The history of the convent of St Francis of Tripoli Al-Mina in Lebanon has its roots in the genesis of the Franciscan presence in the Holy Land. It would seem that Fr. Elia Da Cortona himself, the first friar asked by St Francis to go to the Holy Land (and St Francis’s first successor), founded the convent. According to Franciscan sources, St Francis himself, after the historic meeting with the Sultan in Damietta in 1219, returned to the then land of Syria in March 1220 to consolidate the convents founded since 1217. In Tripoli, where the suburb of Al-Mina was to stand, the Franciscans held a Provincial Chapter in 1255 and this suggests that the convent was large and important. The Chapter was also attended by the famous missionary Fr. William of Rubruck, who had carried out a diplomatic mission with the Mongols. After the destruction of the Tripoli convent in 1289, by the army of the Mamluk Sultan Qalawan, the Franciscans were probably martyred and there is no information about them until a few centuries later. The Friars Minor of the Custody of the Holy Land did not return to live in Tripoli until 1582, in a new convent and with a church, and from there they gave assistance to European merchants in transit and the Maronite Christians in the region.
In 1873, the church in the city of Tripoli, dedicated to St Joseph, was enlarged as the number of faithful grew. It was administered by the Franciscans until 1950, when the Congregation for the Oriental Churches decided to transfer it to the Syriac Catholic Church of Cilicia. The friars of the Custody were building a new church and a new residence in the city which, after having been completed, was also transferred to the Maronite Church in 1955.
In the meantime, in 1852 the Custody had established two religious in Tripoli Al-Mina, an independent city which looks on to the sea five kilometres west of modern Tripoli.
In 1858, the convent dedicated to St Francis and the church were built in Tripoli Al-Mina. The sovereign of the then Kingdom of Two Sicilies, Ferdinand II of Bourbon, commissioned a painting of the Virgin Mary for the church. The friars looked after about two hundred faithful of the Latin Christians of the oriental rite who preferred to attend that church. They also opened a Holy Land School which each year educated about two hundred pupils and which was active until 2014.
From 1976, due to the war under way and other difficulties, there was no longer a stable community in Tripoli Al-Mina. The Custodial Chapter in 2016, however, decided to resettle a fraternity in the convent of St Francis and assigned the role of guardian to Fr. Quirico Calella.
The place has today become a Franciscan centre which provides accommodation with Bed and Breakfast, a sports centre (football, basketball, volley ball, tennis, judo and dance) and a point of reference for the local youngsters. The St Francis convent has tried over the past few years to continue the work of dialogue with the Muslim world, by organizing meetings of discussion and education between Christians and Muslims, in the presence of religious authorities of both religions. During the Muslim celebration of Ramadan, iftar, the convivial dinners which mark the end of the daily fast observed in this period by Muslims until sunset, are offered in the Franciscan convent. Special importance is also given to the education of the local Christians, with specific meetings for those who are in a prevalently Muslim context.
“Because of the pandemic, we have had to limit the activities of the sports centre and for the time being our Bed and Breakfast is also closed,” explains the superior Fr. Quirico Calella. “However we did not give up pur summer camp last year. It lasted three weeks and many children between the ages of five and twelve came to us to carry on a series of activities conceived for them.” Last December, another support initiative for this health emergency was started: an Italian doctor did voluntary work in the convent, performing about one hundred serological tests and free medical examinations for a week for those who requested.
As in all the places affected by the pandemic, the restrictions and the lockdowns have meant that several activities have moved online, like organizational meetings or masses. The concert organized on the occasion of the week of prayer of Christian unity will not be able to be held in the presence of an audience due to the lockdown in Lebanon. It will be the Lebanese television Telelumiere that broadcasts live on 20th January the concert by Muna Hallab, a Muslim singer who will perform from the Franciscan convent, accompanied by an organ student, to whose education the Custody has contributed with a scholarship.
Fr. Quirico is also engaged in support activities for the NGO Dove Operation, which is active in the Syrian camp of Tel Abbas. “Recently there has been a fire in another camp in the north of the country and many of the refugees have gone to the neighbouring villages. We also supplied some aid,” Fr. Quirico continues.
The convent of Tripoli Al-Mina is also a support for the pastoral life of the Christians and not only Latins, but also of other rites, as well as the community of Filipino immigrants who are numerous in the country.
In support of the many families in difficulty, the Franciscan convent of Tripoli Al-Mina has organized the distribution of food packages, in collaboration with the NGO Pro Terra Sancta. “The beneficiaries also include Muslim families,” Fr. Quirico explains, stating that support goes to all those who are in need, without making any differences. “If before the pandemic we only helped individuals who came knocking on the door of the convent, today we try to be organized with food parcels to give support to the families,” concludes Fr. Quirico. “The next distribution will be in early February and we will provide about 150 families with food, health material and medicines. We will help those who are in need: Lebanese, immigrants, Syrian and Palestinian refugees.”