Story of the presence and mission of the Franciscan Friars in Lebanon

Giacomo Pizzi11 September 2020

While we follow with concern the pictures of a new fire in the Port of Beirut, destroyed by the terrible explosions in august that caused more than 200 deaths, we try to tell you the bond that unites the Franciscans to Lebanon. In fact, only by knowing their story we may understand the important role of the Franciscans and their support to the Lebanese Christians and others.

St Francis’ biographer, Thomas of Celano, writes that the “Poverello of Assisi” divided his eight disciples in four groups, as the cardinal points, and said to them: “Go in pairs around the world to announce peace and penitence to mankind”. In 1217, in the Porziuncola of Assisi, during the General Chapter of the Order, the world was divided into provinces. The eleventh Province was named Ultramarina or “of the Holy Land”, “of Syria”,and other. The Province included the countries around the south-eastern Mediterranean. Some years later, during the General Chapter of the Order which took place in Pisa in 1265, the provinces were divided into “custodies”, smaller entities easier to run. The Province Ultramarina was divided into three custodies, the first one included “The Custody of the Holy Land or of Syria” and the territories of Palestine, Syria, and Lebanon. This historical premise is the introduction of Father Adinolfi’s book “The Franciscans in Syria and in Lebanon”, where he tells the arrival of the Franciscans in the land of cedar and their missionary work.

The Friars Minor reach Beirut

The Friars Minor reached Beirut in the second half of 1200. In Beirut they established a monastery and celebrated religious functions in the Church of Saint Saviour, famous among the local Christians for the miracle of the bloody Crucifix. According to a legend it started to bleed after being hit by Jews. After the region’s conquest by the Mamluk led by Emir Al- Ashraf Khalil in 1291, we have lost the friars tracks, but we do not know if they were expelled or killed. Fifty years later we have another witness of their presence thanks to the pilgrim Niccolò de Martoni and his “Liber peregrinationis ad Loca Sancta” where he describes the church with the following words: “Once this was a beautiful church, when the Christians ran that land. Nowadays (1394) it is only an apse with an altar, where the mass is celebrated every day for the merchants”. The relationship between the Franciscans, the merchants, and the sailors, is attested even in later times: In 1485 Father Suriano wrote that the friars assisted the sailors who arrived in the city. The Church of Saint Saviour was destroyed by the Turks in 1571: The friars moved to Aleppo and came back only in 1830. In the XIX century they established themselves in a little house which turned into a monastery, then they expanded the property and erected the present church of Saint Joseph. The church is attended both by the Christians of various Catholic rites and by worshipper of other confessions.

Consequences of the explosions

The hospitality and care towards the local community attested by history is still today the cornerstone of the Franciscan mission in Lebanon. The friars, who have four monasteries in the country (Beirut, Harissa, Tripoli and Tyre), continue to take care of the poorest, with special attention to the young people, the elderly and the sick people.

The fundraising promoted by Association Pro Terra Sancta, shortly after the explosion in the Port of Beirut, has the aim to help the Franciscans in the reconstruction of the damaged monastery and to support their actions of assistance to the people in need.

The monastery of Saint Joseph and the church located in the Christian quarter of Gemmayzeh, a little more than a kilometer from the Port of Beirut, suffered extensive damage. Fortunately, none of those present at the time of the explosion was seriously wounded, but the ancient monastery needs an immediate intervention. The young people from the parish have immediately worked to clean up the rubble and the friars distributed essential goods to all the affected families. It is an agreement of mutual help between the Franciscans and the population that has been going on for many centuries and that Pro Terra Sancta is committed to support.