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Feeding Mind and Spirit

text and photographs by George Martin

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In the course of leading pilgrimages I take groups of North American Catholics through the narrow and winding streets of the Old City of Jerusalem. We usually pass the office of the Pontifical Mission for Palestine and I am often asked to describe the work of this papal agency. I try to list some of its many projects: the Ephpheta institute for the hearing impaired in Bethlehem, training village health workers in the West Bank, supporting seminarians at the Greek and Latin seminaries, and running the libraries in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth and Amman.

The libraries, it must be explained, are not reference libraries for the staff of the Pontifical Mission. They are for the benefit of those who would not otherwise have access to the resources of a library.

There is no public library to serve Bethlehem’s population of 50,000, nor is there a library close to any of the nearby villages. Only recently has a public library been started in Arab East Jerusalem. And most of the primary and secondary schools that serve Palestinians lack adequate library facilities.

Recognizing the need, the Pontifical Mission began a library in a back room of its office in 1960 with a mere 300 books. Today it has grown to a collection of more than 30,000 books, now housed in a building on the grounds of the Holy See’s Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center. The library has materials in Arabic, English, French, German, Italian and Spanish, geared to the needs of adults and children alike.

I have heard the Pontifical Mission Library in Jerusalem called, “the best Palestinian library in Jerusalem.”

Those using the Jerusalem library come from Jerusalem or the surrounding areas. Many are students in public and private schools and colleges. Teachers find it a particularly valuable resource for their own continuing education, since the library has an extensive collection of teacher-training materials in Arabic.

The Pontifical Mission began its Bethlehem library in 1970. Since 1977, it has been housed in its own wing of the Bethlehem University library. This building was donated by the Catholic bishops of Germany, on the condition that it also serve the people of Bethlehem. The Pontifical Mission Library carries out this function and serves those living in the nearby villages and refugee camps, as well as the students and faculty of the university.

A third Pontifical Mission library was started in Nazareth in 1972. In Jordan, the Pontifical Mission has a central library in Amman and, just recently, opened a satellite library near Kerak, in the south.

This investment in library resources is an index to the importance the Pontifical Mission places on education. Education is a need in any developing nation, but a particular need for Palestinians today. The forced closing of schools during the intifada disrupted the education of many, and there is a lot of catching up to be done. Palestinian schools are only now developing their own curricula. The libraries have collected materials pertaining to Palestinian history and culture, so that they may serve as resources in the development of Palestinian education.

This is only half the story. The resource materials are not the only valuable assets; the librarians are an integral component of these centers.

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Tags: Jerusalem Education Pilgrimage/pilgrims Books