CNS photo/Debbie Hill

Church of the Nativity restoration is like touching history

By  Judith Sudilovsky, Catholic News Service
  • December 22, 2013

BETHLEHEM, WEST BANK - Helping restore the roof of the Church of the Nativity is like touching a piece of the beginning of Christian history, said an Italian restorer who is heading work on the first phase of the long-awaited repairs.

“I am not a practising religious person, but working on this church is very emotional,” said Marcello Piacenti, 53, the on-site project manager and a restorer with his family’s company, Piacenti Spa, which began the work in September. “I have restored many old churches in the world, but when I arrived here I knew I had arrived to the centre of everything.”

More than five years in the planning and researching, the restoration of the church’s wooden beams and lead roof and its 38 windows represents the beginning of an ambitious project, said engineer Imad Nasser, technical representative of the Palestinian Authority’s national committee for the restoration of the Church of the Nativity. Nasser said that, two years ago, it was estimated that the repairs would cost $15 million, not including the construction management fees.

Though much care has been taken not to disturb the visitors and the church, Christmas pilgrims this year are being met with metal scaffolding, inside and outside, and protective wooden coverings around the marble columns inside the church.

Repairs are being done in several phases, as the funds become available, Nasser said, with essential repairs such as the roof given priority.

Piacenti brought special steel scaffolding from Italy to assist in the repair of the wooden beams inside the slanted ceiling. It will take the team of 10 Italian and five Palestinian workers about a year to complete their work, estimated Piacenti.

The workers have already removed the wooden frames of many of the 50-year-old windows, some of which are pocked with bullet holes received during the intifada, when Palestinian gunmen holed up at the church and Israeli soldiers laid siege. The window frames will be replaced with Cyprus wood, and special glass that blocks ultraviolet light will be used for the windows to further protect the frescos and mosaics inside from the harsh Middle Eastern sun, said Piacenti.

Once workers have repaired the wooden beams, they will make a new lead roof to replace the severely damaged old lead roof, which was last restored about 200 years ago, he said.

Most of the restoration work is done during the evening and nights, in order not to disturb the rhythm of the church, he said, and so workers have witnessed the lesser-known life of the church at night.

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