Saint Mary’s Connection to Bethlehem University

The imposing wall separating the West Bank from Jerusalem.Imagine traveling to school every morning, but instead of taking a seamless route, you have to endure a multitude of military checkpoints. Although it’s a frustrating, humiliating and sometimes frightening process, many people make this journey because for some, on the other side of a 26-foot wall separating the West Bank and Jerusalem is a cultural oasis. This refuge is Bethlehem University – the first college in the West Bank.

Bethlehem University opened in October 1973 after Pope Paul VI visited the Holy Land and asked the Christian Brothers to open a university to provide Catholic higher education for Christians and others who might attend. It was a combined venture between the Vatican and the Brothers. A co-educational university, today Bethlehem University serves roughly 3,000 students. They’re primarily Palestinian, and two-thirds are women.

At least five SMC Brothers or professors have taught at Bethlehem University, which is a sister school to Saint Mary’s. Biology Professor Jacob Lester was invited in 1987 to teach comparative anatomy and embryology. Calling it an eye-opening experience, Lester says, “the Brothers completely immerse themselves in the population where they are. They clearly understand what the culture is about.” He adds that the Brothers' strong suit is fitting in and working well wherever they are called to teach. “They make their schools fit the needs of the institution in that the needs of the people are there.”

Brother Ronald Gallagher, president of Saint Mary’s College and vice chancellor (president) of Bethlehem University from 1993 to 1997, oversaw administration, academics, operations and fundraising at the university. He says one of the feelings he recalls from his time there was a sense of tremendous humility.

“People depended on us to keep that university open, and we were a lifeline. And when you see what hardship people have, how many students struggle to even get to school on a daily basis…you realize how important it was for them to have this school and have the opportunity to be at the university. That was extremely humbling.”

The late Brother Donald Mansir, a longtime professor at Saint Mary’s, also taught at Bethlehem University. He led a January Term course in which the students visited the university to learn about the Israeli occupation and how it affected the students. One of his students, Julie Cozzetto, a senior at SMC, says the Brothers had a remarkable influence on the Palestinians’ lives.

“I heard stories that when the school would get shut down by the Israeli government the Brothers and the teachers from Bethlehem University would still teach in their personal homes, even when they could possibly be arrested or killed in the process.” She says the dedication of the Brothers was unparalleled. “They kept teaching because that is what was important –  an education for the students.”

The work, commitment and dedication of the Brothers at Bethlehem University underscores our founding principles at Saint Mary’s College – the commitment to social justice, respect for all persons, and the power of education to transform lives. Because of the Brothers, the dream of mobility and prosperity for the Palestinian people is a little more possible.

By Lauren Hostetler ’12

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