Nearly two millennia ago, the Holy Family struggled to find accommodations in Bethlehem for the birth of Our Lord, Jesus Christ. Today there is a foundation, a work of the Order of Malta, which works to provide funding for Holy Family Hospital a mere 1,500 steps from the site of the birth of the Savior.
Holy Family Hospital is a Catholic teaching hospital in Bethlehem, with state-of-the-art maternity facilities, as well as an advanced neonatal intensive care unit. In a region with an extremely tense and even volatile atmosphere, this is a hospital that turns no one away.
Michele Burke Bowe is the President of the Holy Family Hospital Foundation. She recently spoke with Catholic World Report about the important work of this foundation.
CWR: Can you tell me a little bit about the work of the Holy Family Hospital of Bethlehem Foundation?
Michele Burke Bowe: Well, we are 20 years old, and we were started by the request of John Paul II. He personally asked Cardinal James Hickey to fundraise for this hospital; it had been a general hospital, run by the Daughters of Charity. The Daughters of Charity couldn’t run it anymore, so it closed, and they called the Holy Father, who said, “Okay, let’s give it to the Order of Malta.” So it was studied for a while, finally reopened, and that is when the Holy Father said that we needed to fundraise for this hospital in the United States.
CWR: In other words, the hospital is in Bethlehem, but the Foundation is based in Washington D.C.?
Bowe: That’s right. This is because the Holy Father asked Cardinal Hickey – who was the Cardinal Archbishop of Washington, D.C. – to raise funding for the hospital. So at first it was just a campaign, and then from there it went to a foundation. The hospital and the Foundation are now both works of the Order of Malta.
CWR: What exactly is your role as the Foundation President and a board member of the hospital?
Bowe: I have sort of a double role, which is to raise funds for the good works of Holy Family Hospital, and to raise awareness of our brothers and sisters in Bethlehem.
CWR: I know that you recently returned from a trip to Bethlehem. How regularly do you go there? And why is it important that you are there every once in a while in person, on the ground?
Bowe: I’m there about every 7 weeks; this time it was a lot sooner! It’s important for a number of reasons: one, I need to be very familiar with what is going on at the hospital in order to share the good news and to raise funding; but more importantly, we have 170 employees in Bethlehem, most of whom don’t have the ability to travel freely. So for me to be with them, I need to go there. So it is really that very beautiful charism of accompaniment. You just go and walk with them. It’s not easy for them; sending a check or a piece of equipment, that’s the easy part. But being there in the day-to-day joys of running a hospital and taking care of families, that’s really what’s most important.
CWR: The NICU at Holy Family is very important and unique in the region, right?
Bowe: It is the only NICU in the region that can handle serious cases. People travel far to our NICU. We are the only maternity hospital with a level-three NICU. So any mother that is delivering with diabetes, or any kind of heart issue, or any kind of issue that you can tell the baby is going to have, in order to save that mother’s life or that baby’s life she has to deliver at our hospital. So we have people coming up from the south in Hebron, from the desert areas, and from the north to deliver at our hospital.
It makes us what’s called a reference hospital. Other hospitals, if they get a woman in there and realize that she’s in labor at 31 weeks or she has a high risk, they automatically send her to us, which makes us happy because we know we have the technology and training to save the baby and mother, and to show them the Christian values of life; it’s the only Catholic maternity hospital in the West Bank area.
But it’s also very expensive; you can imagine running a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit is about the most expensive thing a hospital can do.
CWR: As the only Catholic maternity hospital in the region, this means that the hospitals who are referring patients to you are non-Catholic, in a volatile region.
Bowe: I like to refer to our hospital as an “oasis of peace,” because we have Muslim and Christian employees working in the service of Muslim and Christian families, and nothing is ever spared, no question is ever asked; just whatever it takes to do the good work of a Catholic teaching hospital.
We have a residency program for OBGYNs and pediatricians. We’ve trained about 70 pediatricians in the West Bank at our very good hospital. So we are sharing our values and our high level of medical care across the area. We’re really sort of the leaven in the medical society fabric there in Palestine.
CWR: How long have you worked with the Foundation?
Bowe: I’m a full-time volunteer, and I’ve been in the position of President for about 4 years, and I was a board member for a year before that, and a supporter for probably 10 years before that.
CWR: Why is the work of the Foundation and Hospital important? What sets Holy Family apart in the region that makes it important?
Bowe: From a global perspective, we’re 1,500 steps from the manger where Christ was born. So we are continuing the work; the poor Holy Family had no place to go, there was no room at the inn. So we want to make sure that, from now on, there is always going to be room at the inn. And it is really, again, that charism of accompaniment and hospitality. We can’t solve all the issues, but we can do our very best to treat the mothers beautifully and deliver the babies and take care of them.
A baby is really the greatest gift of hope for all generations in a family. So when you can take a scary situation and turn it into a fresh little fat-cheeked baby for everyone to hug and love, it just makes life better! Even if you’re living in a village and you don’t have electricity, and don’t have running water, and don’t have heat, you can have a baby delivered and handed to you in a warm outfit and a warm blanket; you know that every week, the mobile medical clinic is going to visit your village and make sure the mother is doing well, make sure the baby is well, and just as sure as the sun rises and sets, that mobile clinic will be there.
CWR: Can you tell us more about the mobile clinic?
Bowe: It’s a fully-equipped medical clinic that goes out on a set schedule every day of the week. It has an awning and a generator, and chairs we put outside under the awning so people can sit (and it creates community); we have a pediatrician, an obstetrician/gynecologist, and a nurse. And the people come to bring their sick babies, or pregnant women or women who have just delivered come.
About four years ago we opened something called the Well Women Clinic, which is a clinic for women who are past the childbearing age, and what we found is that these women who were past the age have not seen a doctor themselves since they delivered their last baby. So these women weren’t having any cancer screenings, and some of them were suffering from problems that come with age. We can examine them, we can diagnose cancer; there are surgical rooms where we can do surgeries that, sometimes, older women have to have to lead a more productive life. What’s interesting is, the women who come to this mobile clinic walk a little taller when they walk away.
For more information, including how to donate to the Foundation, please visit birthplaceofhope.org/.