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In this quiet patch, at least, peace reigns in Jerusalem

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By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN, Times Senior Correspondent

© St. Petersburg Times
published April 17, 2002


JERUSALEM -- Father Michel Lavoie was sitting alone on a bench when a visitor, who had been walking aimlessly through the Old City of Jerusalem, wandered into the quiet courtyard of St. Anne's Church.

[Times photo: Jamie Francis]
Father Michel Lavoie, a Roman Catholic priest with the White Father order, stands inside St. Anne's Church in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem's Old City. Pilgrims' visits to the church have plunged to 3,000 since January.

"Where are you from?" Father Michel asked, delighted to see someone on this glorious afternoon. And when told, he exclaimed: "Florida! My parents retired to St. Petersburg!"

Father Michel, 60, is a Roman Catholic priest with the order of White Fathers, so named because of the color of their robes. Although he is Canadian, he has spent much of his adult life in Africa and the Middle East, where the White Fathers serve in 21 countries.

After six years in Tanzania, performing so many Masses and funerals he felt like he was on an assembly line, Father Michel prayed to be sent to a place where he would have time to study and reflect. "My prayers were answered beyond my wildest dreams. This is ridiculous."

In 2000, his first year in Jerusalem, 359,000 Christian pilgrims swarmed through St. Anne's. Then the second Palestinian intifada against Israel began, and the number of visitors plunged to 34,000 last year. Since January, there have been just 3,000.

Father Michel understands why people are frightened to come. From where he prays, he can hear the boom of suicide bombers in central Jerusalem, quickly followed by the scream of sirens. He used to love walking along Jaffa Street and through the nearby markets -- "Ah, it was a feast for the eyes" -- but he dares go no more.

So Father Michel had time to show his lone visitor around St. Anne's and its sun-dappled grounds, a place that has survived centuries of war and conquest to become an oasis of peace in a region that has seen little.

St. Anne's, named for the mother of the Virgin Mary, was built in 1140 on the spot where Mary is said to have been born. At first glance, the church appears to have the perfect symmetry of the world's great cathedrals. But as you peer more closely, everything looks askew. No two windows are alike, no two lines are parallel, no two arches are the same. It is like being in an ecclesiastical house of mirrors.

The church was built by the Crusaders, who felt that since no two humans are identical, no two features of the church should be identical either. Architectural students from Hebrew University once took "tons of measurements and burst out laughing," Father Michel recalled. "They said it should have fallen down in 1140."

One thing the church does have is outstanding acoustics. Father Michel pointed to a star-shaped stone embedded in the floor in front of the altar.

"Stand here," he said, "and miracles happen. When you sing, if you have an ordinary voice, it becomes beautiful. If you have a beautiful voice, it becomes divine."

Two nuns had entered the church, and Father Michel pressed them to demonstrate. Shyly, they stood on the star and began to sing: "Thank you, Father, for your love for me . . ."

Soft at first, their voices grew stronger, filling the church with the power and richness of an entire choir. They sang for a few minutes, surprised and pleased at how fine they sounded.

The nuns belong to the order of Mother Teresa and are among six who serve in the West Bank city of Nablus. The two in the church, one from Poland, the other from India, came to Jerusalem for Easter. But then Israel invaded Nablus in its hunt for Palestinian terrorists and the nuns have been unable to go back.

"We're stuck here," the Polish nun said to Father Michel. "Pray for us, father."

In 1187 the Muslim conquerer Saladin captured the Old City of Jerusalem, and St. Anne's spent several centuries as a Muslim law school. The Turks' conquest of Jerusalem in the 16th century began a period of neglect that turned the church into a literal dump.

In gratitude for French aid in the Crimean War, the Ottoman Turks gave St. Anne's to France, and in 1878 it was entrusted to the White Fathers. Today, the church and its grounds are legally French territory, albeit a part of France that is 3,000 miles from Paris and in the heart of the Old City's Muslim quarter.

(Israel, claiming that only the topsoil belongs to France, has balked at the excavation of some fragile Roman ruins and ancient Jewish baths that lie below.)

As Israel and Jordan fought over the Old City during the 1967 Mideast War, 400 residents, mostly Muslims, took refuge in church buildings. No one was killed, but 19 Israeli shells accidentally landed on St. Anne's, causing substantial damage. After Israel won the war, it offered to make repairs but was rebuffed.

"At the time, the president of France was Charles de Gaulle and he was furious," Father Michel said. De Gaulle felt Israel had attacked sovereign French territory, so he wanted only French workers to restore the church.

To the side of St. Anne's is a garden where sage and mint and dandelion grow beneath grape vines. The place looks a bit unkempt -- the Palestinian gardener, who lives in the West Bank, has been unable to get to work. Father Michel also apologized for the scraggly appearance of the palm trees.

It seems that during lulls in fighting in 1967, the White Fathers would venture into the streets of the Old City to collect the dead and bury them in accord with Muslim customs. Mourners carried the traditional palm fronds, stripped from trees in the church courtyard because there was no place else to safely get them.

A custom began that continues to this day. Whenever a Muslim dies in the Old City, relatives come to St. Anne's for fronds from its palm trees.

"We tell them to please get them somewhere else," Father Michel says, in a tone that suggests few do. "The trees need their leaves to breathe."

Because only three Christian families live nearby and so few other Christians visit, there is no demand for more than one service a day. Instead, Father Michel and the other priests say Mass at hospitals and churches throughout Jerusalem.

Aside from that, he doesn't see much of his Israeli friends because they are afraid to come here. He and the other priests have good relations with their Muslim neighbors; the White Fathers try to buy all their food from shops in the Muslim Quarter.

Although he hates to be a pessimist, Father Michel doesn't see much hope for peace in the region. There is too much hatred on both sides, he fears.

Still, as those singing on the star in St. Anne's have learned, miracles do happen.

-- Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at susan@sptimes.com.

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