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St. Peter’s Church Tiberias *

St. Peter’s Church Tiberias is Catholic Church which is next to a monastery in Tiberias, a town on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, in the Lower Galilee, in northern District of Israel. Much historical drama is found within these walls. This rare Crusader church – administered by Koinonia Giovanni Battista, a Catholic community based in Italy – has a roof shaped like an upturned boat, a nod to St. Peter, Galilee fisherman.

Joseph of Tiberias

Epiphanius, in Chapter 30 of the Panarion retells the stories he heard from Joseph during their encounter in Scythopolis (Beit She’an) around the year 355. Joseph, a contemporary of Emperor Constantine, was a Rabbinical scholar, member of the Sanhedrin and a disciple of Hillel II. Emperor Constantine gave him the rank of count (comes), appointed him as supervisor of the churches in Palestine and gave him permission to build churches in the Galilee. Specifically, Joseph wished to build churches in Jewish towns which didn’t yet have a Christian community. One of the churches attributed to him was the first Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish at Heptapegon (Tabgha), erected around AD 350. Joseph is venerated as Saint Joseph of Palestine.

This Comes Joseph, a convert from Judaism, obtained permission from the emperor Constantine to build a church in Tiberieas where the pagan Temple of Adrian had stood. Joseph, however, soon encountered hostility from his former Jewish associates when he attempted to create a Christian church out of the unfinished pagan temple called the Hadrianum.

St. Peter’s Church Tiberias – Ecclesia Sancti Petri

The Crusaders founded St. Peter’s Church Tiberias in the early twelfth century as a Cathedral for the episcopal see, as suffragan to the Bishop of Nazareth. The Crusader Church of St. Peter had one nave and narrow windows similar to portholes. It represented the hull of an overturned boat, whose bow was visible on the outside of the apse. The Bark of Peter!

Crusader rule in Tiberias, however, lasted less than a century. After the defeat of Christians in the Battle of Hattin in 1187 the church became a mosque. In 1247, the Egyptians massacred the entire Christian population. The Ottoman Turks replaced the Egyptions in 1517. Under the Ottoman reign, Tiberias lost all importance.

During the 16th -18th centuries, members of the Franciscan order in the church, would visit the site on the feast-day of St. Peter. Moslems often used the church as a stable for animals. The friars had to clean out the church before preparing to celebrate the Eucharist.

The Franciscans Purchase the Church Building

The Franciscans, the Custodians of the Holy Land, bought the building (then being used for “other purposes”) and received the firman around 1641. In 1833 they brought a replica of the statue of St. Peter by Arnolfo di Cambio an exact replica of the one that exists in the Basilica of St. Peter in the Vatican. The chains along the sides of the pedestal are similar to those which are kept in the Church of St. Peter-in-chains in Rome (the chains said to have bound St. Peter).

St. Peter by Arnolfo di Cambio
St. Peter by Arnolfo di Cambio

In 1847 a Franciscan monastery was established near the church. In 1870 the current facade was added.

After World War II, Polish soldiers erectedc a memorial wall depicting various issues related to the Catholic Church in Poland and the central image of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa. Dedicated in 1945, Polish soldiers of the Third Army of the government-in-exile erected this in memory of their stay in the Casa Nova of Tiberias.

The soldiers left two very meaningful inscriptions with their work:

  • “To you, Queen of the Realm of Poland, with firm faith in the restoration of its freedom and greatness by your maternal protection over your country and your people, the soldiers of the Third Polish Army with grateful souls offer you this humble work of their own hands.”
  • “The Polish soldiers of the Near East (gave this) to the Friars Minor of St. Francis, guardians of the Holy Land, in memory of their hospitality in the Casa Nova of Tiberias.”

This is the present-day church of St. Peter’s Church Tiberias on the shore of Lake Tiberias. It is dedicated to the bestowal of the primacy by Jesus to Simon-Peter: “Tend my sheep” (John 21,16). The church is next to the monastery.

Christianity in Tiberias

In the 7th century Christians began to a create a presence of Jesus in that city although is does not appear in the New Testament.

During and after the Crusader period, it was difficult to visit the surroundings of Lake Tiberias safely. This led many memories of miracles to be transferred and concentrated in Tiberias:

  • The healing of a leper
  • The house of Peter’s mother-in-law
  • The episode of the woman, a sinner, who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and dried them with her hair
  • The healing of the crippled woman
  • The episode of the centurion
  • The paralytic who was lowered from the roof
  • The Canaanite woman being granted fulfilment (This actually took place near Tyre and Sidon (Lebanon).
  • Pilgrim visitors to Tiberias added additional apocryphal gospels on the childhood of Jesus:
    • The miraculous catch of fish
    • The house of James and John, sons of Zebedee
    • The vocation of Matthew

This helps explain the importance of building a Catholic Church in Tiberias.

Directions

St. Peter’s Church Tiberias is situated on the lake shore at the beginning of the promenade in Tiberias. The entrance to the Church is from the promenade next to “Galei Gil” restaurant.

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