Father Camillo from Rutigliano

View of the garden of Gethsemane in the nineteenth century

The Secretary of the Custos, Serafino Milani from Carrara (1863-1873), reported in his journal in 1868 what had happened following the decision of the Custody to construct a new boundary wall around its property in Gethsemane. The event is one of many “stories from the Holy Land” where ownership of places did not appear to guarantee any rights, because what prevailed was the interest of the individual Christian communities that were contesting the venerated places.

It is interesting to observe how venerations have altered over time. Thus, while up until the beginning of the twentieth century pilgrims came to Gethsemane to pray at the column commemorating the Arrest of Jesus and at the Rock of the Apostles, once the new church was built veneration became focused on the bare rock in front of the altar which carried the memory of Jesus’ agony, when his sweat became like drops of blood falling to the ground. In a similar manner, the construction of the church led to the memory of Judas’ betrayal being returned to the Grotto of Gethsemane.

Father Camillo da Rutigliano,
Pro-Secretary of the Holy Land, dated 15 July 1868

“In about the middle of May of this year, 1868, construction began on the boundary wall at the place of the Arrest of Our Lord Jesus Christ [for the place of the Arrest, it is meant the place of the Agony where the church is now located]. On the first day the dry stone wall enclosing that place was torn down, and excavations for the foundations of the new wall were begun. The news brought to the site, on the following day, the two schismatic Greek and Armenian patriarchs, who appeared to approve what we were doing; they said only, almost in an authoritative manner, that the passage (that is to say, the width) between the two side walls should be made wider (to avoid problems, we were following the line of the dry stone wall that was there before). We accepted their proposal with pleasure, it always being our desire that, in more propitious times, a new chapel could be constructed here. On the next day the foundations that had been started were removed, the excavation was moved further away, and construction was continued on both sides. During the excavation of the foundation of this wall, at the point where it formed a semicircle, several pieces of the ancient mosaic floor were discovered, as well as a piece of an ancient semicircle of well-hewn stones (apse). Both the mosaic and the ancient semicircle were left underground where they were found. About twenty years before a piece of column about a meter and twenty centimeters high had been placed, by us Franciscans, inside the dry wall.

According to what the V[ery] R[everend] F[ather] Antonio della Trasfigurazione, a man of God, said, that piece of column had been in the ground of the olive grove, and our friars placed it upright inside the wall (half of the column, as at present, was visible) to indicate to Pilgrims the point where the arrest took place. On the exposed part of the column the [coat of] Arms of the Holy Land had been incised, but the Schismatics had nearly ruined it by throwing stones at it, presumably to obliterate this sign of ownership. Then I the undersigned, who every day went to spend several hours at Gethsemane, by my free will, before the column was replaced in the same place in the new wall, had a second [coat of] Arms of the Holy Land incised on it, on the opposite side of that column; and, so that the Schismatics would not be offended by the sight of this new [coat of] Arms, I had the column placed in the same position as before, in other words with the old [coat of] Arms on the external side, and the new one inside the wall; in this way, in case of need, the Religious of the Holy Land would be in a position to allow anyone to measure the column, and thus to establish its ownership, since I am convinced that in the not-too-distant future the Schismatics would have obliterated all traces of the external [coat of] Arms (the circumference of the visible face of the Column is about 32 centimeters).

Day 26 of May, when there were only two rows of stones remaining to finish the wall, individuals from the Turkish Government showed up on the site and sent away all the masons and other workers. There is no doubt that the suspension of the works was a deliberate act, suspicion falling not without foundation on the *** who, at least according to rumors, were in debt to the Greeks and Armenians and thought that by favoring them in this manner, or perhaps they had even received such a promise, they would see their debts forgiven.

On day 30 of the same month of May, the Most Reverend Father Custos wrote officially to the Consul of France, asking for the reason for the suspension of the works. The letter was co-signed by Msgr. Vincenzo Bracco, Auxiliary Bishop of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem and Vicar General of the same.
Finally on 6 June the Father Custos, who was extremely displeased with the wrong that had been done to the Holy Land, for fear of compromising his position as Guardian [of the Holy Places], discreetly left for Bethlehem.

The Community of St. Savior understood immediately that the Father Custos, with his departure, had given them the “green light” to do whatever they wanted at the site of the wall. They got the message!
That same evening, after the sun went down, about a dozen lay brothers, one after the other, took the road to Gethsemane, some passing directly through St. Stephen’s Gate, others through the Jaffa Gate, and still others through the Zion Gate; and at the first sound of the Ave Maria all of them were reunited in the Garden of Gethsemane. At nine in the evening, with the light of the full moon, the lay brothers began to work and by the next morning, around ten o’clock, the wall with its new small iron door was completed, near the gate leading into the Garden. This new door was made so as to be able to enter into the olive grove, in the event that later on a boundary wall might also need to be built for this plot of land.
That same morning, when the wall was nearly completed, the Schismatic Greeks and Armenians who were coming to the Tomb of the Madonna to carry out their Liturgies approached the works; but seeing our Religious working with determination (woe be to them if they had said a word to our friars), they departed with their tails between their legs.
For nearly a month, until the completion of the works, every night four or five Religious, and even some priests, went to Gethsemane around sunset and kept watch for fear that the Schismatics would come and ruin the wall.”

Diarium Terrae Sanctae, V, pp. 34-35.