Bethlehem, P.O.Box 261, Palestine +970-274-3244 info@lasallebethlehem.org

School History

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125 year celebration

125 year celebration

School History

As soon as the De La Sallef Brothers of the Christian Schools (Freres) settled in Jerusalem in 1876, they naturally looked forward to establish a school in Bethlehem to provide high quality education to the young boys of the town. Brother Evagre, who was Principal at that time of Collège des Frères in Jerusalem, worked indefatigably towards this end. The purchase of the land on a hilltop north of the town of Bethlehem was concluded in 1889. Thirteen thousand sq. m. of land were bought from 17 landowners. Br. Evagre entrusted the supervision of the construction work to the 21-year old Br. Ismael-Marie who lived in Bethlehem until his death in 1959.

In the spring of 1890, "The foundation stone was laid secretly on a Sunday evening at a depth of 2 me¬ters." (Bethléem, Rela¬tion sur I'achat et la construction de la pro-priete, by Br. Ismael-Marie, p. 6). The secrecy is explained by the fact that the Broth¬ers had not yet ob-tained the "Firman" (construction permit) from the Turkish "Sublime Gate." It was granted on No¬vember 20, 1892. In 1894 the two-storey building was ready to house the Junior and Senior Novitiates, the former transferred from Jerusalem, and the latter from Ramleh, Palestine, and Alexandria (Egypt). The statistics of Dec. 31, 1894 show the presence of "... 9 novices, 12 junior novices ... [and] all in all 12 Brothers." (Historique 1,1900-1936, p. II). In 1907, the Viscountess de Coetlosquet from France contributed a large sum towards the building of the chapel of the ADC (Archconfraternity of the Divine Child). On September 15,1909 the Brothers opened a school for the young boys of Bethlehem. Thirty-five students enrolled in three classrooms. January 25, 1914: "Br. Evagre, Founder of the Prov¬ince of the Orient died. He was buried [in Bethlehem] in the presence of a large attendance." Messages of sympathy ar¬rived from all over the world. (Bethlehem University Ar¬chives, Box AI, History of College des Frères, Bethlehem).

October 31, 1914: News reaches the Bro¬thers that war has been declared by Great Brit-ain, France, and Rus¬sia against Turkey. December 12, 1914: Forty-one priests and religious, all French nationals, including De La Salle Brothers were expelled to Beirut by the Turkish authorities (cf. Apercu hitorique relatif a la maison des Freres de Bethlehem durant la Grande Guerre aout 1914 - dec. 1917).

During the war, the Brothers' building was used as a temporary halting post for soldiers on the move as well as a storage warehouse for food and ammunition. Hordes of soldiers (the archives mention an estimate of 18,000) of di¬verse nationalities (Turks, Arabs, Kurds, Circassians, Germans, Austrians) and herds of camels and horses were given temporary shelter on the premises one time or another. "The Allies entered Bethlehem in the morning of December 9, 1917. The Brothers regained their resi¬dence some ten days later." (Id. p. 7)

December 21,1929: "His Eminence the Patriarch, Mgr. Louis Barlassina blesses the big [tower] the chime, and the statue of the child Jesus which is in the ADC chapel." (Historique 1,1900-1936) December 12,1914: Forty-one priests and religious, all French nationals, including 17 De La Salle Brothers were expelled to Bei¬rut, Lebanon by the Turkish authorities (cf. Aperfu historique relatif a la maison des Frères de Bethleem durant la Grande Guerre aout 1914 - dec. 1917).

Around the end of 1934, the Brothers are granted permission to purchase the plot of land to the west of their property and adjoining it. In 1936 fighting breaks out between Palestinian Arabs and Jews because of increasing Jewish emigration and settlement in Palestine at the height of the British mandate. This was in addition to a General strike and boycott of the Jews called for by the Arabs. "Not one night goes by without artillery barrage and fighting... However, our schools remain open although some attempts are made (by outsiders) to disrupt their normal operation, using violence against the of the school." (id.)

Describing the difficulty of communication between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, the writer states a few lines further "One could barely find any means of transportation other than a bicycle or a horse. The only facility that continued to operate was the mail service...The official language is French. Yet, Arabic and English are given as much care as is accorded to French. Arabic is the mother tongue of the majority. Teaching English is a must because of the [British] mandate..." (Journal de la Communaute, Avril 1929-Juillet l934.Cf. also Historique I 1900 - 1936). May 28, 1940: "...our Brothers, Ger¬man and Austrian na¬tionals, are incarcer¬ated by order of the British authorities." (Historique II, p. 14) "During the month of April around fifty stu¬dents are driven by the [current] events to leave school. The par¬ents of several among them leave [the country] looking for shelter under more peaceful skies." (id. p. 37) That was only the beginning of the continued departure of many students due to the continuous fighting and blood shed between the Palestinian Arabs and Jews, reaching a peak in May 1948 which saw the end of the british mandate and the violent birth of the State of Israel over two thirds of historical Palestine. Tens of thousands of Palestinians from cities and villages in those areas proclaimed as Israel were expelled from their homes becoming refugees in other parts of Palestine or in neighbouring countries. Families were separated from each other and entire communities destroyed. Jerusalem became a divided city with the eastern part remaining with the Arabs as did. Bethlehem which was in the remaining one third later annexed to Jordan and became known as the West Bank. In June 1948 there were six Brothers and four lay teach¬ers running the school for 162 students spread over six classes. No disruption of studies is mentioned despite the raging Arab-Israeli conflict (id. p. 41).

On March 17, 1957 the permit to open a Novitiate on the premises was granted by Rome. The original Senior Novitiate had been closed in 1908. Candi¬dates for the religious life as De La Salle Brothers came mainly from Lebanon and Pal¬estine. When in June 1965 nobody came, the Novitiate was closed down. In March 1957, a complete restoration of the Chapel was un¬dertaken by the French painter, Robert Laban. He worked on the frescoes and paintings till December 1958. June 1967 witnessed another violent event; the six-day war whereby Israel occupied the remaining one third of ancient Palestine including Bethlehem which was bombed by the Israelis resulting in several fatalities and damage to many buildings including that of the Brothers’ school.

In 1973 the Brothers' property in Bethlehem was destined to house Bethlehem University, a plan initiated by the Vatican to help the local high school graduates accede to university education and, in this manner, try to stem the flow of emigration. The school had to be phased out. However, on the insistence of the local population to maintain the Brothers' school in Bethlehem, the Vatican had a new school built for this purpose, in the south-western part of the town. Stu¬dents, Faculty, and Staff were moved there in 1975. This is where the Collège des Frères continues to provide a Lasallian edu¬cation to more than seven hundred boys and girls from the Bethlehem region. The school continues to operate in a volatile environment with unstable and often very difficult socio-economic conditions aggravated by the construction by Israel of an 8 meter concrete wall separating Israel and lands confiscated by Israel from areas administered by the Palestinian Authority including Bethlehem since 1996.