Large groups of pilgrims began coming to the Holy Land in 1882 under the direction of French Assumptionists. The experience gained from these pilgrimages prompted the religious to build a center for French pilgrims similar to the one on Jaffa Road for Russian pilgrims. The location of the new center would be right next to the Holy City.
A Planning Committee was quickly set up. The count of Piellat, who had been searching for a plot of land in Jerusalem on behalf religious communities, found a 4,000 square meters of land right next to the French Hospital of St. Louis des Francais.
Thanks to the help of generous benefactors, the Assumptionists were able to acquire this property, and preparations began under the direction of Father Germer-Durand, A.A. The cornerstone was officially laid on June 10th, 1885.
With the generous aid of thousands of French pilgrims and numerous donors, the complex was completed according to Abbe Brisacier's original plan, harmoniously combining architectural sobriety, a contemporary style, and an arabesque influence. In 1886, Monseigneur Poyet of Lyons, the Vicar General of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, proposed the name for the new building: "Notre Dame de France."
In 1888, Notre Dame received its first pilgrims. The cornerstone of the chapel was laid during the Eucharistic World Congress of 1893, and the chapel was consecrated in 1894. In 1904, after twenty years of ongoing construction, the house was completed and crowned with the great statue of the Virgin Mary, a replica of Our Lady of Salvation in Paris.
Notre Dame de France Pilgrim Center met the requirements for the new types of large pilgrimages in which 500 pilgrims would arrive and depart at the same time on special ships equipped with chapels. At Notre Dame de France, the pilgrims found accommodations commensurate with their numbers. The Assumptionists assisted them spiritually and served as guides as they visited the Holy Places.The great success of this spiritual undertaking was recognized by the civil authorities who granted the institution numerous privileges embodied in the Treaties of Mytylene (1901) and Constantinople (1913), and later confirmed by the State of Israel in the Chauvel/Fischer Exchange of Letters (1948-49).
Until the First World War, the building also served as a seminary for future Assumptionists. The scientific research and the publications of its staff gave it an excellent reputation. Particularly famous was its museum which, unfortunately, was almost completely destroyed in subsequent outbreaks of hostility.After the Second World War, the building was heavily damaged during the Israeli – Arab conflict of 1948.
The south wing, facing the Old City, became uninhabitable as a result of the explosion of two bombs, and became an Israeli guard post. The north wing and the small houses in the garden were occupied by numerous refugees. The Assumptionists lived in the central wing next to the chapel and continued their mission, offering their traditional hospitality to greatly reduced numbers of faithful pilgrims.
Even after the borders were reopened, the situation did not improve. Maintenance costs became prohibitive because the remaining religious could no longer depend on outside help. The situation having become untenable, the center was eventually turned over to the Holy See oh March 2nd, 1972 and restored to its original status as a pilgrim center.
The reconstruction and rehabilitation of the Notre Dame center was a project very dear to Pope Paul VI. Professor Frank Montana, an architect from Notre Dame University in Indiana, USA, planned the reconstruction and enlargement of the main edifice. Mr. Joseph Khoury, an engineer from Jerusalem, carried out the actual construction process, and Abraham Suchovolsky of Tel Aviv assisted in the resolution of legal difficulties. The project was possible largely because of the financial assistance of Catholics from the United States of America.
And so, starting in 1973, Notre Dame of Jerusalem was gradually resurrected as the Holy See's international pilgrim center. On December 27th, 1978, the heads of the seven Catholic rites represented in Jerusalem, the Apostolic Delegate, and the Charge of the Holy See for the Notre Dame center, gathered in Jerusalem for a special event: His Eminence Cardinal Terence J. Cooke, Archbishop of New York, officially promulgated the decree signed by His Holiness Pope John Paul II which established the center as a Pontifical Institute and an ecumenical holy place. Archbishop Cooke also rededicated the chapel and restored it to public worship. Finally, on February 2nd, 1981 the Holy See published the Statutes of the Pontifical Institute to furnish a solid basis for the center's functioning.
In 1978, Monsignor Mathes was assigned by the Holy See as Charge of the Notre Dame Center, and remained in this office for 20 years. He was a very reconciling man who loved the Palestinian people and was very committed to help them in any way he could.
In December of 1987, the first so-called Intifada (in English: uprising) broke out and lasted until the end of the year 1990. It had very severe effects on the social and political situation of the country and particularly for the pilgrimages in the Holy Land. In addition, the Golf War in January 1991 caused a great shortage in pilgrimages coming to the Holy Land. August 1991 saw a slow recovery of the situation.
During these years, AMonsignor Mathes made an extraordinary effort to support the suffering population. In 1998, he started up an initiative to create a hospitality college which would assure a future to Palestinian youth. During the worst and most dangerous moments of the Intifada, he opened the doors of Notre Dame Center to offer accommodations to many families.
As the situation grew worse, Monsignor Mathes managed to finance a great part of the salaries of the staff of Notre Dame with the help of donations from abroad. Because of these efforts, the staff did not have to be reduced and the employees were able to receive their salaries during those difficult years. All who knew him remember him as a man who was always available for others, with an open ear and an open heart for all.
After the Intifada and the Golf War of 1991, the situation became more stable and Notre Dame was able to function normally again.In 1998, Don Aldo Tolotto was assigned as the new Charge for the Notre Dame Center. He made a very positive contribution with renovations in the center and was frequently seen working together with the employees to keep Notre Dame of Jerusalem in good condition.Difficult years started when the second Intifada broke out on September 28th, 2000 and the occupancy of the Notre Dame Center dropped drastically. On September 1st, 2001, the Notre Dame Center had to be closed. It reopened its doors for groups again at the end of March 2002. During the following years the directive team of Notre Dame had to struggle with low numbers of groups visiting the Holy Land. But there were loyal promoters of pilgrimages who even in those unstable years would come each year with their groups. In 2004, a slow recovery began.
On November 26th, 2004 His Holiness Pope John Paul II entrusted the Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center to the legionaries of Christ with a Motu Proprio.
His words were: "In order to ensure the stability and continuity of the Pontifical Institute 'Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center', we have considered it fitting to entrust it to the care and direction of the Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ". Fr. Juan Maria Solana, LC, was assigned as the new Charge.
The priests of the Legionaries or Christ are supported in their mission by an international apostolic movement for laypeople, Regnum Christi, which shares their same spirituality and apostolic charisma at the service of the Church. It is formed by young people and adults, deacons and priests and counts on members in more then 45 countries. Its mission could be summed up: Love Christ, Serve People, Build the Church – forming a society of Christian justice and charity.
At present, the "Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center" has the following sections:
- A guest house for religious and pilgrims which also serves as an ecumenical and pastoral center for Jerusalem Christians, thus promoting the encounter between the local and universal Church;
- A professional promotion center for local Palestinian youth;
- A permanent exhibition "Who is the Man of the Shroud?" on the Shroud of Turin.
Moreover, several ecclesiastical offices and bureaus are accommodated in the center, which also organizes and gives pastoral care to pilgrims from every country in the world. Its ecumenical character is assured by its establishment as a Prelatura nullius.
By all of these means, the Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center intends to fulfill the mission entrusted to it by His Holiness Pope John Paul II, who stated in his Decree, "We dedicate this Center to Our Lady of Jerusalem, Regina Pacis (Queen of Peace), and offer it to the world as a place of fruitful spiritual development".