Father Custos of the Holy Land, 1918-1924
Reading Father Ferdinado Diotallevi’s “Diario di Terrasanta” (Journal of the Holy Land), one grasps immediately the courage and faith, united with tenacity, with which this Custos, despite the post-World War I dramas of the time, guided political and diplomatic relations to protect the rights and prerogatives of Catholics with respect to the Holy Places. During his mandate the churches of Gethsemane and Mount Tabor were inaugurated, both commissioned from the architect Barluzzi.
The selected extracts describe the controversies that arose with the Orthodox communities regarding the moving of the column known as “the Kiss of Judas”, a pilgrimage destination for followers of the Eastern churches. The column was located on property belonging to the Franciscans, above the apse of the Crusader church on which the initial design for the reconstruction of the new church was based. As a result of an agreement that was reached, the column was moved 12 meters to the north on 19 January 1919.
The discovery in 1920 of the remains of the Byzantine church, and the subsequent decision to modify the project for the new church, led to new demands on the part of the Orthodox communities, resulting in acts of violence and days of anguish for the entire Franciscan community of the Holy Land. After fifteen months permission was finally received from the Mandatory Government to restart the works. The modern church, completed in 1924, became the shrine containing the remains of the ancient church of Gethsemane commissioned by the Byzantine Emperor Theodosius.
Year 1919, 24 January
The Greek Patriarch Damianos, in response to my letter in which I expressed my desire to enclose the corner of Gethsemane and to move the column of the Father (or the Kiss of Judas) to the new wall to be built at the gate of the garden at Gethsemane, replied in writing giving his permission. Deo Gratias! This favor I obtained through the souls in Purgatory.
I had recommended this on numerous occasions to the Military Governor of Jerusalem, General Storr, and I had also urged the Catholic English general Bulfin to do this. For many years the Custodes [of the Holy Land] had worked to have this corner that was necessary for us, above all because beneath it lies the apse of the ancient church, and without this corner the church cannot be reconstructed. To the multitude of requests made in the past, the Greeks always responded negatively, and with absurd claims. One time, to pay them back in kind, when they demanded that we give them our half of Calvary, we offered to cede them our rights to the Viri Galilei [memorial at the top of the Mount of Olives belonging to the Greek Orthodox]. Now they have given us possession without receiving anything in return, and I repeat that this is thanks to the souls of Purgatory, and as intercessory prayers on their behalf I have requested that beginning the 23rd of this month Gregorian chants be sung continuously until the closing of the Paris Peace Conference, where our requests concerning the Sanctuaries will be discussed.
Year 1920, 1 October
Since yesterday, as the small door giving access to Gethsemane had to be closed because of the excavations being carried out underneath, works were begun to open another door closer to the hospice, but in the same direction and in the same wall of our property. At about half past seven an Armenian monk appeared at Gethsemane and ordered our foreman, Abdallah Nasar Ciatara, to stop all the works. Ciatara said that he had been ordered to work and that if the Armenian had other ideas he should tell them to the Custos. In reply, the Armenian punched him in the chest and then struck him on the head with his umbrella. Ciatara didn’t react to this, and the Armenian began to shout that he was being beaten and immediately a group of about twenty Greek monks accompanied by a policeman surged through the door. The policeman told the foreman to stop the works and the foreman replied that he, not having been shown any order from the Government, would not do this. The policeman, adopting a helpful manner, then persuaded Ciatara to suspend the works on the grounds that, in view of the agitation of the Greeks a nasty situation could arise. Ciatara gave the order and then sent someone to advise me of the situation.
I wrote immediately to Engineer Barluzzi (the architect) to come see me: he came immediately and, after I briefly told him what had happened, he went to Gethsemane where he discovered that the number of Greek monks there had grown and that the monk Timothy, the secretary and chancellor of the Greek patriarch, was also there. He tried to talk to them but it was completely futile, in fact he was given a shove by a Greek monk who then took a revolver out of his pocket. Seeing this Ciatara came to the aid of Barluzzi, who then pointed out to the Greek monk traces of the Byzantine church that had recently been discovered. Timothy was in agreement with Barluzzi but said that the old Greek monks, being fanatics, would not understand the reasons for this. To avoid further problems it was decided that works would be suspended for the remainder of the day. Meanwhile, at about fifteen minutes past nine the Father Custos received an order from the Governor to suspend works on account of the complaints lodged by the Greek patriarch who was invoking the Status Quo. It was in fact not a site subject to the Status Quo, since the opening involved was in a recently-constructed wall. The Custos, who had been given permission to open the wall, thought that there must be a mistake and immediately sent Father John Forest Donegan to the Governor’s office to clarify the situation, and to show the permit issued by that same Government (Department of Antiquities) for carrying out the excavations. The Government replied that the order to suspend the works had come from the central government at Mount Olivet.
Meanwhile Greek and Armenian monks continued to arrive to Gethsemane, setting up an encampment and bringing their own food. Having received this reply from the Government, I asked Father Forest to go again to the Government with the permit from the Department of Antiquities to continue the excavations together with the order that had been received to suspend the works.
At quarter to three in the afternoon I went to see the Latin Patriarch to tell him what had happened and in the evening I sent him a written account.
Before going to the Patriarch, Ciatara came again to tell me that the Greeks and Armenians in Gethsemane were armed. Once again I asked Father Forest to go with Ciatara to the Government to report what was going on and to demand that a search [for weapons] be carried out. At the Government they didn’t find anyone. Then Father Forest went to the police and spoke with a captain who promised to go with him to Gethsemane, and he and a soldier left for there on horseback, with Father Forest following well behind. When the captain reached the descent at St. Stephen’s, he saw a group of fifteen Greek monks coming towards him and ordered them to go back, which they did. At Gethsemane, where the monk Timothy was, he told the other monks to withdraw, guaranteeing that the works would not be continued. The captain assured Fathers Forest and Giulio Valorai, the custodian of Gethsemane, that they would have a peaceful night there since he would post guards; which he did.