We all know the story of the Nativity. Mary and Joseph, exhausted from an arduous journey, sought shelter for the night. Yet, everywhere they turned, they were told the same thing: “There is no room.” Until finally Mary could wait no longer and gave birth to love’s pure light, the Savior of the World and the most important human being of all time in a grimy stable surrounded by animals, hay, and dirt.
Today in Bethlehem only 500 yards away from the site of that first Christmas one door is open to make certain that unlike Mary, no expectant mother ever has to hear “there is no room.”
“Holy Family Hospital offers the love and support Our Lady and Our Lord should have had. It’s the Christian Inn offering the inclusive love Our Lord has for all,” says Kathryn Abell, a volunteer who has worked tirelessly on behalf of the hospital since 1996 and helped to form the Holy Family Hospital of Bethlehem Foundation.
In researching for the article, I became very impressed with Holy Family Hospital’s mission. I know money is tight for a lot of folks right now, but please consider making a donation to this wonderful charity that ensures there’s always room at the inn.
Now for a closer look into Holy Family Hospital, here’s an in-depth Q&A with Kathryn Abell. It’s lengthy but well worth the read.
How did you first become involved with Holy Family Hospital?
I first became involved in 1996. I’m a Dame of Malta, and the Order of Malta, which runs the hospital, needed to raise funds in order to ensure the long-term viability of the hospital, which was growing greatly in patient volume, but not in the funds to take care of the very poor people in need of medical care. Also, there was a need to expand the types of care offered and to improve the standard of care the hospital was able to provide to poor mothers and newborns.
His Holiness, Pope John Paul II, thought it vital to maintain the Christian presence in the Holy Land, and he named Holy Family Hospital in Bethlehem one of his top 100 projects for the new millennium. His Holiness knew that the Federal Association of the Order of Malta in Washington DC had been asked to raise funds for the Bethlehem hospital by the Order’s Grand Master in Rome, so the Pope summoned James Cardinal Hickey, the Federal chaplain, to Rome in 1994 to ask Cardinal Hickey to spearhead a national campaign to raise funds in the U.S.
Cardinal Hickey was so moved by the Pope’s description of the needs of the poor in Bethlehem that he dropped everything in his busy schedule and flew directly from Rome to Bethlehem. He met with hospital staff, but also with poor mothers and fathers in Bethlehem. He visited their homes, listened to their sad tales of life in the occupied West Bank, and held their children in his arms. What he discovered moved him to return to the U.S. and to use all his energies and resources to help to keep their one refuge, Holy Family Hospital, open and available to the poor families of Bethlehem.
Two years later in 1996, Cardinal Hickey asked me to be national chairman of a national fund-raising campaign in the U.S. for the hospital. I had no experience in fund-raising, but I had a lot of ideas, which I had expressed while serving on the steering committee Cardinal Hickey set up.
I felt as though Our Blessed Mother was asking me to take on a job she needed doing for poor mothers and newborns in the place where she and Her Son had been a poor mother and needy newborn. She answered my prayers so often, and now she was asking for my help. Although I had no experience in fund-raising, I had confidence Our Lady would guide me.
There was nothing Cardinal Hickey would not do, no time he ever denied, no traveling he ever refused to do to help Holy Family Hospital. To the end of his life, even when he was failing in body and mind, every time he saw me, he would beckon me over to his wheelchair and ask in a now diminished voice, “How is our hospital?”
How long have you been volunteering with them?
I began working to help Holy Family Hospital in 1994, when I was appointed to a steering committee made up of United States members of the Order of Malta and local leaders of the Washington, DC, community. From 1996 to 2003 I worked almost full-time as chairman of the national fund-raising campaign. In 1997 I helped to form a nonprofit foundation in the U.S., and to the present I have served on the board of the foundation. From 2001 to the present I have served on the international board of the hospital as a representative of the United States foundation.
Although early in my career, I’d worked as a professional journalist, I became a full-time mother while raising three children. When the children became more independent, I assumed various volunteer roles, mostly helping women and children. I liked the independence of volunteering, rather than being tied to a paying position. I’m very fortunate to have a husband who supports me spiritually, financially, and emotionally so that I can choose to be a full-time volunteer.
How many times have you traveled to Bethlehem?
I have visited Bethlehem six times, first as a pilgrim and now once a year when the hospital board meets in Bethlehem.
I visited the hospital for the first time in 1994 on my second trip to the Holy Land. My husband and I were part of a small group of Federal knights and dames on pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
Like all pilgrims visiting the Holy Land, we were awed by visiting the holy places where Our Lord Jesus had actually walked and preached. (I remember being moved to tears in a boat on the Sea of Galilee, when it occurred to me that I was probably seeing in my time exactly what Our Lord had seen in His.) I tried to understand the diverse culture there – the uneasy co-existence of Jews, Muslims, Christians – and I was saddened by the man-made divisions of all these people of God. I was fascinated by the compression of the centuries – people in ancient dress riding donkeys and camels on roads traveled by the most modern of tour buses; peddlers squatting on the ground hawking live fowl as businessmen with briefcases hurried to their offices; women carrying huge jugs of water on their heads as large trucks unloaded bottles of water at a corner store.
Nothing, however, affected me as much as my visit to Bethlehem. Our bus had come around a bend on the road from Jericho to Bethlehem to find a young man struggling to pull a donkey on which sat his young wife and little boy, about 2 or 3 years old. The donkey was frightened by the modern vehicles whizzing by and would not move. The young father pulled; the mother cajoled; the donkey was intractable. I felt I was seeing the Holy Family! I could only think of their journeys to Bethlehem and into Egypt – the dust, the heat, the frustration – how difficult it must have been.
Since I lost my own mother as a little girl, I have had a particular devotion to Our Blessed Mother. I had always been struck that a simple teenage girl had the faith and courage to subject herself to the derision and rejection of the only society she knew to say “yes” to becoming pregnant out of wedlock for the Lord. And to make an arduous trip to Bethlehem on a donkey, pregnant full-term, scared, and yet so trusting. Would I have done that?
Then to arrive in a strange city late at night, to knock on every door, and to be turned away – a frightened young woman in the pain of labor with a baby who could not wait for anything to be born – to be forced to deliver your first baby without any proper medical assistance in a dirty stable among the animals. Did she wonder why the Lord was not taking better care of her and His Only Son? There is no indication that she did, but I wondered. As a mother myself, I sat in the Church of the Nativity in 1994 and prayed to Our Blessed Mother to give me some of her faith, courage, and trust. I hoped I would have been like the innkeeper’s wife who at least took pity and led the young couple to her stable.
After visiting that spot in the Church of the Nativity, I traveled a short distance through the town of Bethlehem to the Holy Family Hospital. Immediately I was struck by the contrast. Where buildings in Bethlehem were pockmarked by bullet holes from the Israeli-Arab conflict and where there was only dust, hot sun, and trash and rubble in the streets, the hospital was a pristine stone building in the middle of a shady garden. Where women bustled through the town hunkered down and eyes lowered, at the hospital they lounged under trees and smiled at visitors. I saw mothers who had just given birth being taken care of lovingly in clean, comfortable surroundings and newborn babies — some as little as two pounds – who were being watched over by expert medical staff with state-of-the-art equipment. Someone had hand-knitted colorful blankets to swaddle the newborns.
Holy Family Hospital, a place of peace and refuge for mothers and babies in Bethlehem today, is the comfortable inn Mary and Her Son were denied. The mothers and babies of today — many, the descendants of the first Christians, but the majority of other faiths – receive the care Our Savior and His mother should have had, the care we women and children of the West take for granted. I wanted to help them, too — to be that sympathetic innkeeper for this inn of inclusive Christian love.
What kind of work do you do on behalf of the hospital?
Cardinal Hickey and I traveled the United States, speaking to gatherings of the three U.S. associations of the Order of Malta and to other interested Catholics. We formed the non-profit, 501(c)3 Holy Family Hospital of Bethlehem Foundation in the U.S. to receive donations and to make disbursements to the hospital.
Since 1997 the foundation has given $3 million to the hospital. Members of our board have been instrumental in obtaining $4 million in U.S. government aid to build a new, state-of-the-art labor/delivery facility and to fund medical education programs, village outreach, and the first-ever preventive medical care for women of the Bethlehem region.
I help the foundation with annual fund-raising, government relations, and media and community outreach. I represent the foundation on the hospital board and work in the U.S. to build support for the hospital.
It sounds like the journey of these West Bank families uniquely mirrors the journey of the Holy Family. How is this true and where are the families coming from?
The Bethlehem of today has many similarities to the Bethlehem of the time of Christ. Two thousand years ago Roman soldiers occupied what is now the West Bank, kept rebel rousers in check, and dictated many aspects of the life of ordinary citizens. Roman military leaders maintained a separate society, disdainful of local people. The local government of King Herod was hostile. The Holy Family was forced to travel to Bethlehem to register for the Roman census. In that city Mary was forced to deliver her baby in a dirty stable without assistance or comfort. Then, forewarned about Herod’s plans to kill all first born males, the Holy Family abruptly had to flee into exile in Egypt.
Bethlehem today is occupied, as is all of the West Bank, by the Israeli military, which, in its understandable desire to protect Israel from dangerous radical elements, harass ordinary citizens who are just trying to lead normal lives. In each of the six times I have been to Bethlehem, I have seen conditions deteriorate for mothers and fathers trying to bring up their children in faith. In my experience, the majority of West Bank residents want the same things every mother and father wants for their children – enough food, a secure place to live, education, peace. However, the World Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 48% of the population of the West Bank is “food insecure,” which means that one-half the population cannot feed themselves. Catholic Relief Services says “life on the West Bank is chaotic and inhumane. While people are desperate to put food on the table day to day, they won’t press their leaders to make peace.”
Like the Romans, the Israelis control the movement of West Bank residents. With the Israeli defense wall (a 30-foot solid stone barrier is not a “security fence”) walling in residents, it is impossible to travel outside the West Bank without permission. Inside the wall, the Israeli military maintains over 400 checkpoints and forbids the use of 45 % of the roads to anyone other than Israeli settlers. While Israeli settlers enjoy full access to Jerusalem’s modern facilities and supplies, West Bank residents are cut off from their traditional food sources, employment, and medical care. It can take seven hours to travel ten miles—even if you are a woman in the pain of labor with a baby being born. You are told to wait.
Fathers have lost their jobs, or, if they are farmers, are cut off from the land that supported their family for generations. The unemployment rate on the West Bank is approaching 70 %. Many people live on $1.60 a day. There is no social welfare system, no health insurance. With little money to buy food, residents rely on backyard gardens and the occasional goat. Malnutrition is rampant, particularly among children.
Life is especially hard for women. They have few educational opportunities, few jobs, few health care options. The typical woman marries at 16 and has four children before age 21. She lives in a remote village or refugee camp where residents do not see a doctor in their entire lives. She receives no prenatal care and delivers her baby alone on the desert floor. If she needs a Cesarean delivery, she dies, because that procedure is not available. Neither mother nor baby receives postnatal care, and the whole cycle of poverty perpetuates.
Holy Family Hospital is a beacon of light in a dismal landscape. It treats every patient who comes to the hospital, regardless of nationality, religion, or ability to pay. It provides Western-style, state-of-the-art medical care for mother and baby. It provides the only long-term hospitalization available to mothers with high risk pregnancy. Having the only neonatal intensive care unit, it treats every newborn of low birth weight and in distress in the region — most often having to absorb the entire cost.
Holy Family Hospital sends its mobile hospital van to remote villages in the desert to treat patients and distribute baby food and diapers. It has funded the training of every native-born neonatal nurse and midwife working anywhere on the West Bank, thus providing one of the only sources of employment for women.
Patients arrive at the hospital by borrowed vehicle, on foot, and occasionally by donkey. Most do not come before the expectant mother is in labor, so most have had no prenatal care. Malnourished, untreated, and stressed mothers present complex complications of pregnancy and deliver more premature and distressed babies, who need long-term care in the NICU.
Describe a typical day in the life of these women.
Regardless of whether they live inside the Bethlehem city limits, in desert villages or in refugee camps run by the United Nations, women on the West Bank have a daily struggle to survive and to protect their children from danger. In the city as they walk their children to school, they are on the alert for gunfire or a bombing which can occur unpredictably at any time in any location. At home, Israeli military can arrive at any time of the day or night to search every home on a street for suspected terrorists, who sometimes break in and take over a home not their own. With no money, women struggle daily to feed their families and to keep their children and their living quarters clean. There is little time to tend to their own needs, however great they might be.
In the desert and in refugee camps, living conditions are primitive, and disease is rampant. For these women every day is a struggle to survive. They tend the few animals the village owns, walk miles to obtain clean water, do all household chores, and watch over their children, who are illiterate like their parents. There is a great incidence of depression.
But the West Bank family is a strong and supportive unit. Several generations live together and help with daily chores. Even distant relatives are drawn into the circle of support, so that raising children and caring for the elderly becomes a joint effort within the extended family. Although families may have few material goods, they have love and faith.
In your opinion, what is the most striking aspect about the work of Holy Family Hospital?
To me, the most striking aspects of the hospital’s work are threefold: The hospital is an international effort; it saves lives; and it promotes peace one family at a time.
The mortality rate for mothers and infants on the West Bank is five times what it is in the developed Western world. Time and again patients tell hospital staff that the hospital is the only bright spot in their bleak existence. There are countless personal stories of mothers saved from dying, of newborns born prematurely whose lives were saved because the hospital intervened. The hospital lives by the Christian belief that all life deserves protection. Without Holy Family Hospital, many who live in the Bethlehem region would not be alive today. The hospital has delivered 42,000 babies since its inception as a maternity hospital in 1990. Who knows whether one of them will grow up to be the leader who will bring peace to that troubled land?
Secondly, the hospital is an international effort funded almost entirely by donations. That itself is a miracle. The second miracle is that hospital has accomplished what it has on a barebones budget. Because it serves the poorest of the poor, who usually can afford to pay nothing for their care, it must absorb two-thirds of the cost of its annual operations. Christians in six countries come together in their universal Catholic faith to support the hospital spiritually and financially. Following the example of the Wise Men who came from the East to the lowly stable in Bethlehem to adore the Savior of the World, so we Christians from the West come to the modern-day birthplace in Bethlehem to support those little ones Our Savior loves so much.
Thirdly, the hospital promotes peace one family at a time. One of the hospital doctors told me that when he wants to get a first-time father to understand what is happening when his wife becomes pregnant, he invites him in to witness the first sonogram. When the fathers see the new life they have created, they’re hooked. Bringing a child into the world focuses new parents in a unique way on their vulnerabilities. They feel unsure, sometimes frightened. When the parents are nurtured and loved, as they are at Holy Family Hospital, they feel peace in their hearts. At Holy Family Hospital, as in Bethlehem, 80 % of the patients are Moslem, yet we are Christians. But, as Cardinal Hickey used to explain, we do what we do, not because of what they are, but because we are Christians. Surely, this person-to-person peace plan is the best plan for the future.
How has your work on behalf of Holy Family Hospital helped you along your faith journey?
I’m simply a mother who had a life-changing experience in the Holy Land and felt called to do something about it. I had no particular skills, and the task was daunting to me, but I put myself in the hands of Our Lady and Her Son, and I believe they have worked through me.
On my personal journey to help the hospital, I have been challenged and have found myself in situations I didn’t know I could handle, but I believe Our Lady gave me the grace to succeed. I am convinced she and Jesus want this hospital to continue its work. I believe we are all potential instruments of God, if only we would listen to His voice and respond.
As a mother yourself, why is it so important to pour out compassion to these mothers and babies? Similarly, how can people in the U.S. help the mothers and babies of Bethlehem?
As I’ve mentioned, Holy Family Hospital is the comfortable Inn in the place where the Savior of the World was born. It offers the love and support Our Lady and Our Lord should have had, but were denied. It is the Christian Inn offering the inclusive love Our Lord has for all and which He came to teach us. We can all be modern-day innkeepers, who, instead of rejecting Our Lord, can embrace Him. In my mind, helping Holy Family Hospital is an opportunity to give back to the Lord for all He has given me.
I have enjoyed the blessing of delivering three children in safety and comfort in the West, and more recently, watching my children give birth to six grandchildren in the same privileged settings. I took for it for granted that we would have the best medical personnel and practices. I have come to realize that this was a gift, not an entitlement. The majority of mothers and babies do not have that gift, so it is up to those of us more blessed to share our blessings with them.
With a mission to help all those who knock on the door for assistance, especially the most destitute, Holy Family Hospital will always be in need of prayers, of encouragement, and of funds. As the number of patients and their neediness is increasing with more desperate political and social conditions, the need for support becomes more acute.
Through our U.S. foundation, Americans can become modern-day innkeepers helping the mothers and babies of Bethlehem today. Concerned persons can make tax-free contributions to the hospital through the Holy Family Hospital Foundation in the United States. They can remember the hospital in their wills. They can also become Parish Missionaries by asking their pastors and parishes to make a donation or hold a special collection of funds.
A new way to support the mothers and babies of Bethlehem is to hold a Baby Shower for Jesus, a party in a private home in which, instead of a baby gift, guests bring a check for Bethlehem babies. The foundation can provide a special baby shower kit to facilitate party planning. Funds collected are donated to the foundation for the hospital.
Information about ways to contribute can be found on the foundation’s website or by calling the foundation’s executive director, Colleen Marotta, at 202-331-2494.
The needs of poor mothers and babies in Bethlehem will always grow more rapidly than the wherewithal to take care of them. I think it will always be so. I wonder if that is God’s plan, so that we human beings — the Body of Christ on earth – will continue to reach out a hand to each other.
In the Church of the Nativity, I heard Pio Cardinal Laghi proclaim the scripture, “She wrapped Him in swaddling clothes and laid Him in a manger.”
Today, in the guise of a two pound, premature newborn, Holy Family Hospital is doing that every day.
*Photos courtsey of the Holy Family Hospital of Bethlehem Foundation.