The Church of Saint Catherine is a Franciscan Catholic church, located north of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. The church is dedicated to St. Catherine of Alexandria. Because of the status quo that governs Christian community relations in the Holy Places in the Holy Land since 1852, the Franciscans share only the Nativity Cave in the nearby Nativity Church, so except for special events their worship is held in St. Catherine’s Church.
The History of the Church of Saint Catherine
So In the 12th century, a Crusader monastery was established where is today the Church of Saint Catherine; and at some point, before the 15th century; a small chapel was built on the site of the monastery’s meeting hall. Then in 1882, the chapel was replaced by the present church, built in the Gothic Revival style. The construction of the Church of Saint Catherine was funded by donations made to it by Franz Josef I; Emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Simultaneously with the construction of the church, a pilgrims’ hostel (Casa Nova) was established next to it; which also houses, among other things, the offices of the Latin Quarter in Bethlehem.
The cloister of the ancient monastery was not destroyed; and the entrance to the Church of Saint Catherine is made through it. In 1949 the cloister was renovated by the Italian architect Antonio Berlusconi. Until 1999, the interior of the Church of Saint Catherine was decorated with wheels that symbolized the wheel of refraction on which St. Catherine was tormented. Towards the year 2000 and Pope John Paul II’s visit to Israel; the church was renovated and the wheels were removed. In addition, the structure was extended to the east, beyond the main altar.
The Structure of the Church
So the entrance to the Church of Saint Catherine is through the cloister on its west side. In the center of the cloister stands a statue of Hieronymus (St.Jerome) standing on a pillar. Above the front door of the church is a Latin inscription saying: “SANCTAE CATHERINAE VIRGINI ET MARTIRI DICATUM” (“Dedicated to the Holy, Virgin and Martyr Catherine”), and above it stands a statue of Mary. The church is rectangular and built in the shape of a basilica, with three naves.
The Church of Saint Catherine’s ceiling is designed in the shape of a cross vault, and its gilded arches are carried on pillars adorned with Corinthian capitals. In the eastern wall of the church, above the organ, is a large stained glass window, depicting the birth of Christ. A passage used only during special religious events, such as Christmas, connects the church to the Christmas cave, and a staircase leads from the church to the underground burial caves below the compound.