The Grande Chapelle of the Pontifical Institute Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center

The Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center is one of the most popular places for pilgrims to stay in Jerusalem, about a ten minute walk to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. It was originally built by the French Assumptionists as a center for Catholic pilgrims (a guesthouse), similar to what the Orthodox had already established on nearby Jaffa Road. The ideal location was chosen, positioned just across the street from the Old City, built at the highest point of the ancient city, at 790 metres (2,590 ft) above sea level.

Original architectural rendering of the chapel and larger group of buildings.

Construction began in 1884 and was completed in 1904. Notre Dame was built to meet the requirements of the massive influx of pilgrims that were increasing with each year by boat from France. Below are early images that illustrate its stately appearance, made entirely of Jerusalem stone, a local limestone used for construction since biblical times.  

The story began in 1882 when the Assumptionists began leading large pilgrimages, with the blessing of Pope Leo XIII. That year a group of 1,000 French Catholics arrived by ship and had no place to stay. The same thing happened the next year. The following year in 1884, it was decided a new pilgrim hospice would be built for the pilgrims.

An indulgence is attached to the chapel ("in sanctuarium") by Leo XIII

Consequently the French count, Comte Marie Paul Amédée de Piellat, a descendent of a Crusader family, donated the land (about 4,000 square meters) and collected the money to construct Notre Dame as a proper hospice for French pilgrims where they could be welcomed to rest and pray in a Catholic-friendly environment. 

The old hospital next to Notre Dame

The Comte had already founded next door a hospital named after King Louis IX (who led the Seventh Crusade). The hospital was constructed between 1879 - 1896. The Comte, who had a great love for the Holy Land, history, and art, spent much of his later life in Jerusalem and died there in 1925.

Accordingly, he was mindful of the region’s history, and built his hospital on the site where the Norman King Tancred camped before the successful 1099 invasion of Jerusalem at the climax of the First Crusade. The land of the historic site includes Notre Dame.

At Notre Dame, pilgrims found proper "modern" facilities that were commensurate with the increasing numbers, expectations, and needs of pilgrim groups. It was a good fit. The Assumptionist priests and brothers were hosts and guides for the pilgrims while they visited the holy places. Until World War I, the building also served as a seminary for the Assumptionists and at one time it additionally housed a museum.  

From the start Notre Dame was granted certain privileges and prerogatives by local authorities that were embodied in the Treaties of Mytylene in 1901 and Constantinople in 1913. These were later confirmed by the State of Israel in the Chauverl/Fischer Exchange of Letters in 1948-49. Today, according to international law, it is part of the Vatican City State as "Extra-Territorial" property. 

The finished product was a symmetrical castle-like structure, with twin crenelated towers framing an apse, in some ways influenced by the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière in Lyon, also under construction at that time. Construction was on a grand scale that echoed the Palace of Versailles. Fittingly, it was built in the style of a late medieval fortress with Gothic, Romanesque, and Arabesque influences. 

The design was by Abbé Brisacier, who positioned the Grande Chapelle (the great chapel) as the center and heart of the building complex. He designed a two-story chapel that would be accessed on the second floor, with a choir loft gallery reached on the third floor. Seating would be for about 500. The chapel was dedicated in honor of the Assumption of Our Lady. In the center of the sanctuary wall a Gothic inspired niche with multifoil motif was placed in the apse, housing a statue of Our Lady with the baby Jesus. 

The vaulted ceiling is visible here with the few stained-glass windows in the upper two spandrels, bringing in natural light and a flush of heavenly colors.  

The cornerstone of the building complex was laid in 1885. In 1886, Monseigneur Poyet of Lyons, who was the Vicar General of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, proposed the name for the new property: Notre-Dame de France - Our Lady of France (in Jerusalem). Even before the building was completed, the first pilgrims were received in 1888. The name later evolved into Our Lady of Jerusalem. 

On May 22, 1893, the Archbishop of Reims, Mons. Langénieux, arrived in the Holy Land as the papal legate for the Eighth International Eucharistic Congress. During his visit he laid the first stone of the chapel. That was the first congress held outside Europe attended by hundreds of Latin Rite and Eastern Rite patriarchs, bishops, priests, and faithful. For this event, many came from France. The chapel was finally completed and consecrated the following year on the feast of the Presentation of Our Lady, November 21, 1894.    

The original plan of the chapel, with three altars and sacristy.

Below is a rare image of what the chapel interior once looked like in the early twentieth century, in the florid style of the French Gothic revival. This style was popular at the time, reminiscent of Notre-Dame de Fourviere in Lyon. Hopefully one day it will be restored to its original splendor. And why not? The present design has unity, but lacks variety. 

The original chapel interior

In 1889 the so-called New Gate was opened across the street, an opening in the city wall of Jerusalem to provide direct access between the Christian Quarter and the new section of the city that was being developed around Notre Dame. This gave a tremendous boost to the pilgrims who stayed at Notre Dame, making it more accessible with the Franciscan HQ, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and the Lain Patriarch's HQ. The view of Notre Dame through the gate can be seen below.

Below is an image of the chapel today, with Mass celebrated for a group of pilgrims. Let us hope and pray one day the Holy See will allow for the tabernacle to be restored to its rightful place in the center of the sanctuary. 

In 1904, after twenty years of continuous construction, Notre Dame was completed with the installation of a crowning touch, a massive outdoor statue of Our Lady that was placed above the main entrance, framed by two towers in solid stonework like crenelated battlements. This resembles in some ways the entrance gate of a citadel or city. The main entrance below was fashioned as part of the chapel apse. The statue of Our Lady looks over the skyline of Jerusalem, holding up the Christ Child, carved as a replica of the statue of Our Lady of Salvation in Paris. 

Our Lady of Jerusalem on the front facade.

For over one-hundred years Masses and devotions have been prayed here, making the chapel a particularly holy place, with groups of pilgrims from all over the world. Sometimes the liturgies are special Votive Masses for pilgrims, a common liturgical prerogative in the Holy Land.  

Vintage altar missal in Jerusalem.

Today the chapel is called the Chapel of Our Lady of Jerusalem or Our Lady of Peace Chapel. It is open 24 hours a day for the registered guests of Notre Dame to pray. The posted daily schedule includes each day Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, daily Confessions, and daily Mass. Groups often celebrate one or two of their Masses here and there is a nearby chapel for private Masses. 

A relic of the crib of Bethlehem displayed in the chapel in 2019.
For reservations, contact the chapel admin here. The priest sacristans, members of the Legionaries of Christ, are wonderful and accommodating. Mass books are available in the sacristy in multiple languages, including Latin. The current free-standing altar is set up to allow both versus Deum and versus populum liturgies.  

Liturgical and devotional books in the chapel sacristy.

Although there is no choir loft anymore since the early 1980s, the German-made organ is today on the side of the chapel, seen below. This wonderful addition to the chapel is sometimes played, with permission, for Masses with groups of pilgrims if a group has an organist with them. 

The chapel organ.

Various popes have visited the chapel, including Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis. The plaque below commemorates the visit of Pope Francis in 2014. When he came he blessed a new tabernacle for the Magdala Tourist Center on the Sea of Galilee.  

Targa in Latin in the chapel vestibule.

In 1948 during the Arab-Israeli conflict, first Arab and then Israeli military forces occupied the complex as a guard post and base to launch attacks during the War of Independence. At that time entire parts of the south wing of the building were blown off in two sections by shell explosions (see building below). 

Shells also penetrated the chapel and left holes through which, for two winters, rain entered. Only a small group of Assumptionists remained there at that time in the central wing while refugees occupied the north wing and small houses on the property; some of whom stayed for many years. 

During the military hostilities the chapel was subjected to abuse, the stained-glass windows were all broken, the statue of Our Lady imported from France was shattered, the religious art was desecrated, the altarpiece on the main altar was damaged, the tabernacle was broken into, and the canvas on the main apse was hanging in ruins. 

Also, during the Six-Day War in June of 1967, Notre Dame was invaded and vandalized. The image below is of a precious Vatican mosaic that was destroyed by gun fire, a grim reminder of injustices perpetuated by war.  The image was later restored and can be seen behind the main reception desk, also seen below. 

With so few pilgrims traveling to Jerusalem in those years and due to prohibitive maintenance costs, the Assumptionists turned over the property to the Holy See in 1972.  Thus began a new chapter in the life of Notre Dame, with reconstruction and rehabilitation that began in earnest in 1973 with an addition to the main edifice and the chapel renovation. 

Cardinal Cooke of New York rededicated the chapel in 1978, shortly after the election of Pope St. John Paul II when he gave Notre Dame the title of "Pontifical Institute." In 2004 he entrusted it to the care of the Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ.  

Historic photo of chapel mosaic damaged in 1967.

The restored mosaic today.

The chapel has changed appearance over the years, the result of various projects initiated to maintain and upgrade the look and feel of the chapel and building facilities. In the 1970s came the penultimate renovation that altered the interior design that had been true to the French Gothic Revival. The entire chapel contents were removed and replaced. 

The newest tabernacle in the chapel's history, made in Italy

A new sacristy was also created on the other side of the chapel while the side altars were removed as well as the altars that were in the rear of the chapel for visiting clergy to celebrate private Masses. There was an additional chapel on the property with incredible mosaic work that was dedicated to the Sacred Heart and Purgatory (Le Sacré-Coeur et le Purgatoire, seen below); today it houses the Shroud of Turin exhibition. 

The original chapel of the Sacred Heart.

Other guest rooms (end units) were also once small chapels, reflected in the incredible mosaic works still seen in the ceilings.

There are few stained-glass windows, for example this one seen below in the upper gallery (the former choir loft). These were made in yellow and white in honor of the official colors of the Holy See, crated in 1981 by Robert Leader at
Reinarts Studios in Winona, Minnesota.  

Autographed stained-glass in the chapel window.

Architects and visitors alike still marvel at the solid construction and late nineteenth century engineering and design techniques of the complex, still standing strong today and beautiful and tidy in appearance. In recent years all the rooms have been updated and the building complex is kept in pristine condition, watched over with great care and meticulous attention. Below are a few images that illustrate the charming exterior.  

Sometimes after a successful group pilgrimage pilgrims are awarded diplomas on the final day of the pilgrimage after Holy Mass. The diploma is printed in Latin and signed by representative of the Franciscans in the Holy Land. The quote is from Psalm 136 (137) Super Flumina, a Psalm of David, the lamentation of the people of God in their captivity in Babylon: 

"If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand be forgotten." 

A worthy sentiment as we consider the immense value of the pilgrimage experience to the Holy Land and the role of Notre Dame over the decades in helping facilitate this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for thousands of Catholic pilgrims from every corner of the world. 

Pilgrim diploma given in chapel.


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