Convent in Gaza Uninhabitable After Taking Fire; Residents Take Refuge in Parish Church

Doctors on site are trying to treat the injured with every means available, but without being able to reach a hospital, some people are at risk of dying.

The Missionaries of Charity convent, located on the compound of Holy Family parish, the only Catholic church in Gaza, was damaged by rocket fire on Dec. 16.
The Missionaries of Charity convent, located on the compound of Holy Family parish, the only Catholic church in Gaza, was damaged by rocket fire on Dec. 16. (photo: Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem)

On Sunday, Dec. 17, the Third Sunday of Advent, mother and daughter Nahida and Samar Anton, who were killed at Holy Family parish in Gaza, were laid to rest in the small cemetery located within the parish compound. 

A statement from the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem released the evening of their deaths, Dec. 16, reported that they were killed by an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) sniper, though the IDF has denied responsibility.

Nahida Anton and her daughter Samar Anton were killed as they were walked to the Missionaries of Charity convent in the compound of Holy Family Parish in Gaza on Dec. 16, 2023. Credit: Father Gabriel Romanelli/Facebook

Nahida Anton and her daughter Samar Anton were killed as they were walked to the Missionaries of Charity convent in the compound of Holy Family parish in Gaza on Dec. 16. | Father Gabriel Romanelli/Facebook

On the same Saturday, rockets were reportedly fired from an IDF tank and hit the convent of the sisters of Mother Teresa, the Missionaries of Charity, on the parish compound, rendering the home uninhabitable, according to the Latin Patriarchate.

Smoke billows from the Holy Family Parish compound in Gaza on Dec. 16, 2023. Credit: Latin Patriarchiate of Jerusalem

Smoke billows from the Holy Family parish compound in Gaza on Dec. 16. | Latin Patriarchiate of Jerusalem

The images of the attack on the convent, taken on cellphones by eyewitnesses and sent to Father Gabriel Romanelli of the Institute of the Incarnate Word, pastor of Holy Family parish, depict a massive column of smoke rising from the building within the parish compound. The photos show that, inside the convent, the flames darkened walls and destroyed large areas of the building. 

“The building’s generator and the fuel resources were destroyed,” Father Romanelli told CNA. 

All the guests of the house “are unharmed and have been relocated to another area within the compound, but their conditions are very precarious. Some of them, requiring respirators, are at risk of not surviving for long,” the priest said.

The Missionaries of Charity convent located on the compound of Holy Family Parish, the only Catholic church in Gaza, was damaged by rocket fire on Dec. 16, 2023. Credit: Latin Patriarchiate of Jerusalem

The Missionaries of Charity convent located in the compound of Holy Family parish, the only Catholic church in Gaza, was damaged by rocket fire on Dec. 16. | Latin Patriarchiate of Jerusalem

The convent is home to more than 54 disabled persons and was “designated as a place of worship since the beginning of the war,” according to the Latin Patriarchate. 

Currently, there are three Missionaries of Charity in Gaza. This year, the sisters celebrated the 50th anniversary of their presence there. They arrived on Feb. 26, 1973, on a very difficult day. 

“They arrived a few hours after the murder of the parish priest, Father Hanna Al-Nimri, and cleaned the monastery walls from the priest’s blood. Thanks be to God, since then, they have been serving the Church and the local community,” Father Romanelli said in a video interview on the occasion of the Missionaries of Charities’ golden jubilee anniversary back in February. 

Since then, the Missionaries of Charity have continued to provide spiritual assistance to the parishioners of Holy Family and to serve “the poorest of the poor” in Gaza. This includes not only disabled and elderly individuals in their homes but also numerous other needy and sick people who reach out to them. 

Religious sisters, including a Missionary of Charity, receive Communion at Holy Family Parish in Gaza. Credit: Father Gabriel Romanelli/Facebook

Religious sisters, including a Missionary of Charity, receive Communion at Holy Family parish in Gaza. | Father Gabriel Romanelli/Facebook

Unable to move the elderly and disabled or to evacuate safely to the south at the beginning of the war, the sisters chose to remain by the side of those they serve. 

Father Romanelli told CNA that, since Saturday, no further incidents have been reported on the parish grounds, but after 74 days of conflict, people are at a breaking point. Resources are scarce, and hardships, as well as fear and tension, are increasing. The priest said that solar panels and water tanks have been destroyed, food has been rationed for weeks, and now there is no more drinkable water. The diesel fuel for the only functioning electric generator at the parish is depleted.

The Missionaries of Charity convent located on the compound of Holy Family Parish, the only Catholic church in Gaza, was damaged by rocket fire on Dec. 16, 2023. Credit: Latin Patriarchiate of Jerusalem

Damage at the Missionaries of Charity convent | Latin Patriarchiate of Jerusalem

Among the most severe consequences of the lack of electricity, Father Romanelli said, is the non-operation of medical devices, including respirators and water purification systems. The doctors on site are trying to treat the injured with every means available, but without being able to reach a hospital, some people are at risk of dying.

CNA spoke to the close relative of a Holy Family parishioner who is taking refuge at the parish after his home was destroyed. He remains alone in Gaza after his family managed to escape a few years ago. He sees no way out, as he could try to obtain a visa, but he wouldn’t be able to reunite with family members, who are stranded in the West Bank, just a few dozen kilometers from Gaza, without valid documents.

Since the beginning of the war, parish committees have been organized for various tasks and survival needs: Some procure food, some cook, some handle cleaning, others take care of children, some prepare the church and manage liturgical services, others focus on maintenance, and some are caring for the sick.

Injured parishioners receive Communion on the third Sunday of Advent, Dec. 17, 2023, at Holy Family Parish in Gaza. Credit: Father Gabriel Romanelli/Facebook

Injured parishioners receive Communion on the Third Sunday of Advent, Dec. 17, 2023, at Holy Family parish. | Father Gabriel Romanelli/Facebook

Just a few days before Christmas, while the possibility of a new cease-fire is being considered, the Christians in Gaza “are preparing like the shepherds of Bethlehem,” Father Romanelli told CNA. “They are doing what they must do, with great faith and great hope in heaven.” 

At Holy Family parish, prayers and liturgies continue without interruption. 

“They ask for prayers for peace and appeal to all those with the power to decide to cease fire and ensure that the wounded and sick receive care,” Father Romanelli said. “Let us pray for peace, for everyone to be healed, for the release of hostages, and for Christmas to bring a breath of peace to the entire Holy Land.”

Edward Reginald Frampton, “The Voyage of St. Brendan,” 1908, Chazen Museum of Art, Madison, Wisconsin.

Which Way Is Heaven?

J.R.R. Tolkien’s mystic west was inspired by the legendary voyage of St. Brendan, who sailed on a quest for a Paradise in the midst and mists of the ocean.