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History of the Austrian Hospice

On the History of the Austrian Hospice in Jerusalem
(From H. Wohnout, Das Österreichische Hospiz zur Heiligen Familie, Böhlau 2000)

I. The re-discovery of the Holy Land in the first half of the 19th Century

The first quite arduous and dangerous pilgrimages to the Holy Land were undertaken chiefly by Catholic clergymen, imbued with the spirit of Romanticism. On their return home, reports and publications about their journeys provided the initial impetus for activities which built on international legal contracts dating back to the eighteenth century between the Catholic monarchies of Europe and the Sublime Port for the protection of the Catholic church in parts of the Ottoman Empire.

In 1847 it fell to Pope Pius IX to re-establish the patriarchal seat in Jerusalem which had been abandoned since the late fourteenth century. The fact that the seat was under exclusive control of the French Protectorate led the Austrian monarchy to consider establishing a visible presence of its own in Jerusalem.

II. From the initial conception of a House in Jerusalem to the dedication of the Hospice

The first Austrian Consul General in Jerusalem, Count Josef Pizzamano, ultimately found a piece of land on the corner of Damascus Street and the Via Dolorosa. While on a journey to Palestine Ferdinand Maximilian, the younger brother of Emperor Franz Joseph, visited Jerusalem, inspected the piece of land and approved the project.

Cardinal Rauscher made the Assistant Engineer in the Ministry of Trade, Anton Endlicher, responsible for overseeing the construction. Two quarries were purchased in the vicinity of Jerusalem to provide the necessary building materials. Work commenced in 1855, when the foundations were dug and the supporting walls erected. The laying of the foundation stone was celebrated on New Year's Eve 1856.

The Legation Secretary of the Austrian Representative Office to the Sublime Port, Franz Ritter von Reyer, wrote at the time to Vienna:

It won't just be the most beautiful Hospice, but the most solid building far and wide in the Orient, worthy of the powerful Catholic state that commissioned it.

On 20 October 1858 the final stone was laid. The chapel, whose altar was designed by Heinrich von Ferstel and whose altarpiece is the work of Kupelwieser, was ceremoniously dedicated on 19 March 1863 by the Latin Patriarch Josef Valerga. On that same day the Hospice assumed its function as a pilgrims' house.

III. Flourishing times before 1914

The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 presented Emperor Franz Joseph, whose title encompassed that of King of Jerusalem too, with the welcome opportunity of visiting Jerusalem's holy sites and making an impressive entrance in the Holy Land on behalf of the Habsburg monarchy. He was the first crowned head of a Catholic country to come to Jerusalem since the Crusades. Not only did the Emperor reside in the Hospice, but he intentionally gave his multifaceted stay in Bethlehem and Jerusalem the character of a pilgrimage. From that time onwards the religious character of pilrimage to the Holy Land was bound up with a sense of patriotism.

In the first 25 years of the Hospice's existence, pilgrimage to the Holy Land was predominantly a luxury enjoyed by the nobility and wealthy who made the journey on steamships which had been making regular crossings between Trieste and Jaffa since 1853, courtesy of the Austrian arm of Lloyds shipping company. However, from the end of the 1890s more broad-based 'people's pilgrimages' became customary in the Monarchy. Pilgrimage opened up to the middle and peasant classes, ultimately becoming a mass movement.

IV. Change of fate in the wake of the First World War

The promising flow of pilgrims came to an abrupt end with the outbreak of war.

In contrast to French religious institutions, which the Ottomans considered enemy property, the Austrian Hospice was the property of a friendly state. At the end of October 1914 France's protectorate over the Holy Land was demonstratively ended by the Ottoman government.

September 1917 saw the arrival of the last Austrian archduke to stay at the Hospice, Hubert Salvator, who was accompanying the famed Orientalist prelate Alois Musil. The aim of the journey wasn't so much for the archduke to offer encouragement to Austro-Hungarian soldiers on the Front, but rather for Musil, who had already undertaken several fact-gathering missions in the Orient on behalf of the War Ministry and who was seen as a kind of Austrian "Lawrence of Arabia", to win the allegiance of the Bedouin tribes.

In February 1918 the Hospice was requisitioned by the British military and turned into an Anglican orphanage run by the "Syria and Palestine Relief Fund".

V. The Hospice in the interwar years

In 1923 and 1924 groups of pilgrims once again arrived in Jerusalem from the erstwhile Monarchy.

In the course of 1936 the latent unrest between Jews and Arabs became more palpable and had a negative impact on travel and pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

VI. Hospice in foreign hands

On the very day on which the British declared war on the Third Reich, 3 September 1939, the Hospice was seized by the British authorities. Between mid September and Christmas 1939 it served as an internment camp for all priests and monks (with the exception of the Benedictines) resident in Palestine from the German Empire. Rector Haider was sent to an internment camp in Acre in May 1940, before being deported to Australia.

At the beginning of 1948 it was taken over by the British Department of Health and turned into a military hospital. From mid May 1948 when British troops retreated from Jerusalem to the north and the battles escalated into "all out war", as the Hospice chronicles describe it, the military hospital was controlled by the Red Cross, with Austrian nuns actively participating in the care of the sick.

VII. The difficult process of getting the Hospice back and its re-opening

In October 1948, the Hospice was taken over by the Jordanian government which intended to continue running it as a hospital. In 1961 Jordan's King Hussein visited the Hospice; ten years earlier his grandfather, Kind Abdallah, had been seriously wounded in a shooting attack in the Al-Aqsa Mosque and had been brought to the Hospice, the hospital closest to the attack, where he had then died.

On 7 June 1967, the third day of the so-called "Six Day War" between Israel and her Arab neighbours, the whole of Jerusalem's Old City fell to the control of Israel, thus rendering the agreement with the Jordanian government invalid.

The lack of sanitary and technical installations resulted in a deterioration in the standards of hygiene in the hospital; however, despite numerous discussions throughout the 1970s, no solution was found.
From the point at which it was returned to Austrian hands in December 1985, efforts were made to restore the Hospice as fast as possible to its original function.

Under Wolfgang Schwarz, the Hospice's first rector after its re-opening, the pilgrim industry resumed after nearly fifty years during which it had been dormant. The political crises of the 1990s, however, starting with the Iraq war, resulted in new problems for the Hospice.

VIII. Present

Euphoria at the re-opening of the guesthouse was soon dampened by the First Intifada. In times of political instability the Hospice can only count on a small number of guests. Not until the 1990s did we have a high enough occupancy rate to enable us to stand on our own feet financially and to undertake necessary renovations and improvements.

The experience of the Second Intifada (2000-2004) drew our attention anew to the particular location of the Hospice in the Old City. Situated between both parts of the city, the location once again became our vocation: in addition to inviting Austrian artists to exhibit with us, we also took it upon ourselves to invite local artists, Israeli and Palestinian alike.

IX. Exhibition: in search of the lord god...

in search if the lord godwhen is a pilgrim at his destination?

Least of all in his own abode. There he finds board, respite and counsel; the reasons for his journeying are, however, the holy places that he visits.

Since the establishment of the Austrian Hospice of the Holy Family in 1856, thousands of pilgrims have, as our Founding Father Archbishop Joseph Othmar von Rauscher puts it, found a ‘home away from home' here for the duration of their stay. These pilgrims have numbered members of the aristocracy as well as scientists, artists and, most importantly, the ‘simple believer'.

They all wanted to witness the places of the Bible with their own eyes and to follow in the footsteps of Christ.

Pilgrimage nurtures the body - in all those ways that can be argued
 It develops the Spirit  - in all the words, symbols and people that come across our path
 It nourishes the soul  - in all the insight and solace that we gain.

The title of our exhibition, In Search of the Lord God, recalls Easter morning in Jerusalem when the faithful women and Jesus' disciples discovered the empty tomb. In Search of the Lord God is also the name given to the processions which proceed along our lanes on Easter morning when we search for He who was resurrected.

Given the emptiness of a life without God, we hope that our pilgrims are brought closer to Jesus through visiting the landmarks of His life.
The pilgrim only reaches his destination at the end, whence we are shown the path to the heavenly Jerusalem.

The exhibition presents a decidedly small selection of well-known personages who were guests in the Austrian Hospice. The signatures are taken from our guest-books; texts and illustrative pictures are from our own archive or from a private source, or are freely accessible on the Internet. Some are taken from Dr Helmut Wohnout's book, "Das Österreichische Hospiz. Die Geschichte des Pilgerhauses an der Via Dolorosa". (The Austrian Hospice. The History of the House of Pilgrimage on the Via Dolorosa.) Despite intensive searching we have been unable to clear all rights to pictures; we are happy to comply with justified claims.

One selection criteria was not to include any politician currently in office. We chose not to deny the inclusion of certain personages with a Nazi past. These characters illustrate the problematic association Austria had with the events of the time.

The main burden of the exhibition was borne by Florian Schiemer who conscientiously deciphered and researched the names in the guest-books; he was assisted in this task by Anselm Becker and Günther Fuchs, Samuel Barwart and Johannes Safron, Philipp Nigitsch and Matthias Perkonigg, here for their civil service, who brought the work to its current -provisional- end.

In Search of the Lord God is first and foremost a testimony to the historical nature of our House, but also an indication that in our search and pilgrimage, we are not and have never been alone. In their search for truth and authenticity every individual is called upon to examine God's calling in their own life.

Buch: Das Österreichische Hospiz in JerusalemDas Österreichische Hospiz in Jerusalem
With a foreword by
Cardinal Franz König

Publisher: BöhlauWien
Author: Helmut Wohnout
Pages: 227
Year: 2000
ISBN: 3-205-99095-1,
available in the Hospice