The Franciscans in Nazareth
Boniface of Ragusa, who was twice Custos of the Holy Land, wrote in 1567 that about twenty years earlier the friars were in Nazareth, where they guarded the Church of the Annunciation. At one point, due to unrest in the country, they had to take refuge in Jerusalem leaving the keys to a local Christian who, "until now guards the house, opens and closes the church and holds two lamps lit with oil, which the father Custos gives him."
With a firman – a Sultan’s decree – obtained from the father superior of the Holy Land on 15th June 1546 the Franciscans were granted permission to restore their church in Nazareth. Evidently, it was the church of the Annunciation built by the Crusaders and destroyed, among whose ruins the worship in the Grotto continued. The church, however, was not restored because of the continuous attacks against Christians that caused the friars to leave.
The Franciscan presence in Nazareth was made official starting in 1620. In that year, the Custos Thomas Obicini da Novara obtained donation of the venerated Grotto by Druze Emir of Sidon, Fakhr ad-Din II. With the cave now in the hands of the Franciscans, father Jacques de Vendôme, a brave and energetic friar of French nationality, remained to guard the Grotto along with two other brothers who joined him from Jerusalem. He built some temporary cells on top of the Crusader ruins and a small room adjacent to the Grotto, used to celebrate functions.
Starting with the killing of the emir in 1635, the friars lost their protection and the Christians of Nazareth were targeted by the Turks in the two following centuries: the Grotto was repeatedly sacked, stripped of furniture and damaged while the friars were beaten, jailed and even killed.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, both the abandonment of the convent of Nazareth and the forced retreat to the Franciscan hospice of Acco or to Jerusalem were repeatedly required. In the 17th century in particular, extortion and looting by the governor of Safed brought the friars to seek justice repeatedly in front of the Imperial court in Istanbul, both to have their goods back and also to have the extortion of money cease along with the restoration of the rule of law in the country. Despite this, their tenacity brought them to open the first parish school in 1645 and to give hospitality to pilgrims in the hospice they set up between the simple cells of their small convent. Even pilgrimages - processions related to religious holidays - despite being hampered, departed from Nazareth to the nearby places of the gospel memories such as Cana and Tiberias.
In 1697, given the continuing difficulties, the Franciscans thought of a solution to better cope with the continuous instability. For this reason they "rented" the village of Nazareth and, over time, three other villages not very far from it (Yaffia, Mugeidel and Kneifes). To keep the rent, the friars had to pay a hefty fee. This practice kept constant until 1770, when they gave up because of the unsustainable taxation. In practice, the father Custos of Nazareth took on the task of judicial and civil servant, collecting fees for the Pasha of Saida and the governor of Acco. It was an office comparable to that of Emir, in other words, Lord of the place.
During the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire began to suffer from internal nationalist movements that were agitating the Arab world. Out of that came a more liberal and reformist Sultan Abdülmecid I, who granted greater openness also towards the right of religious expression. For example, in 1867 the friars were able to open a novitiate for the training of young Franciscans in Nazareth, which was closed in 1940. It was a century of growth for everyone: the Latins, which in 1848 counted 600 faithful, had become double that by the end of the century. Social and parish-linked activities grew as well: the opening of the first school for girls dates back to 1842, joining the two others that the Custody was inaugurating in Jerusalem and Bethlehem. A hospice for pilgrims was built in 1837, which was destroyed by an earthquake and a flood. The current Casa Nova, built in front of the basilica, dates back to 1896. In addition to hosting famous guests such as Napoleon Bonaparte, the Casa Nova also welcomed many Palestinian refugees from the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.
Today the Franciscans in Nazareth have a parish community of 5,000 faithful gathered around the Sanctuary of the Annunciation. The Franciscan Terra Sancta College occupies a large building connected to the convent and has about 800 Christian and Muslim students, thus fostering religious integration. Other social activities are turned to the elderly in the nursing home and the disabled who benefit from having their own centre. Additionally, the Custody built some homes to support the persons in need.