The infirmary of the Custody of the Holy Land is on the second floor of St Saviour’s Convent, in Jerusalem: it is secluded but right in the heart of the community, almost closed in on itself, as in a shell, protecting and taking care of the most fragile and elderly friars of the Custody, those who need the greatest assistance and medical care.
From the courtyard, the date of 1955 can be noticed in a corner: this was the year in which the infirmary, as it looks today, was built.
Fr. Jad Sara is in charge of the Custody’s infirmary. Originally from Jerusalem, he has held this position for almost 17 years: “It was our founder St Francis who reminded us to take care of our ill brothers,” says Fr. Jad. “This is why the care of the elderly has always been very important to us. As early as the 16th century, there was the pharmacy and the infirmary in Jerusalem: but the present-day location, as we can read in the date that you see here on the second floor, dates back to 1955, thanks to the wishes of a Custos who was particularly sensitive to the questions of the ill and elderly, and who ensured that they could find accommodation in the mother house, in the community of St Saviour, so that they could be visited by all the other friars.
When I arrived here, more than sixteen years ago, from the very beginning I insisted a great deal on refurbishing these premises. This way, thanks also to the then Custos, the present-day Patriarch of Jerusalem of the Latins (His Beatitude Pierbattista Pizzaballa) the major restoration of 2009 took place, with which we were able to renovate all the rooms (which were completely rebuilt and adapted to medical equipment), enlarge the bathrooms, the kitchen, the refectory but also equip two rooms for intensive care and prepare the rooms for the doctor and for the pharmacy.”
The infirmary today
Today the infirmary hosts 8 elderly friars, from all the areas of the Holy Land: the specialized nursing and medical personnel are always present, 24 hours a day thanks to a contact with St Joseph’s Hospital in Jerusalem. Two sisters from the Congregation of the Franciscan Sisters of St Elizbeth, sister Nila and sister Jessica, “who are invaluable,” Fr. Jad emphasizes, are also in service in the Infirmary, “because they bring that feminine touch which helps our elderly very much, in the therapies, in the refectory, in the preparation of the Mass and in daily accompaniment.”
The rooms in the infirmary are large and bright; every day there is Mass in the chapel which opens into the central part of the long corridor, and there is also a chaplain for the spiritual assistance of the elderly once a month. “What has struck me the most, over the years, is seeing how at the times of prayer and oration, some friars, possibly the oldest and the weakest, get a great lucidity back. Many of them, when they are in the chapel of the infirmary on their own, find relief and peace of mind.”
“The service here in the infirmary has changed me,” continued Fr. Jad. “It has softened the more neurotic aspects of my character. I have gradually understood that you have to indulge the elderly with tenderness and patience, and I have learned that often the more cantankerous aspects of their characters are worsened by suffering and illness, but above all the fear of pain. The elderly have a pace of their own and we always have to respect their state of mind.”
In the corridor, close to the large window that looks over the Old City, there is one of the guests of the infirmary, Father Carlo Cecchitelli, 86 years old, and formerly Custos of the Holy Land from 1986 to 1992: “My life,” says Father Cecchittelli, “has always been busy, with numerous positions and responsibilities: now, at my age, I pray, I read and sometimes I even go downstairs to meet the other brothers, including the youngest in the community, with whom I always feel a very close bond. I am used to being amongst young people, as for 15 years I was rector of the international seminary in Rome, in Casalotti on the Via Boccea and then, amongst other things, I was also master of the novices and promoter of vocations.”
Lastly, Fr. Jad reminds us that the youngest are always invited to come upstairs to see the elderly of the community, sharing some time with these friars who represent a treasure in the Custody, for the wealth of their experience, of their human and spiritual life, and of their relationship with the Lord.