Nun works decades to save a Lebanese cultural landmark
Enfeh, Lebanon - “It took a lot of patience, faith and determination to achieve all that, in addition to the support of devoted believers and good souls.” With these words, 82-year-old Sister Catherine al Jamal summed up more than 40 years of a fervent struggle to rebuild the medieval Greek Orthodox convent where she has spent half of her hermetic life.
The seaside Our Lady of the Guard convent in Enfeh, in northern Lebanon, could not have better earned its name since Sister Catherine moved in in 1973 to become the sole “guardian angel” of the ruined place, which she has striven to restore to its previous glory.
During the 1975-90 civil war that wreaked havoc across Lebanon, the nun had to deal with squatters, militias and Syrian soldiers who occupied the convent. She was personally attacked, suffering a head injury. But nothing would shake her will.
“When I moved in, the convent was desolated and completely deserted. It was not suitable to be inhabited at all. Nonetheless, I decided to stay and install a workshop there to teach young girls tailoring and embroidery,” Sister Catherine said during an interview with The Arab Weekly.
However, that wish never came true, as the convent was later used to host a school for the mentally handicapped from 1990-2007.
After spending the first two years of the civil war in a convent in France, Sister Catherine returned to the run-down convent overlooking the salt marshes of Enfeh and resumed the restoration process.
“The convent was even in a more derelict state. The church icons had been stolen or taken away by the Orthodox patriarchate to keep them safe and parts of the buildings had collapsed,” the elderly but energetic nun recalled.
“I then started repairing the place little by little because first you have to collect funds and donations. So the work was done gradually… whenever I had collected some money.”
Sister Catherine had to live with fighters of the Christian Marada militia who occupied the convent in 1981. After they left in 1983, Syrian troops came in and stayed for three years.
“They first occupied the whole convent, using the premises I had renovated by then. At a later stage, the soldiers moved to tents in the courtyard outside the building but the officers stayed inside,” she said. “When they left, I had to repair the damages they… caused during their stay.”
Standing on the ruins of a Byzantine convent, which was destroyed in an earthquake in the sixth century, the Greek Orthodox convent was built in 1113 by monks who participated in the first crusade. The western wing of the convent collapsed in 1914 in a bombardment by warships of Allied forces who mistook it for a barracks of the Ottoman Army.
After that, Greek Orthodox clergy abandoned the site. No cleric lived there until Sister Catherine moved in. Only squatters and the families of workers who took care of the salt marshes stayed occasionally in the damaged convent.
To repaint the chapel’s ceilings and walls in the original medieval style, the nun sought the assistance of French priests who specialise in painting icons.
“On one of my trips to France I saw these monks painting their own church, so I told them you should come to Lebanon to paint my church,” she recalled. “I said the convent is completely run-down. There is no facilities, no telephone, no car, no beds or kitchen but they insisted to come.
“That was in 1997. They asked me how do you live there yourself. I said I eat cheese and olives. They answered, ‘Well that is perfect for us.’”
The 12th-century convent, part of the country’s cultural and architectural heritage, is almost completely restored thanks to the resolve and determination of a single nun; otherwise, it would have been lost like many sites that disappeared during the war.
Although there was a growing awareness about the importance of preserving cultural heritage in post-war Lebanon, the means and capacity were lacking, according to architect and conservation specialist Nabil Itani.
“No country in the world has the financial and administrative capacity to conserve and protect its entire cultural heritage. In Lebanon, it is even more difficult because the Ministry of Culture has the smallest budget in the state and is understaffed,” said Itani, who works for the government’s Council of Development and Reconstruction.
The biggest obstacle facing conservation lies in the fact that 90% of the country’s cultural heritage is privately owned and the state does have a big enough budget for expropriation.
“The state can buy one, two or even ten houses, rehabilitate them and turn them into museums to make them self-sustainable but what would you do with the rest?” Itani asked.
One way of dealing with that is to encourage the private sector to step in. “Private companies should be given incentives to take possession of old places. They can turn them into their headquarters and at the same time help preserving them,” Itani said, giving examples in Europe where private faculties are sometimes housed in medieval castles.
In the meantime, Sister Catherine is putting the last touches on her convent’s restoration. “I am now completing the tiles of the rooftop, which is the last work,” she said. “I was by myself all the time. I had only God to help me and all the good souls who donated money.”