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Where everything began: Acre 800 years after the Franciscans’ arrival

Between its tormented past and its current presence moving forward, Acre carries the signs of many lives. The walls of the old city, the houses that overlook the sea, the boats docked in the harbor could tell an infinite number of stories. One of these began 800 years ago on those very waters and on those shores: the history of the Custody of the Holy Land. The Franciscans friars approached Acre for the first time in 1217.

HISTORY Also known as St. John of Acre and even before Ptolemais, there was a Christian community there since the apostolic times, as can be read in St. Paul's travels: “We continued the voyage and came from Tyre to Ptolemais, where we greeted the brothers and stayed a day with them” (Acts 21: 7). During the Second Crusade, which followed the fall of Jerusalem in the hands of Saladin’s Arab army (1187 AD), it became the seat of the King and of the Patriarch of Jerusalem.
The Franciscans arrived in 1217. When the first General Chapter of the Friars Minor, which was held at Saint Mary of the Angels in Assisi, decided to send Franciscans to all nations, the Province of the Holy Land was created. It was in the Fall of the same year that Fr. Elia Buonbarone, who was a prominent figure, led some friars to Acre . In 1219, Saint Francis himself visited the Holy Land after meeting Sultan Melek el-Kamel in Egypt and having received special permission to visit the Holy Places. Conquered in 1291 by the Mamluk, in the mid-1700s, Acre was placed under Ottoman rule until the capture by the English in 1918. Since 1948, it has been part of the State of Israel.

ACRE TODAY Today the Franciscan Friars of the Custody of the Holy Land show their presence in Acre through a monastery and a school and they manage the parish of St. John of Acre and the chapel of the Terra Santa School. Fr. Simon Pietro Herro has been managing the activities of the Custody in Acre together with Fr. Raffaele Caputo for less than a year. It was not easy for Fr. Quirico Calella to begin serving [in a new place] after the twenty-one years of service; he was recently moved to Lebanon. “In these months,I have been working hard to get to know the families, and to take care of the school and church," says Fr. Simon Pietro, a Jerusalem native. I tried to get closer to the people, talking to them on the street and visiting them in their homes.” The situation, however, is not the best: Christians are few and far between and in the past there have been disagreements with locals. According to an estimate, there are between 1500 and 1800 Christians between Melkites, Latins, Maronites, Orthodox and Anglicans. There are between 180 and 200 Catholics. “Many Christians who belong to the parish live in nearby villages, about an hour from here,” said Fr. Simon Pietro.
800 years have elapsed since the arrival of the first Franciscans, but the friars’ passion for the people has not diminished. “Being here in the place where everything began pushes us to do our best. It is not easy to reanimate the parish, but we are trying to do so through various activities,” said the superior in Acre. “For carnival, we organized a party for all of the parish families, in order to be with them and to share moments of joy with them,” continued Fr. Simon Pietro. “For Lent, I gave a series of lectures on the subject of Lent. I am also trying to create a parish council, in order to help guide my decisions as a pastor.”

THE SCHOOL In the old city of Acre, there is also the school of the Custody of the Holy Land. In the building adjacent to the monastery, there are classes for primary school children all the way to senior year of high school. The nursery school is hosted in another nearby structure. Of the 474 students, only 130 are Christians and, between students and teachers, there are a variety of religions and cultural differences represented. School begins at 7:15 a.m. in the morning with praise and mass in the small chapel. Seated between moms and sleepy children, there are the three souls of the community: Sister Giuseppina, Sister Lina and Sister Anastasy. The three religious work tirelessly for the parish, they teach religion at the school and they care for the children at the nursery. They now represent a strong support system for the activities of the friars of the Custody. Fr. Simon Pietro acts as the director of the institute: “The door to my office is always open, and both professors and students know it. And often young people come in, talk about their problems and their plans. Dialogue makes them [feel] more relaxed.”

While they do not have a large space for leisurely activities, during the recreational break, the youth wander through the corridors and the long balconies, while the little ones have access to the large room on the top floor, where they can run freely. All of the teachers gather together in the teacher’s lounge.
“We have had problems with the state for funding because they do not cover many of the expenses that we have to bear,” said Sister Lina. The passion and the commitment he pursues with his work are very visible when he talks about the teenagers and the kids: lessons, activities for math day, mother’s day projects, painting, games.

THE FUTURE Fr. Quirico had decided a long time ago to begin excavations under the church of St. John of Acre and to start restoring the Crusader-era crypt. “Today we are continuing the work in this regard and we want to do something new, too,” said Fr Simon Pietro. “On the occasion of the 800th anniversary of the Franciscan presence in Acre, we are building a new nursery.” Future projects also will involve land owned by the Custody that is outside of the old town of Acre. “My idea is to build another school, keeping what we already have for our elementary school classes so as to give the teenagers more space,” the friar continued.

Acre will be the protagonist in the eighth centenary celebrations of the Franciscans’ arrival, with a pilgrimage tour on June 11, a mass presided over by the Father Custos, a brief guided tour and a concert organized by the school.
What do you want for the future of such a symbolic place for the Custody? Fr. Simon Pietro knows: “I want a parish and a lively school for Acre. Even though we are a minority here, if we respect others, they will respect us, too.”

Beatrice Guarrera


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