On 29 June, the Church all over the world celebrated Sts Peter and Paul, two pillars of Christianity who, from the Land of Jesus set off to announce the Gospel and died martyrs. Amongst the various places in the Holy Land linked to the life of St Peter. there is one that is not very well known: the shrine of St Peter in Jaffa. Here, where there was a large community of Jews who believed in Jesus Christ, tradition has it that it was also where various episodes of the apostolate of Peter took place: the resurrection of Tabitha by the Saint (Acts 9,31), his stay as a guest in the house of Simon the tanner, where he had the famous vision of the tablecloth that was lowered from heaven and containing all kinds of animals, both clean and unclean (Acts 10,15). From there Peter, summoned by the centurion Cornelius, went to Caesarea where he welcomed the first pagans into the Church (Acts 10).
In Jaffa, in the shrine guarded by the Franciscans, the feast day of St Peter was celebrated with great joy on Saturday 26 June with a solemn mass, presided by the Vicar of the Custody of the Holy Land, Fr. Dobromir Jasztal.
“For pastoral reasons we always move the pontifical mass of the feast day of St Peter to the Saturday closest to 29 June, to allow the participation of our communities,” said Fr. Eduardo Sanchez Vélez, superior of the convent. On the occasion of this celebration, the church of St Peter was crowded with worshippers belonging to all the communities: the Hebrew-speaking community, and the Polish, Hispanic, Filipino, Indian and African communities. “It is a special feast day for us: two thousand years ago St Peter was here. On 29 June, the day of Sts Peter and Paul, we also celebrate a mass here in the church, which is attended by the Arab parishioners of the church of St Anthony,” the superior of the convent continued.
Seven priests of different nationalities live in the convent of St Peter today and are engaged in the pastoral care of the Christian communities of different languages in Jaffa and the surrounding area. The Franciscan convent, which today looks on to the port of Jaffa, has a long history which began in 1252, when the Friars Minor settled in Jaffa in a convent with a grandiose church, built by Louis IX of France, during the Seventh Crusade. This is why a statue of the king still stands today at the entrance to the convent.
“The convent is in the old city of Jaffa, remembering the Biblical episodes of the Acts of the Apostles which took place here,” explained Fr. Eduardo. “The church itself, however, was not built exactly on the remains of the house of Simon the tanner which stands on a plot of land belonging to an Armenian family. For two hundred years, this family has guarded the memory of that place, where today there is a mosque called ‘Mar Boutros’, which in Arabic means “St Peter”.
The only excavations carried out partially around the church and the convent have revealed only cannon shells from the Turkish period. However, official documents relate how in 1267 the Franciscans were expelled from the convent and how they did not have a permanent base in Jaffa until 1520. In 1654 they built a house to welcome pilgrims and in 1830 the convent was rebuilt. Between 1888 and 1894, Spain finalized the building of a new convent and a new church and since then the old one has been used only for pilgrims.
Scenes from the life of St Peter, the prince of the apostles, can still be seen today on the stained-glass windows at the end of the church, above the choir.