Stella Maris and Carmelite parish in Haifa: one family

We Carmelites celebrated on December 7, 2021 the 150th anniversary of the consecration of the parish church, ocd in the lower part of the city of Haifa near the sea. In the same act, we celebrate S. José patron of the parish, also celebrated in 2021 as patron of the universal Church. The Carmelite parish in Haifa radiates a particular light, the light that comes from this biblical land, land of patriarchs, prophets, land of Jesus Christ.

It is the land where the Carmelites were born and where they acquired the spirit that animates them. Spirit incarnated in the prophet Elijah and transmitted by the inhabitants of Mount Carmel under the protection of the Virgin, Queen and Lady of Mount Carmel. The spirit of the Order finds here in Haifa, as we shall see, an magnificent manifestation in the symbiosis between the motherhouse of the Order, “Stella Maris”, the ocd parish, and the Christians of Haifa.

In 1767, the Pasha de S. Juan de Acre Dhaher al Omar ordered the destruction of the religious house that the Carmelites owned under the present lighthouse a few meters below.

The religious house was founded by the Spanish Carmelite Fr. Prospero, ocd and inhabited by his community since 1633. Dhaher al Omar granted the Carmelites permission to build a convent where “Stella Maris” stands today when circumstances permit.

The Pasha had gathered the few Haifa inhabitants in the lower part of the city that it had protected with a defensive wall in 1762. In fact, it feared an imminent attack by the Ottomans as punishment for not paying taxes to the central government in Constantinople.  The Superior General of the Carmelites residing in Rome had sent two Italian friars, one of them an architect, to build the monastery on the top of the promontory.  The demolition mandate of Dhaher El Omar left the Carmelites without a place to live.  The generosity of the Christians of Haifa came to their aid.

Fr. Gianbattista, an architect by profession, was one of the two friars sent by the superior. Fr. Gianbattista remembers in 1774 the generosity of Christians. His testimony can be read in the Archives of the ocd Delegation in Stella Maris. He wrote: «The Christians of the nearby city of Haifa, having given us enough space for free next to their church, we decided to make a small chapel, a small kitchen, a pantry, a tiny stable, a courtyard enclosed with walls … ». In this physical environment described above lived the first parish priest of Maltese origin, Fr. Julius of St. Savior (1803-1841).

In 1914, with the outbreak of the First World War, the bonds of friendship between the Christians of Haifa and the Carmelite friars of «Stella Maris» grew stronger, as evidenced by the memoirs of Fr. Francis Stuart Lamb kept in the archives of the Delegation of Stella Maris.

Fr. Francis, of English origin, was sent by the Superior General to become vicar of the monastery of «Stella Maris». A wise decision given that the family of Fr. Francis was related to the English aristocracy and this would facilitate negotiations with the English who occupied the monastery of «Stella Maris».

Fr. Francis writes in his memoirs that in December 1914 three officers of the Ottoman army appeared around noon at the monastery of «Stella Maris» informing the few remaining friars that the monastery and its surroundings had been declared a military zone and in three hours’ time they had to leave the monastery. In these three hours, they could take with them whatever belongings they wanted.

The Christians of Haifa asked the friars to allow them to take the statue of our Lady of Mount Carmel to the parish to protect the precious statue and be protected by the Virgin themselves. Indeed, English and French ships from Haifa’s Bay were seriously bombarding the lower part of the city. The friars agreed to the request of the Christians.

Australian soldiers expelled the Ottomans from the “Stella Maris” monastery in September 1918. English troops evacuated the monastery later, on April 19, 1919, which coincidentally was a Holy Saturday. On April 27, Sunday «in albis» the statue of the Virgin returned to the church of the monastery on the mountain.

The return of the Virgin to «Stella Maris» was an unprecedented religious demonstration in Haifa. The English were ready to carry the statue with all due military honors. The young Christians of Haifa wanted to be the ones to drag the cart carrying the statue up to the mountain. They tied some ropes to de cart to facilitate the task. Christians and Muslims participated in the procession. It was such a success that it was decided to repeat it annually. At first limited to the single population of Haifa, it became over time a regional procession and later on  the participation was from   over  the country. Today it is considered the most important procession in the country after the Palms procession in Jerusalem.

In May 1948 the cruel fate of the Arab Hebrew war in Haifa reinforced the bonds of friendship between local Christians and the Carmelites of «Stella Maris». The Christian families went up to the «Stella Maris» monastery and stayed there for a few months as refugees.

The vicissitudes of history have forged a strong unity between Christians of Haifa and the «Stella Maris» monastery. Dismembering the parish from the monastery or vice versa is impossible. The two form a unit. They are the same Carmelite family, spiritual children of the prophet of Tishbé and of the of our Lady of Mount Carmel.

During the celebration that he remembered at the beginning of this article, a message from our General Superior Rev. Father Miguel Márquez Calle was read. His message exudes sympathy for this land and its people. P. Miguel has walked the roads of this land many times with the author of these lines and with walking pilgrims. Together we have shared good times with the hospitality that they have offered us.

In this land, Father Miguel has received many “winks” from God as he usually says. In Jerusalem, he supported the weight of the Via Dolorosa and the consolation and joy of the Risen One. Jerusalem has been manifested to him with his unmistakable charm. May God help us Carmelites return to Jerusalem at his hand. Our Sisters Carmelites are waiting for us on the Mount of Olives. Meanwhile they pray for the return of their brothers to the holy city. In Jerusalem, there is the Latin Patriarchate, the same one that gave us our Rule. You do not say good bye to Jerusalem, but just you say: see you later. Let us therefore hopefully repeat the traditional saying: Next year in Jerusalem.

Fr. Francisco Negral Ramos, ocd

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