Thousands flock to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, but just steps away is something quite amazing.
“They say it’s always Christmas in Bethlehem,” said Michele Bowe one recent evening from Bethlehem during one of her many yearly trips. She was referring to the fact that the Church of the Nativity celebrates the Christmas Vigil Mass every day of the year. But for Holy Family Hospital, where Michele leads their oversight, the notion of Christmas every day has an even more tangible meaning: The staff — made up of Christian and Muslim practitioners — is celebrating a new annual record of 4,200 births in 2017, up from its last record-setting year in 2016 of 3,600 births.
Founded in 1882 by the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, Holy Family Hospital is the largest employer in Bethlehem with 170 Palestinian staff, many having left to train all over the world but return to work at Holy Family. “They could work anywhere,” said Bowe, “but they choose to come back here.”
This Catholic charitable institution, which contains the only Neonatal Intensive Care Unit in all of Palestine, serves a population where most are likely descendants of the shepherds who ran to be at the side of the Christ Child over 2,000 years ago.
“These families don’t move,” said Bowe. “They have been here 5,000 years. And, on that night Christ was born, the shepherds did something they never, ever do. They abandoned their flocks, ran for a mile, dropped to their knees and paid homage to Christ. Then they ran back to their villages and told everyone, which they weren’t supposed to do either,” Bowe chuckled.
Today, some of these families are still shepherds, living in poverty, often without electricity and running water. The expectant women arriving at their door are often coping with dehydration, malnutrition, and other issues, therefore experiencing high-risk pregnancies.
“These women are fiercely loving mothers,” continued Bowe, “and they know here their babies will have the greatest chance of survival.” In October, one such mother in rural Palestine went into full labor at only 23 weeks. She and her husband rushed to the nearest hospital only to be told their baby would not be viable. Against medical advice, they left the hospital and made the rugged journey alone to Holy Family where their daughter was born weighing only 18 ounces. Now she is 9 weeks old and has doubled her birth weight. “Miracles take place here every day,” said Bowe.
In 1985, Holy Family nearly closed its doors forever due to years of political turbulence, which had also led to financial insecurity. Seeing the serious gap this left for the Palestinians, Pope John Paul II asked the Order of Malta, the world’s oldest Catholic charity, to take on the hospital’s renovation and management. “We do our best to keep the promise of giving people hope, delivering their babies, and taking care. It is a beautiful responsibility and privilege to deliver babies 1500 steps away from where Christ was born. It is a gift of the Catholic people to Palestine.” said Bowe.
These days, Holy Family also operates a residency program for doctors in training and continuing education for doctors throughout Palestine who normally would not have any other options for training due to intense travel restrictions under current policy. However, if you’re an infant with special needs, even the strictest borders fade. Holy Family doctors will routinely collaborate with Israeli counterparts on many cases, particularly if surgery is necessary.
“When it comes to babies, everyone is border-blind,” said Bowe. “We deal with some of the best medical professionals in the world and it is heartening to see them all melt over a baby.”
In addition to their service inside the hospital, Holy Family operates a mobile outreach clinic, traveling every day throughout Palestine providing pre-natal, pediatric care, and well-woman care for those beyond child-bearing years. These women in particular, often having borne several children, are suffering with related after-affects yet receive little to no attention. “We help these women get back on their feet and contributing members of society,” said Bowe. “They get the chance to be restored to regular life and good social standing.”
News of unrest in Palestine and the Middle East filters throughout the world on a regular basis but somehow Holy Family Hospital and its surroundings are “very, very quiet,” Bowe said. Every Friday, Muslim brides come to the hospital garden for photos in front of the lemon, orange, and grapefruit trees that are currently very heavy with fruit. And then on Saturdays, the Christian brides come.
“This is King David’s city, the city of three kings, the city of the Christ Child,” continued Bowe. “It feels like there is a holy protection over this city. Even when things get overheated, Bethlehem remains peaceful.”
A 16-foot-high statue of Mary sits atop the hospital chapel and in Bowe’s words seems to be “keeping watch” over the precious souls inside the hospital and the surrounding area. Mary even provides navigation if Bowe ever finds herself walking in the city and unsure of the return route. All she needs to do is look up until she finds Mary.