Church of St. Catherine, Bethlehem
Established in Bethlehem, St. Catherine’s church rests within the Basilica of the Nativity and is part of the Franciscan Monastery. As the Parish church of Bethlehem, it serves as an important landmark and tourist attraction for the historical location. The church received its name from the biblical story in which Jesus made himself known to and predicted the martyrdom of St. Catherine of Alexandria. The structure of the Catholic Church/Franciscan Monastery originates from many different historical periods, giving it a rare sense of cultural richness. It is one of the most important landmarks in religious history, its impact on the Catholic Church even landing it a spot on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites. Outside of this, the Church has the honor of hosting the annual Christmas Eve Midnight mass, which is relayed live to millions of Christians across the world.
The History of St. Catherine’s Church
The Church of Saint Catherine has experienced a lengthy lifespan, with which comes a series of renovations and additions. A memorial shrine was erected in memory of St Catherine in 1347 before the entire structure received a large development financed by the Emperor of Austria in 1882. Utilizing characteristics of both 12th century Crusader Churches and the Church of St. Jerome, (which was previously assembled in the same location) this new renovation would only serve as the predecessor for yet another refurbishment in 1948 led by architect Antonio Barluzzi. The church received a final expansion in 2013, allowing for the entry of more believers.
The Story of St. Catherine
While living in the Egyptian city known as Alexandria, St. Catherine experienced a healthy upbringing as both a princess and a scholar. After having a vision in which she was visited by the Virgin Mary, she converted to Christianity and began to spread the word of God. Even as a young child of only fourteen years, St. Catherine was able to convert others to the Christian faith with ease. St. Catherine was persecuted by the Roman people and martyred at the age of 18 by Emperor Valerious Maxentius. The term “Catherine Wheel” arose from the spiked wheel from which Catherine was hung after her beheading. The scriptures preach that her body was then carried by Angels to Mount Sinai (renamed Mount St Catherine) where the young missionaries’ remaining relics are currently kept. Her memory is primarily honored by the Eastern Orthodox Church, where her feast day is celebrated annually on the 24th and 25th of November.
Over the course of its many renovations, refurbishments, and restorations, the Church of St Catherine has gained a wide variety of exciting visual features. First of which are the gorgeous arches located at the building entrance. Integrated as a part of the Crusader-Era restoration of Austria’s King, these arches are a glorious introduction to the historical landmark. There are multiple ways to make entry into the beautiful building. The north transept, the underground caves, the Nativity church or the Cloister of St. Jerome. Each entryway has a distinct and beautiful design that will transport you to a time long past. Two aisles make room for a raised choir and the main altar is backdropped by an intricate stained glass window.
The Cloister (designed by Barluzzi) implements characteristics of the 12th century monastery with a statue of St. Jerome placed proudly in its center. Two altars dedicated to St. Catherine exist; One of which was originally only a tiny shrine within the Franciscan monastery, the other being the resting place of an 18th century statue portraying a young Jesus. The church is finalized by a statue of St. Catherine which stands proudly atop the roof.
The Caves of St Catherine’s Church
No visit to St. Catherine’s is complete without a trip to the underground caves. Shrines and ancient tombs await you within the grottoes found deep below the surface. Within these tombs lie St. Paula, her daughter Eustochium, and St. Jerome. It is believed that St. Jerome transcribed the Latin Bible into vernacular within one of the grottoes located beneath St. Catherine’s.