155 years of a socio-cultural ministry
by the Custody of the Holy Land
On 28 January 1847, a Franciscan priest wrote in the convent's diary the following: "A Franciscan friar with great initiative, an Arab worker, three young boys and full of good will. Here is the document of birth of the Franciscan Printing Press of the Holy Land". (M.T. Petrozzi, "Tipografia di Terra Santa", La Terra Santa 47  438). The first printed page was written on January 27 and the day after, a thousand copies of the Arabic alphabet was printed. It was "the first printed Arabic that came out of the Printing Press in all of Palestine" (A. Arce, Catalogus descriptivus illustratus operum in
Typographia Ierosolymorum Franciscali impressorum, I: 1847-1880, Jerusalem 1969, L).
It happens that in these days we are celebrating the one hundred fifieth anniversary of that humble beginning of the activities of the Printing Press of the Custody of the Holy Land. The one hundred fiftu years has played an important part in the Custody's eight centuries history in the Holy Land. It is therefore appropriate to remember with gratitude this anniversary and invite our friends to share the joys and gratefulness to the Lord for this gift of the "Franciscan Printing Press". On this special occasion, it is proper to recall the historical circumstances from which the Press was born. The Franciscan records tell us that the Custody wanted to install a Printing Press for the education of the Christians and for the special needs of the schools which they had already been administering to for centuries, together with the sanctuaries and convents.
In 1831 the Sultan of Egypt, Ibrahim Pasha created a period of political
tolerance. At this time, the Armenians and the Jews took advantage of
this period and opened their own printing presses. The Franciscans were
then forced to create their own printing press. However, the lack of financial
support at that time made it difficult to realize their dream. The Custody
had never experienced such a painful financial situation after wars and
revolutions. (Arce, Catalogus, XLVIII). Divine Providence came
through the assistance of Archbishop Vincenzo Edoardo Milde, Protector
of the Commissariat of the Holy Land in Vienna. In 1846, Fr. Sebastian
Frötschner of Vienna purposely trained as a Master printer and bookbinder,
came to Jerusalem with the materials necessary to install a modest printing
press. In a few months, he succeeded in installing the printing press
and in instructing a worker and three boys of the Franciscan parish school.
It was January 28 1847. After a while, the first Arabic book was printed
in Palestine: Al-Ta`lïm al-Masï[[dotaccent]]ï, the
Christian Doctrine or Catechism by S. Roberto Bellarmino.
One more reason for gratitude! The Printing Press responded according to the needs of the Custody of the Holy Land. It answered the educational and welfare needs in favour of the local population with the publication of school books, the needs of the sanctuaries with the edition of the liturgical and devotional books, the promotion of historical, geographical, archaeological and spiritual explanations about the the sanctuaries with the publication of numerous books and magazines.
Glancing over the bibliographical lists and the chronicles of the Custody we could just marvel how the Printing Press was very soon in a position to face the challenges of publishing books and articles of the most diverse subjects in all the principal languages of the East and the West. Looking at the Catalogues from 1847 to 1880noteworthy is the variety of subjects: Sacred Scripture, Theology, Philosophy, Apologetics, Books on Ascetics and Mystics, Liturgy, History, Philology, Geography and Topography, Oriental and Western languages, Arts, Mathematics, Works of Mercy, Music, etc. (see. Arce, Catalogus, LIII). As to the languagies, it is remarkable how those workers who came from modest Christian families of Jerusalem were in a position to print books in western languages like Italian, English, French, German, Polish, Russian as well as those Oriental languages such as Arabic, Turkish, Armenian, Greek and Hebrew! The success of the print shop was such that in 1921 it was prepared to print a monthly publication of the Franciscans magazine of the Custody of the Holy Land in Italian, French and Spanish.
If one reflects on the alternating socio-political situationsin the Holy Landduring the last one hundred fifty years, the survival and the vitality of the print shop appears to be more surprising. Divine Providence has truly blessed the Franciscans that through the printing press their service to the Holy Places and to the Holy Land in general and to the local Christians of every denomination and to the Muslims near their houses has survived the changes of governments. from the Egyptians to the Turks, from the British to the Jordanian to Israeli and through the big and small wars that the regioin has lived in the last one hundred fifty years. To cite an example, a curious note was reported in the "Terra Santa" magazine of September-October 1949: News in our Print Shop: Intertypes, ordered in 1945 (at the end of Second World War), arrived in 1947 (at the beginning of the Arab-Israeli conflict), functioned in 1947 because of the revolution"(p. 180).
The Custody of the Holy Land has given much effort to modernize the machines of the printing press from the old copperplate to linotype, from intertype to computer, from the training of the local workers to working in the more sohpisticated printing shop and bookbinding, from the warehousing of the printed matter to the distribution of the publications. Presently, there is one Franciscans priest who supervises the daily operations of the twenty full-time workers and employees. Needless to say, the Custody's Franciscan Printing Press provides also a dignified social service to the making the families of these workers and employees.
The Franciscan Printing Press, besides the internal service to the Franciscans of the Holy Land with the publication of different kinds of books for the community life and education, for the parish liturgy, for the schools and offices, assures the periodic printing of publication of the Custody's magazines in Italian, French, Spanish, English and Arabic. The publications of the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum (Franciscan Biblical Studies - a cultural institution founded in 1924 and supported by the Custody of the Holy Land for biblical and Archaeological research) are printed by the Franciscan Printing Press. It is important to note that this Printing Press publishes an annual magazine and four scientific series of the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum. They are the Collectio Maior, Collectio Minor, Analecta, Museum and Liber Annuus. These series of scientific books are a collection of reports about the recent archaeological excavations, historical-archaeological monographs, patristic, biblical languages, exegesis and miscellaneous biblical studies.
Since 1982 the Franciscan Centre for Christian Oriental Studies (Cairo), which was founded in 1954 by the Custody of the Holy Land in Cairo, prints its books at the Franciscan Printing Press in Jerisalem. It publishes an annual magazine called Studia Orientalia Christiana-Collectanea and a series of books: Studia Orientalia Christiana-Monographiae. Both these publications contain researches and studies on Christian communities and the Franciscan presence in the Middle East.
Added to these activities, the Franciscan Printing Press publishes books on history about the Holy Land, the Status Quo, the Sanctuaries, liturgical texts and cathechism for the local Chriustian communities. The Franciscan Printing Press also serves not only the Catholic Institutions but also other communities and individual persons belonging to different churches in and around Jerusalem. Although in a modest way the Printing Press is often a place of practical ecumenical encounters of peoples from diferent cultures and religions.
The Franciscan Printing Press is and has always been, at the service of the Custody of the Holy Land, in the name of the Catholic Church. The Press wishes to continue in a special manner on two positions: (1) maintain a Franciscan presence and a Christian voice in the Holy Land were the modern State of Israel coexist with the emerging Palestinian Autonomy; (2) continue to employ Christian families so that they can live in dignity and look with hope to the future.
Therefore we do not hesitate to emphasize that when the Printing Press took hold in 1850, three years after its establishment, one of my predecessors in the office of the Custos of the Holy Land, Fr. Bernardino Trionfetti affirmed: "This provides to our numerous needs in the rapid spread of science and truth; through its means, one obtains easily that which the teacher did not obtain in school or the missionary in the church. This is of great use to us; it constitutes our most beautiful decoration. All the pilgrims will express their great joy. In the end, while we preach to others, in reality it honors us" (Arce, Catalogus, LII).
For all this, let us thank the Lord, giver of all that is good. Throughout these 150 years of the Franciscan Printing Press' existence, our Lord has assisted us. We now ask Him to bless our friends and benefactors. And in our hearts we ghive Him praise and glory.
Fr. Giuseppe Nazzaro ofm
Custos of the Holy Land
Jerusalem April 8, 1997.