Acre: the caravanserai that became a school | Custodia Terrae Sanctae

Acre: the caravanserai that became a school

Under a clear April sky, stopped at the gate of the Khān -it franji (French caravanserai) in Saint John of Acre, leaving the old port and Israeli tourists behind, we now briskly cross the gallery that is surmounted by the lion of St. Mark. In the vast courtyard of the khān, one can find the school of the Custody of the Holy Land.

On the third floor of the building, in a room with low ceilings that is sometimes used as a makeshift gymnasium or meeting room, Brother Quirico, the school director, leads a meeting for all of the students for the election of their delegates. “We want more vacation time!” one student with long brown hair shouts out. “Vote for Sanaa’!” exclaims another. “Listen, listen,” Brother Quirico chimes in, in Arabic with an Italian inflection, “we need to finish soon. It's time to ask your questions to the four candidates.” In a lively atmosphere, they all line up in single file under the platform near the microphone, while others hold up election signs or clap for their favorite candidate.

On the first floor, one can find middle and high school classes in an L formation. The kindergarten is outside of the khān at the edge of the bluff, not far from Saint John the Baptist’s Church. We head to Saint Francis’ Church, or rather… the upper part of it. “Due to lack of space, we had to build the lab in the upper part of the church. Look, you can still see the apse and stained glass.” Coming down the hall toward the roof, the students ask Brother Quirico about the elections, or they greet him warmly and go back to join their classmates. Latecomers are asked to follow their peers.
The roof of the Terra Sancta School, as the schools of the Custody of the Holy Land are called, offers a beautiful view of the old town. The Mediterranean Sea reflects the rays of the afternoon sun and sways the fishing boats offshore. Over the huge courtyard of the caravanserai, below the belfry we can hear the flag with the Holy Land Cross on it, waving in the warm wind; this is the emblem of the Custody. From this view overlooking Acre, the worlds inside of it are open to all those curious about discovering them. The property, adjacent to an ancient flourishing trade port in the heart of one of the oldest cities in the region and the oldest of the four khāns in Acre, makes the school a witness to the region’s ancient and contemporary history.

We go back down to the kindergarten by going through the old town where toddlers listen to their afternoon stories. Upon our arrival, some keep their focus and others take this as an opportunity for a distraction.
Brother Quirico explains that the school was officially founded in 1620 with the arrival of merchants from Europe ... "but unofficially, the friar says, the establishment has existed since the beginning of the sixteenth century; 1620 corresponds to the date of the acquisition by the Order of Friars Minor of the galleries and rooms to the north and northeast of the caravanserai.” The purchase took place through Brother Tomaso da Obicini Novara, Custos and friend of Fakhr-al-Din II, a powerful local lord named Emir and Prince of Galilee. The emir gave Brother Obicini the Grotto of the Annunciation in Nazareth and part of the khānin Acre, where the school has been located ever since.

“At first,” he adds, “the Franciscans were dedicated to local Catholics. The brothers taught liturgy and attached great importance to language skills.” Arabic and Italian--the two languages that have been taught at the school for 400 years--were used to communicate with the locals, and so that they, in turn, could communicate with Rome.

Soon, the only Catholic and Christian school in Acre opened up to people of other faiths; later, it opened up to diversity and became the only school in the Old City that provided a comprehensive education from kindergarten to the beginning of university studies. From one rule to the next—Turkish, British and Israeli—throughout history, the school and its educational system has adapted. “Under the British Mandate, the school prepared its students for the GCE, the English high school diploma, and now, it prepares students for the Te'udat Bagrut, the Israeli baccalaureate exam. “We live in Israel and we have to adapt,” recalls Brother Quirico. One milestone took place in 1948, when the Christian presence in Acre was cut in half, and the school was transformed into a political and humanitarian center for Palestinian refugees. Brother Albert Rock wrote that during the 1948 war, it was used to serve over 200 meals each day to refugees from Haifa. They were fleeing the fighting and heading to neighboring Lebanon.
With openness to other religions, the calendar also was adapted. The 530 students follow a single school calendar, for every confession, ensuring the number of teaching days required for secondary and primary education.

Sound minds, with the desire to learn

The school is distinguished by its almost 100 percent success rate of its students in the state exam that is close, far ahead of the 60 percent reached by other public schools in the city. Many students continue their studies at the university and climb the ladder in both the public and private sectors. One of the former students of the school, Salim Jubran, is now one of twelve judges in the Israeli Supreme Court and the first Arab to have been permanently appointed to it.
The school provides students with a message of peace and tolerance in school life and extracurricular activities. The Tau band, the music and training center within the school, encourages this spirit of tolerance from an early age among the children of Acre and among those outside the city. For example, Acre is twinned with Recklinghausen in Germany, and the school is thus twinned Petrinum High School in that same city. To preserve the Italian heritage of the institution and encourage learning Dante’s language, as well as cultural and linguistic openness, exchanges also exist with Italian schools.

The Terra Sancta School strives to help in development projects, and leverages the advantages and constraints related to its location. “We have many projects for schools, such as the renovation of the kindergarten, for example, but the gym is our priority. The children do not have gym,” said Brother Quirico, showing the outer courtyard of the caravanserai used as parking space. “Everything is ready but the building permit is taking a while, and we hope to get started as soon as possible.” The Terra Sancta School contributes to a pragmatic type of peace. Its geographical, historical and spiritual position, in addition to its religious diversity, is an advantage that allows it to support the community on the path of justice and reconciliation. “The school influences the community. Very recently, the City Hall organized a meeting between Jews and Arabs around the theme of forgiveness, because as St. John Paul II says: ‘There is no peace without justice, and there is no justice without forgiveness.’ We need a just and lasting peace.”

Name: Terra Sancta School
Location: Acre
Founded: 1552 and 1620.
Director: Fr. Quirico Calella, since 1995.
Number of students: 530
Diversity: 55% girls and 45% boys
Faculty: 47 employees
Grade levels: kindergarten-last year of high school/A levels (senior year)
Distribution by religions: 150 Christians, 380 Muslims, 0 Jews with 4 families who belong to two religions
Acre’s Population: 47,000 inhabitants
City Diversity: 67% Jews, Muslims 25.5%, Christians 2.5%, 5% other.
Protection: Member of the Organization of World Heritage Cities (UNESCO), since 2001
Terre Sainte Magazine, in September/October 2008devoted a few pages to Brother Quirico and to the city of Acre in “Quirico, the watchman of Acre.”

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Terra Santa School in Jaffa: Arab students at the heart of Israeli society

Ramla, an isolated Christian community that is open to the world

Text and photos: Nizar Halloun