.
3. Stella Maris - the view from below
4. Stella Maris - interior of the church
At present, part of Stella Maris is used as a Guesthouse and is run by the Carmelite Sisters of Florence. It is in very big demand, for it is an ideal base from which to explore the Galilee area. Besides, the beautiful church and the shrine to Elijah are very popular with visitors (Photos 4, 5). In the high season, up to 40 bus-loads of tourists visit, and many of these groups would have Mass. Even during the low season, which coincided with our stay there, there were several buses of pilgrims every day. The church was designed by a Carmelite, Brother Casini, and the lovely paintings in the cupola were executed by Brother Luigi Poggi at a later stage (Photo 6).
5. Stella Maris - Shrine of St Elijah
6. Stella Maris - interior of the church: cupola
The much venerated statue of Our Lady of Mount Carmel has a long history. The head is the work of a Genoese sculptor in 1820. Over a hundred years later, the body was sculpted from Lebanese cedar and blessed by Pope Pius XI before being installed over the high altar in Stella Maris (Photo 7).
7. Stella Maris church - statue of Our Lady of Mount Carmel
Of course, the present monastery is not the first. It was built on the site of another which had been constructed back in 1761. When the site was being cleared for this first monastery, the ruins of a medieval Greek Orthodox church were discovered; it was called the “Abbey of St Margaret” – otherwise known as Marina, a Greek saint. Not only that, but in the excavation of the site, some coins were found from the Byzantine period, indicating that there was such a presence on the site from the 7th century. The 1761 church and monastery were quite large, it seems, and there was a hospice to welcome pilgrims.
In 1799, during the battle of Akko (Acre) nearby, the church and monastery were occupied by the French and converted into a hospital in order to treat 200 of Napoleon’s wounded soldiers. But the Turks stormed the buildings, killed the wounded soldiers and drove out the friars. Subsequently, a monument to the dead soldiers was built in front of the church, and in 1827 the bones of the dead were reinterred beneath this monument (Photo 8).
8. Stella Maris - Monument to French soldiers
Because of its strategic importance, Stella Maris was often in the eye of the storm when battles raged in the area. In 1821, Pasha Abdallah, the Mamluk Governor, destroyed the church and monastery, for military reasons, in case it would be used as a vantage point for his enemies, while he attacked Jerusalem. He used the stone from the monastery to build a summer palace – the present lighthouse. Later, however, he seems to have had a conscience about it, and in 1836 he allowed a new church and monastery to be built, the present Stella Maris. Furthermore, in 1846 the lighthouse was bought back by the Order, though it now leased to the Israeli army, as noted above (Photo 9). In the construction of the new church and monastery, the French became Carmelite benefactors, because the friars had befriended their wounded soldiers.
9. Lighthouse - just below Stella Maris
In the 1820s, the Carmelites suspected that the “spring of Elijah” spoken of in the Rule was not where Stella Maris is. They bought up property in the nearby Wadi-es-Siah, primarily to cultivate some vegetables. Over 100 years later (in the 1960s), one of the workers stumbled on something significant. The Order called in Fr Bugati, a renowned Franciscan archaeologist (he had discovered the synagogue ruins in Capernaum). Under his guidance, excavations led to an extraordinary discovery: the ruins of the very first monastery and chapel of the first hermits from the beginning of the 13th century! (Photo 10). From the outlines of the ruins it is possible to get some idea of the life of those early hermits. They would have been quite a motley group. Most would have come over on the Crusades from western Europe – some would have been merchants, others were coming to do penance, most would have been laymen.
10. Wadi-es-Siah - Ruins of the first chapel
It is generally agreed that these early Latin hermits did not want to be part of the religious Orders of the time, preferring to remain free - they saw themselves more in the line of the Egyptian hermits of old. They seemed to be quite dynamic and creative. After the early tentative steps, and the giving of the Rule of Life by St Albert of Jerusalem (then living in nearby Akko because of the turbulence in Jerusalem), the hermits were favoured on all fronts, even by the Pope, and this emboldened them to build a new monastery which was on quite a grand scale. It was built of the best stone, brought in from nearby Atlit; the walls very thick, with clay in the middle for warmth (Photo 11). There might even have been a second floor over the large chapel – and there was certainly a bell tower, indicating that people in the locality were welcome to visit and attend Mass. It is estimated that there would have been up to 30 hermits at its peak. However, conflict was never far off, and this included conflict with some Church people, though Albert remained a staunch supporter. In fact, a feature of those early years was the ability of the Carmelites to make good connections in high places, and this stood them in good stead in the troubled times ahead.
11. Wadi-es-Siah - walls of the first monastery
“Beside the spring of Elijah”
12. Wadi-es-Siah - Spring of Elijah
There is a spring very near the ruins, one of the many “spring of Elijah” in this area. It is much visited by devotees of the prophet – some even bathe in it! (Photo 12). We spent a lovely day in the Wadi, just two days after arriving. On site, Fr Jose gave us a thoroughly detailed account of those early days, and the struggles the first Carmelites had. We had Mass within the old ruins, which was a moving experience (Photo 13).
13. Wadi-es-Siah - Mass in the old ruins
Jose showed us around the site, including “the spring of Elijah”, and told us about the various plans for preserving the ruins. We then read the Rule together, and afterwards we had two hours to ourselves. It was lovely to sit out in the brilliant sunshine and think back to those early days in this very place where our Order began all those years ago. The slopes are still dotted with caves, which are surprisingly warm inside.
14. Wadi-es-Siah - View of the Mediterranean from the first monastery
The Wadi is really a lovely location, with the two slopes of Kababir and Karmeliya on either side, and gently sloping down to the blue Mediterranean less than two miles away (Photo 14). It is a place of beauty and solitude, so it wasn’t all hardship, in spite of St Teresa’s assertion: “We are the descendants of people who felt this call, those holy fathers on Mount Carmel who in such great solitude and contempt for the world sought this treasure, this precious pearl of contemplation" (Interior Castle V, 1, 2). There would have been plenty of water, and the land is quite fertile so it would have been possible to grow vegetables and vines etc. With the sea so near, fish would have been plentiful, and the subsequent permission to have asses and mules would have made the transfer of produce more accessible. It would have been no great hardship for the hermit to “remain in his cell, or near it”.
After the fall of Akko (Acre) in 1291, and the defeat of the Crusaders by Saladin, there was a general ‘purging’ of the area. Christians everywhere were expelled, and the hermits had to leave the Wadi-es-Siah. Some think that they may have been killed – hence, the name (Wadi-es-Siah means the Valley of the Martyrs). But it is more likely that the worldly-wise hermits would have seen the attack coming and would have abandoned the site. There is, however, one chronicle, probably apocryphal, attributed to the Carmelite William of Sandwich, which states: “The Saracens completely devastated the city of Acre and the beautiful house of this Order (of the Carmelites) which was found there. From there they set out for the not-distant Mount Carmel. This they climbed, destroyed the monastery of the Friars of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel with fire and put all the friars to the sword. These men met their deaths whilst singing the Salve Regina”
It is sad – and fascinating - to reflect that, while the Order flourished in western Europe in the coming centuries, Mount Carmel itself was abandoned, and the traces of our actual beginnings were to disappear and indeed remain hidden for the best part of 700 years!
For a full 400 years, the Order was absent from Mount Carmel, its place of origin and its spiritual home. It was only through the persistence and courage of a remarkable friar, Fr Prospero from Spain, that we found ourselves back there again in the 17th century. A few tentative steps had been taken in the intervening centuries to go back to our roots, but without success. Even Fr Jerome Gracian set out in 1600 armed with papers but, while he got to the Middle East, he does not seem to have made it to Mount Carmel.
15. Elijah's Cave - below Stella Maris
16. Elijah's Cave - interior (now a synagogue)
Fr Prospero showed both enterprise and perseverance. Initially, in 1630, he was rebuffed by the General, in these terms: “Give up any hope of ascending Mount Carmel in Palestine; rather, seek to penetrate the Ascent of Mount Carmel of St John of the Cross”. But the General died a few months later, and the Vicar General supplied Prospero with the necessary permission. His early attempts were tentative, but he got a foothold. Down near sea level on the promontory of Mount Carmel, Prospero commandeered part of a cave known as the “School of the Prophets” and sacred to the memory of Elijah (Photo 15). It was actually in possession of Muslims, but Prospero showed daring in creating a little chapel there in honour of Our Lady (Photo 16). After a short time, the Muslims chased him out, with the help of armed soldiers! Since 1948, the Jews have made it into a synagogue, but they allow the Carmelites to say Mass in the small cave once a year (June 14), even while people are visiting (Photo 17)
17. Elijah's Cave - small chapel of Our Lady and Prospero's cell
18. Prospero's monastery, with chapel of Simon Stock at the back
Undaunted, Prospero moved further up the hill, to the plateau, and built a new chapel there, and eventually a monastery (just down from Stella Maris). It became known as “Sons of the Prophets”, though the chapel was dedicated to St Teresa. The small chapel in Prospero’s cell is still there (Photo 18). It was supposed to be the cave in which Simon Stock dwelt! At present, the cave has a squatter! (Photo 19) The monastery had fallen into disrepair after 130 years, so a new monastery was built on the present Stella Maris site in 1761. Nearby, a small cemetery has the remains of Prospero and those early fellow-adventurers who blazed a trail for the second coming of the Carmelites to Mount Carmel (Photo 20).
19. Another angle on Prospero's monastery - with signs of a squatter!
20. Plaque to Prospero in Stella Maris church
Mount Carmel was legendary in the Bible for its beauty, primarily because it remained green all the year round (and still does, because of the evergreen shrubs and trees). The Mount Carmel range itself is almost uniformly flat, with very few peaks, none of them rising to more than 600 metres. It is in the shape of a triangle (35km x 25km x 15km) – Photo 21
21. Mount Carmel - as seen from Akko (Acre)
About 25 kilometres farther up the Mount Carmel range from Stella Maris, on one of the highest peaks, is our monastery of Muhraqa, going back to the 1800s. It is the reputed site of the sacrifice of the false prophets by Elijah and is a very popular place of pilgrimage for Christians, Jews and Muslims, all of whom honour Elijah as an important figure (Photo 22).
22. Muhraqa - the monastery
In 1840 Brother Casini OCD, architect of Stella Maris, wrote that he would like to build a chapel at the site of the ‘Sacrifice’ of Elijah on Mount Carmel, though there is no indication that the Carmelites were thinking of purchasing the site at that stage. But the purchase was eventually made in 1846, ‘to prevent the Greek Orthodox obtaining a foothold at a site venerated by Carmelite tradition’! At the end of a canonical visitation to the Mount Carmel community in 1858, the General, Fr Natal, left an instruction that a chapel and residence be built at Muhraqa. The Spanish Congregation offered money for this, and the Mount Carmel community added the rest.
And so by 1867, the Order had built a modest chapel, with two or three rooms attached, on the site of a Jewish shrine to the memory of Elijah (11th century), and a Moslem sanctuary (13th century), also in honour of the prophet. A small community was installed and various improvements were added over the years, in spite of sporadic turbulence because of war. The friars were careful to clearly mark out their property. “All being found in order, iron stakes were driven into the ground and cemented into the rocks, stamped with the words ‘Property of the Discalced Carmelite Order’. These iron stakes can still be seen marking the boundaries of the property”. (Fr Laurence Lamb, archives of Stella Maris).
During the First World War, the Turks inflicted heavy damage on the Carmelite property at Muhraqa, stripped it completely and tore up the floor of the chapel. The marble statue of Elijah was destroyed. Extensive restoration took place after the war, and in due course the present statue of Elijah was unveiled by Fr Anastasio Ballestrero in the 1950s (Photo 23).
23. Muhraqa - statue of St Elijah
24. Muhraqa - altar with 12 stones
In 1964 major renovation of the pilgrims’ chapel was undertaken by the well-known Fr Daniel Rufeisen OCD. The altar is built on 12 large stones, a reminder of the altar built by Elijah before the sacrifice (Photo 24). There is also a lovely basement chapel for the community, with icons of the Transfiguration (Photo 25). There are three resident friars, from Italy, India and Poland.
25. Muhraqa - community chapel
26. The Valley of Jezre'el, as seen from Muhraqa, with Mount Tabor in the centre
In spite of its remoteness, Muhraqa is now part of the pilgrimage trail and is promoted by all the tourist agencies, to such an extent that on average 500 people visit every day! There is a magnificent panoramic view of the Valley of Jezre’el from the balcony of the monastery – one can see Nazareth and Mount Tabor in the distance, as well as Mount Gilboa and the Hill of Moreh (Photo 26). Napoleon described the Jezre’el valley as the most beautiful battlefield in the world, and it has had its share of war over the centuries. The Jezre’el Valley was a key east/west highway linking the Via Maris to Persia, Babylon etc. So it was an important commercial route, and consequently a lucrative source of taxes.
We had several visits to Muhraqa in the course of our stay. On one of these visits, we went to see the reputed place of the ‘Sacrifice’, about 150 metres below our monastery. There is a fine open space for a gathering like the one Elijah had (Photo 27), and a well farther down, where he would have drawn the water to pour on the altar (1 Kings 18, 20-40). Fr Elias Friedman has done an exhaustive study of the various potential sites of the ‘Sacrifice’ and came to the conclusion that Muhraqa has by far the best claim. An English visitor, writing in 1866, surmised: “In the upper part of the amphitheatre, to the left, is an ancient fountain, overhung by a few magnificent trees, among them a noble specimen of the Turkish oak … The water is of some depth and perennial. This was corroborated by the existence of molluscs attached to the stones”. The well is now covered over with silt – but there may be water underneath (Photo 28).
27. Muhraqa - Olive grove, possible site of the Sacrifice, with monastery above
28. Muhraqa - ancient well, close to reputed site of the Sacrifice
Our monastery is built on the top of the mountain, where after the ‘Sacrifice’ Elijah would have sent his servant to look out to sea for signs of rain - the Mediterranean is about 10 miles away, but visible on a clear day (Photo 29).
29. Muhraqa - The Mediterranean in the distance, as seen by Elijah's servant !
30. The Kishon stream and Tel Qassis, as seen from Muhraqa
The Kishon stream at Tel Qassis, where Elijah is said to have killed the prophets of Baal, is half an hour’s walk away and visible from Muhraqa (Photo 30). Tel Qassis means ‘slaughter of the priests’. The river is very narrow at this point as it meanders its way to Haifa, where it enters the sea. There is a wonderful view of Muhraqa up above (Photo 31).
31. Muhraqa - as seen from the Kishon stream
32 . Melkite church, near Muhraqa
During another of our visits to Muhraqa, we went to a Melkite church nearby to participate in their Sunday Eucharist in the eastern rite. They are Arab Christians, and are in full communion with Rome. Their chapel is beautifully decorated in a variety of icons, all the work of their priest (married), Fr Samir (Photo 32). Fr Samir gave us a helpful introduction to the theology of the eastern churches, as well as showing us some of his exquisite icons. He shares his gift generously with the Carmelites. In fact, it was he who painted the icons for our friars in the Chapel of the Transfiguration in Muhraqa (Photo 33).
Muhraqa is a very moving place to visit. There is an aura about it that speaks of Elijah – indeed his spirit and presence is felt all over Mount Carmel, and one is reminded of his single-mindedness and zeal at every turn. “Zelo zelatus sum pro Domino Deo exercituum”.
33. Icon of the Transfiguration - community chapel Muhraqa
34. Carmelite parish church, Haifa
Altogether, the Order has three properties in the Haifa/Mount Carmel area. As well as Stella Maris and Muhraqa, there is the Latin parish down in the city, only two miles from Stella Maris. The parish has been in existence nearly two hundred years. It has a lovely church, and most of the Masses are in Arabic, since the majority of the parishioners are Arab Christians (Photo 34). Three friars now serve the parish, including Fr John Landy from our Province – he celebrated his Golden Jubilee of priesthood while we were there.
35. Previous Carmelite church and monastery (Haifa) from the 19th century
36 - Haifa Parish
The friars seemed to have had a monastery and church close to the present parish from 1767 onwards. Parish records began in 1832. A new church was consecrated in 1871 (still to be seen, alongside the monastery, and still in our possession, as is most of that street! – Photo 35). The present church was consecrated in 1959 in the presence of the General, Fr Anastasio Ballestrero. It was designed by the well-known Franciscan architect Antonio Barluzzi (Photo 36), who designed many of the more modern churches in the Holy Land, including the exquisite Church of the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor – of which more in the account of our trips to Nazareth and Galilee.