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Pontifical Mission at 50: Reflections of the Nesnas Family

An intimate profile of a family closely identified with the Pontifical Mission.

by Michael J.L. La Civita

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After an arduous trip from Rome to Jerusalem last December, I looked forward to a friendly evening with a family who has figured prominently in the life of the Pontifical Mission for Palestine. With a warm greeting and a welcoming drink, Tony and Eileen Nesnas and their lovely daughter Nayla received Father Guido Gockel, M.H.M., Regional Director for Palestine, Israel and Cyprus, and me to their Jerusalem home. The table was set, candles were lit and the perfume of Middle Eastern spices emanated from the kitchen. A lovely evening awaited us.

“Tell me about your trip,” Tony asked. He wasted no time, I thought, in wanting to know the details of my journey. I told him about my extensive interrogation by Israeli officials at the airport in Rome that delayed my departure for more than eight hours in Tel Aviv.

“Ah,” he replied after listening to my tale, “you have experienced a little of what we Palestinians must confront – often more than once – every day. It was unfortunate, but probably necessary for you to experience these ‘inconveniences.”

Tony was correct.

The special relationship between this Palestinian family and the Pontifical Mission began in the summer of 1958.

“At the time, the [Jerusalem] office had no secretary,” recalled Eileen. “My family and I lived in the same building as the Pontifical Mission [office] and I came down from our apartment and applied for the job. They accepted me on the spot.”

Eileen remained an integral part of the work of the Jerusalem office for more than four decades, tirelessly supporting the endeavors of the Pontifical Mission in Jerusalem, until her retirement in February 1993.

“Between 1958 and 1965, the Pontifical Mission distributed food and clothing from a warehouse in a suburb of Jerusalem,” Eileen remembered. “We received bales of clothing and foodstuffs such as flour, oil, butter and milk for distribution to villages in [present-day] Jordan and the West Bank. The warehouse was a prefabricated building erected by the Pontifical Mission on property belonging to the Sisters of Charity.

“Immediately after the 1967 war [in which Arab Jerusalem and the West Bank were occupied by the Israelis], a food distribution program was created and lasted for two or three years. The food was prepared at the warehouse and distributed near the New Gate of the Old City of Jerusalem, close to the Pontifical Mission office.”

Although an important member of the Pontifical Mission staff, Eileen and her family were not spared the hardships oppressing the Palestinian people:

“Before 1967, Jerusalem was divided. The New City, which lies outside the walls of the Old City, was occupied by the Israelis and was therefore inaccessible to the Arabs. The Old City…was under Jordanian rule. We had a very good life, although we were always looking forward to returning to our properties on the [Israeli] side.

“My family had property – land and houses – and we got out with nothing, without a penny, in 1948,” Eileen recalled. “My father died in 1950 from a broken heart.” The family had lost everything.

In 1965 Eileen married Tony Nesnas, a young man from the neighborhood. They settled into their own apartment in Jerusalem and looked forward to starting a happy and prosperous family.

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