Romanesque Revival in the Holy Land: Church of St. Joseph in Nazareth


One of my favorite places to visit in the Holy Land is St. Joseph's church located a minute's walk from the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth. Situated up a hill in the Old City of Nazareth, this beautiful little church is under the care of the Franciscans. It was built in 1914 in the style of the Romanesque Revival, constructed in Roman basilica style over the remains of much older churches that have been here for centuries. The site is sacred because is marks the place where the Holy Family lived, were Jesus grew up and was raised to adulthood.

View of the rear with choir loft
The church was constructed on top of the site of the "Church of Nutrition" that is quoted by the pilgrim Arculfo in about the year 670 AD (cf. "De Locis Sanctis" II, 26). The name "nutrition" came from the fact that here Christ spent his childhood, grew up and lived until he was an adult, learning his father's trade. Arculfo wrote of this church, built just up the hill from the church that marks the spot of the Annunciation: 

"Two large churches were built: one in the middle of the city, founded over two arches, the place where the house in which our Savior grew up was built...and the other on the site of the house where the angel Gabriel came to Blessed Mary and, finding her alone, spoke to her." 

The first edifice, built during the Byzantine era, was destroyed during the twelfth century. Next a Crusader church was built on its ruins, of which vestiges can still be seen today under the crypt. 

The choir loft windows and bell tower
Then in the 17th-century, the Italian chronicler Fr. Francesco Quaresmi (Quaresmius) described a place "that the locals call Joseph's house and workshop...where, for a time, there was a beautiful church dedicated to St. Joseph." This account is described in his "Historica, Theologica et Moralis Terrae Sanctae Elucidatio" (written between 1616 and 1626). 

The sanctuary seen today, without original high altar
The site was acquired by the Franciscans in 1754 and they built a church over the ruins. That was replaced when the Franciscans built the present three-level church between 1911-1914. The architect was a German-born Franciscan, Brother Wendelin Hinterkeuser (1851-1921) who was also an archeologist. During the construction period, excavations revealed what was underneath and hidden under the church - caves, cisterns, parts of a primitive habitation, and even a bath with steps that may have been an ancient baptismal site.  

The architect, Brother Wendelin Hinterkeuser
The new church was consecrated in 1914. The reason the church was named after St. Joseph is because the site recalls St. Joseph's calling to become a participant in the God's plan of redemption for the world, and his witness as the guardian of the Holy Family as the foster father of Christ. 

Joseph and Jesus Resting by Jean Joseph Benjamin Constant
The sanctuary fresco dates from the 1930s, seen below, very much in the style of what was being produced in Rome during the pontificates of Pius XI and XII.  

The 1930s sanctuary fresco
Unfortunately the Italian-made Carrara high altar was simplified in the 1970s, losing its marbled reredos. Thankfully, the side altars have remained, with one (the altar of repose), dedicated to St. Joseph. Hopefully one day the high altar will be restored to the design of the original architect. A lot of thought went into the design of the layout of the liturgical space, with such a large chancel.  

Original interior design, before the apse fresco was painted.
At some point in the early 1960s, the access to the crypt was removed from the center of the sanctuary stairs and moved to the side. This move made sense, for better crowd control, and to allow pilgrims to visit the crypt during Mass without visually disturbing those in the church nave praying during services.

The chapel in the early 1960s after the central staircase was removed

A rare image of the previous high altar
The floor of the church was actually later raised higher to match the level of the chancel. This was done around the 1970s. The new floor design includes steps up to the nave level of the church that visitors ascend after they enter the main entrance to the church. This floor was paved in marble at a later date. On the left there is a staircase down to the crypt which exists on the right. 

The beautiful hand-carved Carrara marble statue of the Holy Family that once adorned the high altar was thankfully kept when it was removed and today can be seen outside the side of the church as pilgrims arrive at the church, entering from the front, and exiting from the side entrance that was later added.


A close-up image of the Holy Family statue that once adorned the high altar in the sanctuary. 



Vintage photo of the old high altar arrangement

The original altar rail, separating the sanctuary from the chancel
Below are images of what the altar looked like in the crypt, before it was unfortunately removed in the 1970s. Hopefully it will be restored. The altar was created in Naples and donated in 1860 by the French politician and nobleman, Théodore de Nicolaÿ (1782-1871). In those years he traveled through Palestine with some of his daughters and worked to return to Catholic hands certain religious sites, that included Cana, Bethany, and Emmaus. 

Three of his eight children were nuns. His daughter, Sr. Pauline de Nicolay (1811-1868), a mystic who is said to have had the stigmata for eight years, was a devout woman who moved to Jerusalem in 1858 and in 1861 purchased with her inheritance the church of St. Cleophas, also called Emmaus Church, located in the village of Al-Qubeiba. She later gave the church to the Franciscans and died in Jerusalem in 1868. 

The beautiful statue of the Holy Family, with altar in Neapolitan style

The original altar in the crypt

The original altar in the crypt

The original altar and modernist altar installed in the 1970s, since removed

View of the crypt in the 1940s, the pews have since been removed to accommodate large groups
The stained-glass windows deserve special attention. They were crafted in France and installed at different points over time. The touching image below, seen in the crypt, depicts the death of St. Joseph, with Christ and Our Lady at his side. The image is powerful. Archeologists still speculate where St. Joseph may have been buried. His remains are likely near the church, somewhere still in the ground of Nazareth.  Perhaps one day he will be discovered, incorrupt.  

The death of Joseph
Particular graces from heaven were bestowed upon Joseph when divine Providence chose him for the role of the earthly father of Christ, giving him the charisms that would be necessary for this function. Naming the church after Joseph also brings honor to him as the chosen one. Joseph was chosen not only as the foster father and earthly guardian of Christ, but also to be the spouse of His mother. With fidelity Joseph lived out his vocation in this very place, one of the holiest shrines in the Christian world, preserved by time because the Holy Family lived in a cave, which is still seen today, under the church.

The front seen from the street

A happy pilgrims stands in front of the church
When pilgrims visit, they descend the staircase to the first-century level, today a crypt chapel. Under this level is the grotto where the Holy Family lived in the first century. This sacred place is venerated by pilgrims from all over the world.

In the crypt in front of the altar is a memorial that bears a Latin inscription – “HIC ERAT SUBDITUS ILLIS” – “Here He was subject to them." This commemorates that Christ grew up here in a family. It alludes to Luke’s text: "And he went down with them, and came to Nazareth, and was subject to them. And his mother kept all these words in her heart. And Jesus advanced in wisdom, and age, and grace with God and men" (Luke 2:51-52).
The crypt memorial where Christ grew up
When pilgrims visit they see the bath that was most likely used in ancient times as a baptistery. Its mosaic reproduces symbols of baptism with water. Seven steps can be seen that descend, representing the seven days of creation and the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. Below can be seen the mosaic in the crypt. 

The crypt mosaic

Famous local guide Amer Shehadeh guides pilgrims in the crypt
The titular feast of the church is March 19, the feast of St. Joseph. On the day of or the vigil before, there is generally a Pontifical High Mass with the Patriarch that concludes with a procession to the Basilica of the Annunciation, where an icon of Joseph is placed in the cave that marks the location of the Annunciation. It is a wonderful privilege to pray here, in a church with such an incredible history and fine acoustics. 

A devotional statue seen in the church
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