19th Century Carmelite Monastery Returned to Public View in Haifa

Uncovered: After years of neglect hidden behind a concrete wall, Marie de Sacre-Coeur's Haifa masterpiece allowed to shine once more upon a city that long forgot it.

Gil Eliyahu

An old Carmelite monastery in the Rambam Health Care Campus in Haifa can now be admired in all its glory after being hidden behind a high wall for decades.

The historic structure, considered by some to be the most beautiful building in Haifa, recently became accessible to the public when a wall was taken down and a narrow, uneven sidewalk was converted into a wide and impressive plaza.

Dr. Zvi Ben Yishai, former deputy director of the Rambam Hospital, says he fell in love with the building and studied its history with the help of Haifa historian Shmarya Levy.

The monastery was designed in 1882 by French architect and nun Marie de Sacre-Coeur. But the permits for its construction were held up for six years by the foot-dragging Ottoman bureaucracy, Ben Yishai says.

It was eventually built by a group of French Carmelite nuns in 1892, after two French nuns, daughters of a nobleman, contributed their inheritance of 200,000 gold francs to the project.

"The entire structure is made entirely of hewn stones without a single iron rod," he says. A two-story high cathedral was built in its center, with a large cellar beneath it, its ceiling supported by large stone arcs. An underground water reserve was built in the yard with an opening near the monastery. The nuns planted a 30-dunam (26-acre) garden around the magnificent stone building.

With the outbreak of the First World War the Ottomans deported the nuns from the country. The deserted monastery was used by the Ottomans during the war as a military hospital.

After the war, in 1919, the nuns returned to the monastery. But the British authorities had restricted its grounds, mainly by a massive development of transportation infrastructure in the area. In 1933 the nuns abandoned the building and moved into a new monastery, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, on Tchernichovsky St. in Haifa's French Carmel.

In 1936 the British government seized the deserted edifice amid growing pressure from the British community to build a hospital in the area.

But Austen Harrison, Chief Architect of the Department of Public Works in British Palestine's Civil Administration, objected to converting the monastery into a hospital.

"Harrison said the cost of building a new hospital would be lower than converting the monastery into one. Fortunately for us, he won the argument," says Ben Yishai.

The monastery remained standing and a modern hospital was built beside it, named after its architect Erich Mendelsohn (later to be renamed Rambam Hospital).

The monastery itself remained deserted until the children of Kibbutz Gesher were evacuated to it in the War of Independence, after the kibbutz was attacked by the Jordanian Legion. The children stayed in the old building for a year and a half.

After the Gesher children left, the building was annexed to the adjacent hospital and a tall wall was built around it. Ben Yishai says the clerks of the new state made sure to remove a statue of the Madonna standing in front of the monastery and to have concrete poured in the center of the cathedral atrium, cutting it in half.

"It wasn't to create space for additional rooms as much as to destroy the structure's ecclesiastical character. It's a shame. They did the building an injustice that's hard to repair," says Ben Yishai.

Half of the monastery was converted into hospital administration offices and the rest was used as clinics. Hospital documents were stored in the huge cellar. Two trees that had been planted when the monastery was first built still stand in the inner courtyard. The well opening has also been preserved.

Over the years, initiatives to tear down the wall around the historic monastery were raised. But only after a master plan consisting of a parking lot and several other hospital divisions was approved, was the wall finally taken down.

"Opening the plaza in front of the monastery is a historic moment," says Professor Rafael Beyar, director of the Rambam Health Care Campus.

Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav says "all the streets around the stone structure have been planned with an eye to opening the hospital campus to the public at large and to the residents of Haifa, Bat Galim and the north. The hospital gave up the area in the monastery's southern courtyard for the public good."