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Bethlehem and Marie Doty Park


From: Catholic Diocese of Salina


Written by Bishop Edward Weisenburger   

Thursday, 18 September 2014 13:17

We began our final day together in the Holy Land with Mass at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. While Mass and prayer have been the focal points of our days, it was nevertheless wonderful to walk the streets of Bethlehem after Mass and then head to Marie Doty Park to see the location, as well as to take part in an ecumenical gathering of local leaders, including leaders of the local Jewish, Muslim and Christian communities.

How does one summarize Bethlehem? It’s impossible. But it’s likewise impossible not to write home about such a place.

In Bethlehem, outside the cave of Jesus’ birth, Bishop Edward Weisenburger stands before a plaque marking the spot where St. Jerome spent years translating the Scriptures into Latin.

The ancient city of Jesus’ birth is located about six miles southwest of Jerusalem. Again, visitors to the Holy Land are oftentimes startled by the proximity of the sacred sites, which gives an entirely different perspective to Jesus’ journeys, which were always by foot. The topography of the place is mountainous, and Bethlehem sits 2,600 feet above the Mediterranean Sea. When we consider that the Dead Sea is 1,400 feet below sea level, it gives new meaning to those biblical passages where we read of Jesus going up to one location and going down to another!

In its earliest origins, Bethlehem was situated along an ancient caravan route, and for this reason it was a melding of many peoples and cultures. The name Bethlehem means “house of bread.” It was also the famed “City of David,” the place where the prophet Samuel anointed David to be Israel’s boy-king. We also have the prophecy from the Old Testament Book of Micah, Chapter 5, where it is prophesied that the Messiah one day would come from the small and seemingly insignificant community of Bethlehem.

By the time of Jesus’ birth, the town had actually decreased in population to the point of becoming a truly insignificant village. You might recall that at the time of Jesus’ birth, Caesar Augustus decreed that a census be taken. Everyone in the Roman world had to travel to the place of the pater familia’s ancestral town to register. As Joseph was of the Davidic line, he was required to go to Bethlehem to register, and thus it was there that Mary gave birth to Jesus. The town was probably overflowing with others who were likewise registering in compliance with the census, which explains the biblical “no room at the inn.”

Today, with a population of about 60,000, Bethlehem is more similar in size to Salina than Kansas City! The population for many decades was 80 percent Christian and 20 percent Muslim, but those numbers today are reversed. For many and complex reasons, Christians are fleeing Israel and Palestine. In 1995, the city came under the control of the Palestinian National Authority, and the city has experienced not only irregular growth but a constant flow of tourists and pilgrims.

Of course, the city is home to one of the great churches of Christendom. The Church of the Nativity was built by Constantine the Great (some authorities attribute it to his mother) and is actually one of the oldest surviving churches in Christendom. The church stands over a cave that is thought to be the very spot where Jesus was born. The entrance is not especially impressive, but there is a massive courtyard that is filled not only with visitors but with a superabundance of vendors! A 14-point silver star marks the place where the manger is thought to have stood. The original church was partly destroyed by the Samaritans in 529 A.D. and then rebuilt by Emperor Justinian. A fascinating tidbit of history I found is that the church was spared destruction from the Persians in 614 largely because the invaders saw the depictions of the Magi on the walls! It is also significant to note that the historically good will between the Muslims and Christians of Bethlehem is a reason the church was not destroyed during al-Hakim’s rule in 1009.

The late Marie Doty of New York contributed funds to create play spaces for children in Bethlehem and in Gaza and Ramallah.

As noted above, after Mass we visited Marie Doty Park  in Bethlehem. Members of the New York City Archdiocese, George and Marie Doty (now deceased) visited the Holy Land years ago. While visiting they noticed that Palestinian children had no outdoor spaces to play except in the very narrow and over-crowded streets. They observed this in Bethlehem, Gaza and Ramallah. Working with the Patriarch of Jerusalem, they provided the finances to construct three beautiful outdoor parks. Visiting Marie Doty Park in Bethlehem was very moving — it had the feel of an oasis of charity for a portion of the world’s children who have known too much suffering in their young lives. As noted, the Dotys likewise made possible Family Park in Ramallah, one of Palestine’s most crowded communities, as well as Brotherhood Park in Gaza. The Dotys were equally committed to their local parish and archdiocese in the U.S. In March, Cardinal Timothy Dolan blessed a new parish gymnasium dedicated to the memory of the Dotys, who were members of his archdiocese. In his homiletic remarks, the cardinal commented: “I knew them a long time before I became archbishop of New York, because every priest and every bishop in the world knew George and Marie Doty. … The Doty family name is synonymous with Catholic values, synonymous with Catholic ideals, synonymous with generosity.”

Bishop Weisenburger and Bishop Oscar Cantu (left) of Las

Cruces, N.M., meet with students at Bethlehem University.


That was the morning. The afternoon began with lunch and a visit of Bethlehem University. The university is thoroughly Catholic in identity but warmly welcomes persons of all faiths into the student body. The casual ease with which the students study together and share in one another’s lives was immensely refreshing. What an incredible treasure for the Holy Land. I sat at a table with two students, and they were a delight. I must note, however, that they all have grave worries about their future. What is happening in the Holy Land has shaken them no less than anyone else, but perhaps the optimism of youth was the refresher we bishops needed to see.

From Bethlehem we headed to Hebron, a city famed in recent years for violence, spreading Jewish settlements in a Muslim territory and human rights issues. We met with representatives from B’Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights, and it was an eye-opening experience. From there we finished the day at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute, which is sponsored by Notre Dame University. We again enjoyed not only a generous meal but a healthy dialogue between the bishops and local religious leaders, including members of Rabbis for Peace.

The dream and hope of all is nothing less than a true and equitable justice that becomes the foundation for a true and lasting peace.


Bethlehem University Foundation
Phone: +1-240-241-4381
Fax: +1-240-553-7691
Beltsville, MD USA
Bethlehem University in the Holy Land
Phone: +972-2-274-1241
Fax: +972-2-274-4440
Bethlehem, Palestine