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Catholic maternity hospital in Bethlehem carries on work amid serious challenges

“It is both a privilege and a responsibility to champion and celebrate life just 1500 footsteps from the birthplace of Christ,” says Michele Burke Bowe, the Order of Malta’s ambassador to Palestine and president of the Holy Family Hospital Foundation.

Michele Burke Bowe (Image courtesy of Ms. Bowe)

Ambassador Michele Burke Bowe is the Order of Malta’s ambassador to Palestine and president of the Holy Family Hospital Foundation, the nonprofit arm of the only maternity hospital in the West Bank area of Israel. A work of the Order of Malta, Holy Family Hospital in Bethlehem offers state-of-the-art maternity facilities and advanced neonatal intensive care.

Nearly two millennia ago, the Holy Family struggled to find accommodations in Bethlehem for the birth of Our Lord, Jesus Christ. Today, the foundation works to fund this unique teaching hospital, located just 1,500 steps from the site of the birthplace of the Savior. Amidst the violence of the region, the hospital follows a policy of turning nobody away.

Ms. Bowe recently spoke with Catholic World Report about the important work of this foundation, following up on a previous 2017 CWR interview.

CWR: We last spoke with you in 2017. What has changed since then?

Michele Burke Bowe: The pandemic arrived in Bethlehem in early March 2020, creating a humanitarian and economic disaster. Ninety percent of the workforce was left without salaries due to the complete shutdown of pilgrimage and adjacent activity. Families were forced to sell cars and even household goods.

During the first year, each neighborhood was separated and everything was closed except for pharmacies, hospitals, and grocery stores.

Since babies don’t wait for pandemics, Holy Family Hospital remained open, delivering over 4000 babies. The workload increased significantly due to infection control protocols, but the number of deliveries declined overall because there were no weddings. In Bethlehem, “no weddings” means no babies.

CWR: How does Holy Family Hospital Foundation see its mission today as the only Catholic hospital in a largely Muslim and Jewish area?

Bowe: Bethlehem and Hebron are the areas served by Holy Family Hospital. They have a population of one million people and our hospital is the only one that can deliver and care for babies born before 34 weeks.

The Governorate of Bethlehem has 200,000 citizens mostly in rural villages. The Town of Bethlehem and its neighbors Beit Sahour and Beit Jala are Christian centers where the majority of Christians live in Palestine. Bethlehem, while Christian, is the poorest Governorate after Gaza. The economy is mostly based on pilgrimages which were closed down for over two years. Today, activity is just picking up.

Bethlehem is surrounded by a separation wall which restricts movement between Israel and Palestine. The State of Israel does not allow Israelis to enter Bethlehem since the erecting of the wall. Holy Family hospital welcomes all in need of care without regard to creed or need.

CWR: Who works for the hospital and whom does it serve?

Bowe: Over 200 Palestinian employees care for the mothers and babies of the greater Bethlehem and Hebron area. The hospital is an ecumenical workplace employing Christians and Muslims who care for all who enter our doors or who are served by our mobile medical clinic. The Christians are Roman [Catholic], Orthodox, Syriac, Armenian.

CWR: How will the hospital celebrate Christmas and honor the nativity of Jesus this month?

Bowe: The Hospital has already had its Christmas party and Advent is in full swing. The halls are festooned with trees with nativity sets nestled in front of them.

Baby Jesus will make his appearance three times, as in Bethlehem there is the Roman Catholic Christmas, the Orthodox Christmas, and on January 18th the Armenians celebrate the last Christmas of Bethlehem. During Christmas, Muslim staff will help out with extra hours to allow the Christians to celebrate at home and church with family.

CWR: What are some ways the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the hospital and its work?

Bowe: The pandemic is lingering in Bethlehem as a humanitarian crisis and an economic one. Babies are born smaller than before, and the number of premature babies born is double that of 2019. Since the initial vaccines in Bethlehem were sinovax and sputnik, COVID is still spreading. Poverty is entrenched because of the two-plus-year-long close down, and it is clear that it will take a generation to make up for the pandemic losses.

CWR: You work for the foundation in Washington, D.C., but also travel to Bethlehem. What impact has this work had on your own Catholic faith?

Bowe: I am actually a full-time volunteer. I am completely committed to bringing hope to Bethlehem through employment and healthcare. It is both a privilege and a responsibility to champion and celebrate life just 1500 footsteps from the birthplace of Christ. Walking in Bethlehem on streets where surely King David, the Three Kings, and the Holy Family walked brings our faith alive.

It really is akin to what Saint Jerome wrote in the fourth century that a pilgrimage to the Holy land is the Fifth Gospel. Attending Christmas Mass frequently in the Grotto is a reminder that it really is Christmas every day in Bethlehem.

CWR: What year did you start serving the foundation and why do you stay involved as a full-time volunteer president?

Bowe: I joined the Order of Malta in 2002 and became a donor to the Hospital. A few years later, I began volunteering by initiating programs in my parish and women’s sodality to raise funds and awareness for the Hospital. I joined the board of directors in 2010 and became a member of the Hospital board shortly thereafter. In 2012, I became President of the Foundation and was asked to join the diplomatic corps of the Order in 2014. I was named Ambassador to Palestine in 2017.

I stay involved because I believe that all eyes need to be focused on Bethlehem, the birthplace of Christianity, which is in a state of crisis. It is imperative that we create opportunities for peace and help to sustain Christian life in Bethlehem.

CWR: What gives you the most gratitude from your time at the foundation so far?

Bowe: My best moments are watching a mom and dad taking a baby home that was born at one pound and stayed in our NICU for 4-6 months. It is so hopeful. I also love seeing the smile on the face of an older woman suffering from menopause symptoms who has been healed and is now free to leave her home to work or care for grandchildren.

CWR: The Daughters of Charity founded Holy Family Hospital in 1888, but Pope John Paul II asked the Order of Malta to take over in 1989. After the order took over, the hospital grew from 850 births a year to more than 4,300 heading into the pandemic. How has that number changed since 2019?

Bowe: Our big news today is we are joyfully awaiting the birth of our 100,000th baby born at our hospital in Bethlehem. Otherwise, the births are holding steady. During the pandemic, there were no weddings and no first babies. This trend is continuing because the economy has not recovered and few in Bethlehem have the funds for big weddings or to set up households.

CWR: What is the Order of Malta and how can people get involved in it?

Bowe: The Order of Malta is a lay religious Order and a Sovereign entity with a seat at the UN and the EU. The Order enjoys bilateral relations with over 112 countries and enjoys a similar status to the Vatican. The seat of our Order is in Rome, but our origins are in the Holy Land where we began our work 1000 years ago caring for the sick and the poor. The Order of Malta is sovereign and neutral. The Order exists today to relieve suffering and to accompany those who are vulnerable, sick and poor.

The Order has many volunteer opportunities, and that is the best way to get to know the Order and to become involved in the good work.

CWR: How did you become a member of the Order of Malta and what has it meant to you?

Bowe: I had friends who were members and they invited me to work alongside them in volunteer opportunities. I became a member after a two-year discernment period on my part and that of the Order. I am attracted by the hands-on work of the Order.

CWR: If you could say one thing to Pope Francis, what would it be and why?

Bowe: I would ask him to help turn the eyes of the world to Bethlehem to help us preserve the mosaic community that has existed for more than 2000 years and to sustain the Christian presence in Bethlehem.

CWR: Any final thoughts?

Bowe: I wish that Holy Family Hospital would become a household word and that everyone would be familiar with its good work and impact.

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About Sean Salai 16 Articles
Dr. Sean M. Salai, D.Min, is a pastoral theologian. He is the culture reporter at The Washington Times.

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