Scarcely 500 yards from the birthplace of Jesus stands an “inn” that has room for all expectant mothers seeking shelter. In fact, Holy Family Hospital of Bethlehem is nothing less than a first-class maternity hospital.

Take the case of 25-year-old Assmah, a Palestinian woman who arrived in her ninth month of pregnancy and needed a Caesarean section delivery. The family had no income because her 30-year-old husband, Isam, was on disability with kidney failure. The hospital picked up the cost of the stay, and today, mother and baby are reportedly doing fine.

“Holy Family Hospital is clearly a beacon of hope and peace for thousands of mothers in this region that’s so full of misery and despair,” says Colleen Marotta, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Holy Family Hospital of Bethlehem Foundation.

She explains that families will travel great distances to this hospital because they want their babies delivered in a safe place. Some from Bethlehem’s desert outskirts still ride in on donkeys. Those who live nearby are willing to wait up to six or seven hours at checkpoints for what would be, in less turbulent times, a 15-minute commute.

There’s no health insurance or social welfare system in Palestine, but the people without a shekel or dinar in their pocket know they’ll never be turned away from Holy Family Hospital. They also realize that this hospital, with the only neonatal intensive care unit in the region, saves more than 400 infants a year who need specialized care.

“Without this hospital, their lives wouldn’t be saved,” says Marotta, who explains that complications in childbirth are common here because so many women don’t receive proper nutrition or prenatal care. And the local government hospital is far from state-of-the-art.

Holy Family delivers an average of 3,200 to 3,300 babies per year; it has welcomed nearly 44,000 babies into the world since its opening. It has the only existing long-term hospitalization for mothers in high-risk pregnancies, is the referral hospital for refugee camps run by the United Nations, and has never closed its doors during blockades and other times of societal strife.


Natural-Born Helpers

Kathryn Abell, a member of the Order of Malta and a member of the hospital’s board of directors, sketches the history of Holy Family Hospital. It began in 11th-century Jerusalem, she says, when members of her order founded a hospital next to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to care for poor and sick pilgrims.

Fast-forward to modern times. The French Daughters of Charity ran the facility for more than a century, until lack of funds forced them to close in 1985. But because Pope John Paul II wanted to maintain this hospital as a Christian presence in the Holy Land, he asked the Order of Malta to reopen it.

“They also had to deliver babies,” says Abell, explaining the natural fit. “And this place is so close to where Christ was born and to where the order was born.” In 1989 the Order of Malta determined the best plan was to reopen as an obstetrics hospital because the infant mortality rate was about five times that in the developed world. Now their Holy Family Hospital of Bethlehem Foundation raises and administers the annual budget’s operating expenses of $3.2 million largely from donations, since patient payments cover only one-third of the budget.

One avenue is through the Baby Shower Project. Women can gather to see a DVD on the hospital and choose gifts from the Nativity Registry. Marotta says schools and some parish groups are signing up. “People who don’t have time for the shower can go online and make a donation,” she says, referring to BirthplaceOfHope.org.

The Parish Missionary Project is another way funds are raised. It simply involves someone going to their pastor and asking if he would take up a second collection on a designated weekend or make a donation from parish funds to the hospital.

Msgr. Edward Dillon, pastor of Holy Spirit Parish in Atlanta, along with a board member of the foundation, came up with the idea in 2004. His parish has raised $35,000 in this way — the collection is now taken each Mother’s Day — and other parishes and dioceses have donated $185,000.

Msgr. Dillon’s parishioners include obstetrics-gynecology doctors and nurses from Atlanta’s Northside Hospital, which averages 12,000 deliveries a year. When they go on a Holy Land pilgrimage with him, they marvel at the Bethlehem facility and the fact that it does 25% of its work with just 49 beds.

It has such an outstanding reputation that even western World Bank and United Nations employees come to it — often from Israel, where there are good hospitals.

Abell also stresses that Holy Family Hospital runs four mobile outreach clinics to the Bethlehem area’s remote villages and desert regions to treat exceptionally poor women and children, including many nomad Bedouins living in tents. All told, Holy Family helps nearly 19,000 outpatient women and children each year.


Modern ‘Mangers’

Marotta fondly remembers sitting this year on the steps of the hospital’s chapel, with its statue of the Blessed Mother holding Jesus, and looking into the garden courtyard to see a bride by the flowers and fruit trees.

“Women getting married come to our hospital to get their photos taken,” she says, “so the community comes in not just to deliver babies, but to celebrate important days.”

And they come back the next year having their babies, adds Abell, calling this a place of happiness and peace, where people know there are those who really care about them and respect their human dignity.

She refers to Mary wrapping Jesus in swaddling clothes and laying him in a manger. “That’s what Holy Family Hospital is doing. We are wrapping 2-pound newborns in swaddling clothes and laying them in modern-day mangers that are going to save their lives,” she says, referring to the hospital’s intensive care incubators.

“I think of the hospital as a modern-day inn, in a way, open to all, rather than closed off to the most important human being who was ever born,” adds Marotta. “Our mission is really to the poor. We charge $375 for a full package of prenatal care and delivery — if they can pay. But we get more and more patients and more and more poor. We need lots of innkeepers.”

Staff writer Joseph Pronechen is

based in Trumbull, Connecticut.


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