The construction of the church of Gethsemane

Father Custos Ferdinando Diotallevi (1918-1924)

Father Custos Ferdinando Diotallevi (1918-1924) is remembered, among other things, for the construction of the churches at Gethsemane and on Mount Tabor. The construction of the church of Gethsemane was to see the involvement of a range of figures who were active in Palestine at the beginning of the twentieth century, from different religious as well as political backgrounds.

The discovery in 1891 of the ancient Crusader ruins of the Church of the Savior at Gethsemane provided the basis for the construction of a new church. The initial desire to reconstruct the church soon ran into a roadblock due to the presence on the Franciscan property of the column known as the “Kiss of Judas”, on account of which the Greek and Armenian Orthodox refused to waive their right of passage allowing Eastern Christians to pray at the site commemorating Jesus' prayer in the garden.

With the end of the period of the support of the Tsar to the Greeks, new obstacles arose to the Custody’s plan to construct a new church in Gethsemane. The first of these was the intention expressed by the archbishop of Toulouse, Mgr. Jean-Augustin Germain, to build a “French National Temple” on the Mount of Olives dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. On the advice of the Propaganda Fide, Custos Diotallevi wrote to the archbishop of Toulouse attempting to dissuade him from carrying out this plan, and inviting him instead to support the reconstruction of the church of Gethsemane to be carried out by the Franciscans.

Meanwhile, the Custody carried out all of the operational steps necessary for starting the project: the task of designing the new church was given to the Italian engineer and architect Antonio Barluzzi who managed, not without great effort, to obtain the permission of the Greeks to move the “Kiss of Judas” column beyond the area of the foundations of the medieval church. Despite the difficult economic situation in which the Custody found itself, the Minister General of the Order, Serafino Cimino, assured Diotallevi that there would be no lack of financial support for the construction of the new sanctuaries.

On 17 October 1919, on the occasion of the seven hundredth anniversary of the founding of the Custody of the Holy Land, Cardinal Filippo Giustini, Protector of the Order of Friars Minor and papal legate in Palestine, placed the first stone for the new sanctuary in Gethsemane.

Despite the fact that Pope Benedict XV was supporting the Custody’s project, Archbishop Germain of Toulouse refused to give up on his idea of building a church on the Mount of Olives. The French government had been given the land believed to be lying above the remains of the Constantinian Church of the Eleona, the present-day Pater Noster, and this was the place where the great church was supposed to be erected, with the first stone laid on 2 January 1920. The British, the mandatory power in Palestine, did not look favorably on this French initiative that was based on the supremacy of the French protectorate over the Palestinian territories. In any event, the construction was not destined for success, and seven years later the works were definitively suspended for lack of funds.

The British Governor of Jerusalem, Ronald Storrs, did not provide any support for the Franciscan project, for reasons linked both to his Protestant faith and his aesthetic sense. On 19 July 1920 the British High Commissioner for Palestine Herbert Samuel ordered that all works be suspended. Meanwhile, the sensational discovery of the “entire foundations” of the church from the second half of the fourth century, the one seen by Egeria and destroyed by the Persians, allowed the Custody to maintain its hopes of carrying out the works to a successful conclusion. Prof. John Garstang, Director of the Palestinian Department of Antiquities, issued a favorable opinion for carrying out excavations.

This discovery led to a great deal of agitation on the part of the Greeks who in October 1920, on the pretext of an opening made in the wall enclosing the Franciscan property at Gethsemane, appealed to the Mandatory Government and violent clashes ensued. The works were suspended and the awkward mediation by the Latin Patriarch was of little assistance. The Greeks asserted their right to absolute ownership of the site of Gethsemane and the future church.

Work in progress at Gethsemane at the beginning of the twentieth century

A month and a half later, thanks to the diplomatic activities of the Custos, the works at Gethsemane were able to recommence. The construction of the external wall and the new door once again stirred up the Greeks who, armed with sticks, came to Gethsemane and destroyed the works that had been carried out and attempted to occupy the land. After hours of tension an accord was reached which allowed the continuation of the excavations by the Franciscans under the supervision of the Department of Antiquities.

The obstacles were slowly being removed, partly due to dissensions among the Greeks who during this period were less than unanimous in their support of their patriarch Damianos, generally considered to be too weak in terms of standing up to the British in general and, in the specific case of Gethsemane, to the Franciscans.

Permission to proceed with the new project designed by Barluzzi for the construction of the church was not received until 6 January 1922. It stipulated the eventual repositioning of the “Kiss of Judas” column along the external wall of the Franciscan property, in order to permit free access by the Orthodox faithful who came to venerate it. Over time this “right-of-way”, and other claimed rights of the Greeks to the Franciscan property, were replaced by a bilateral agreement.
In the end, and due in part to the birth of the magazine Terra Santa which spread the news about Gethsemane around the world, economic support for the project arrived from numerous Catholic countries, on account of which the church is now called the Church of All Nations.
Thanks to the rapid work of four hundred laborers, the inauguration of the church at Gethsemane was able to take place on 15 June 1924 in front of numerous ecclesiastical and civil authorities. In order to allow Custos Diotallevi to officiate at the inauguration of the churches of Gethsemane and Tabor, his term as Custos was extended for six months beyond the six years he had already served.

The construction of the church

The architect Antonio Barluzzi

The decoration of the apse