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The Church of Saint Catherine

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Exploring the Church of Saint Catherine

This site is always part of our live Octagon Tour.

Location - The Church of the Nativity

Map Coordinates - 31.704261, 35.207363


The Franciscan Catholic Church of Saint Catherine is located just to the north and adjacent to the nave of the Church of the Nativity. It was dedicated in 1347 AD to Saint Catherine of Alexandria. This is the location of the Franciscan’s midnight mass held every year on Christmas eve.


Who was Saint Catherine?

Saint Catherine of Alexandria

Saint Catherine is not mentioned before the 9th century, and her historicity has been considered doubtful. According to her legend, she was an extremely learned young girl of noble birth, possibly a princess. She protested the persecution of Christians under the Roman emperor Maxentius, whose wife and several soldiers Catherine converted to Christianity while she was imprisoned. During her subsequent torture, she professed that she had dedicated her virginity to Jesus Christ, her spouse, and was sentenced to death by beheading.

After her death Catherine’s body was taken to Mount Sinai, where in the 6th century a church and monastery were built in her honor – The Monastery of Saint Catherine. In the Middle Ages, when the story of her mystical marriage to Christ was widely circulated, she became one of the most popular saints and one of the most important virgin martyrs.

A Piece of the Manger Comes Home.

This chip of wood is believed to be from the manger in which Jesus laid.

A recent acquisition of this church is a chip from the wooden manger traditionally thought to be the feeding trough in which the Baby Jesus was laid on the night that He was born.

The Cloister Outside.

Outside the west door of the church is a pleasant cloister, which was renovated in 1948, in the same area where a 12th-century monastery once stood. (The first monastery on this site was started late in the fourth century by Saint Jerome.) 

Jerome’s Statue.

The statue of Saint Jerome with a skull at his feet.

Jerome’s statue (below) is in the center of the cloister, and in both paintings and statues depicting Jerome, he is typically shown with a skull nearby. The skull is there to illustrate the transience of human life. This is the same reason why monasteries around the world display the bones of their deceased residents.

A Brief Story of Jerome.

Jerome was not born into a Christian family, but he was baptized in his teenage years. Before his conversion, Jerome was like many frolicking Roman teens, but later felt very guilty about his youthful indiscretions. To appease his conscience, on Sundays he would visit the tombs of the martyrs in the dark and foreboding Roman catacombs. This experience would remind him of the terrors of hell. 

When Jerome was a young man in his twenties, and already quite educated in classical literature, he had a dream that inspired him to lay aside all his secular studies, and devote himself entirely to the teachings of the Scriptures. Jerome also went on to become a very enthusiastic student of Latin, Hebrew and Greek. His reputation quickly caught the attention of the leadership in the Roman church, where he was commissioned to write a Latin version of the New Testament.

However, shortly after Jerome started the project, his life took an unfortunate turn. Rome was a large city with many sinful temptations. Even the Latin clergy were lured into these corruptions, and of this, Jerome was openly critical. In response, the clergy started to push back. 

The second problem is that Jerome had convinced several women (pictured below) to refrain from these same extravagances of life, and to live holy and monastic lifestyles. Among these women were a wealthy aristocrat, Paula, and her daughters, among whom were Blaesilla and Eustochium.

Jerome teaching Paula and her daughters.

Sadly, four months after beginning Jerome’s regimen of piety, Blaesilla died. The Roman clergy, who were already looking for a way to rid themselves of Jerome, blamed him for her death. Finally, Jerome was accused of having an improper relationship with the mother, Paula – an allegation that has never been verified. 

Eventually, it seemed that all of Rome had turned against Jerome, and he was forced to flee the city, followed by a small entourage of disciples, which included Paula and her daughter Eustochium (pictured below). By 385 AD they had arrived in Bethlehem, where they spent the rest of their days, building what ultimately became a very large monastic community. Because Paula was quite wealthy, she provided everything that Jerome needed to continue his ministry of writing for the remaining 36 years of his life, until he died in 420 AD. 

Saints Paula and Eustochium.

With half of his life still before him, and after arriving in Bethlehem, Jerome went on to write hundreds of commentaries, letters, histories, theological lessons, songbooks, geographical studies of the Holy Land, and writings in defense of the Christian faith.

His seminal accomplishment was his Latin translation of the entire Bible, including the Apocrypha, from Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. Until its replacement in 1979, the Vulgate was the only Bible used by the Catholic church since the time that Jerome completed it in 405 AD - a span of almost sixteen centuries.

Saint Jerome.

Today Saint Jerome is considered to be one of the most influential men in the history of western society.

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