It began as a place to bring Christians together.
It's grown into a place to impact the region, and the world.
This is the story of the University of Notre Dame at Tantur.
Hill in the Holy Land
The origins of the University of Notre Dame at Tantur
This story is part of a series covering Notre Dame’s presence in Jerusalem.
As one soldier put it, “We thought we were writing a new chapter of the Bible.”
In this story
- Angie Appleby Purcell Notre Dame International’s senior director for internationalization
- Rev. Patrick Gaffney, C.S.C. Faculty Emeritus in Notre Dame’s anthropology department and Tantur historian
- Rev. Russ McDougall, C.S.C. Tantur Ecumenical Institute rector
- Michael Pippenger Vice President and Associate Provost for Internationalization
- Daniel Schwake University of Notre Dame at Tantur’s executive director
- Rev. Gerry Olinger, C.S.C. Vice President for Mission Engagement and Church Affairs
It was June 7, 1967 — the midway point of the Six-Day War. Israel Defense Forces were streaming into the Old City, occupying it and swaths of land in the vicinity. When the war was over a few days later, the region settled into a "new normal" which holds more than 50 years later. Much of the tension and the geopolitics of this part of the world is a result of this week in June 1967 when the map shifted, including around a strategic piece of land that had been purchased by the Vatican and leased to the University of Notre Dame for the purpose of building a one-of-a-kind center for Christian theological research and dialogue.
This 36-acre plot of land known as Tantur (from the Arabic word meaning “hilltop”) was under Jordanian sovereignty just 72 hours before Israeli forces entered the Old City. And the Jordanians had enthusiastically approved the Vatican’s project. Now, Tantur was in Israeli occupied territory. If the new realities of the region were to include the dream of Pope Paul VI in the form of this center, it would require some adept shuttle diplomacy from the project’s leader, Notre Dame president Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, C.S.C.
The origin of Notre Dame’s presence in the Holy Land traces to movements within Christendom set in motion by Pope John XXIII almost a decade before the Six-Day War. In January 1958, the pontiff called for a council with a focus on fostering greater unity among Christian denominations. It’s easy to overlook the novelty of this decree a generation later, but the actions of the Second Vatican Council would lead to a thawing of the icy relations between Christians in the east and west that had typified the previous several centuries. Pope John XXIII would not live to see those events come to pass, succumbing to stomach cancer soon after the council convened. But his successor, Pope Paul VI, would continue the mission. Protestant observers at the Council petitioned the new pontiff for a place to explore the questions of the universal Christian faith. Pope Paul VI welcomed the idea, but the question of where such a center should be located loomed large. Many cities were disqualified because of their association with one particular tradition, or for various other reasons of optics or politics.
The location question was answered when the pope and Orthodox Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople met in January 1964 in Jerusalem to pray together at the holy sites, a symbolic gesture that had very real and tangible effects. They embraced on the Mount of Olives, just outside Jerusalem’s Old City, signaling the first significant productive interaction between East and West since the Great Schism of 1054. East and West would later formally lift their mutual excommunication. Pope Paul VI wanted a lasting memorial for the occasion in Jerusalem, and so it was that the ecumenical center which until this moment only existed in imagination now had a proposed location.
Prior to his election to pope, Paul VI (then known as Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini) delivered the homily at baccalaureate Mass during Notre Dame’s commencement weekend in 1960. It was through this visit to campus that he developed a personal friendship with Father Hesburgh, and it was to his friend that Montini, now Pope Paul VI, would reach out to shepherd the ecumenical project.
Importantly, the pope reached out to Father Hesburgh in his capacity as head of the International Federation of Catholic Universities (IFCU), a nod to the emphasis on scholarship at the core of the project.
“From the beginning, the institute’s identity was rooted in and shaped by scholars devoted to the study and research of ecumenism.” –Angie Appleby Purcell
“If you read the founding documents, it is clear that Pope Paul VI envisioned the ecumenical institute as an academic effort. It was essential that a cohort of universities, not churches, lead the way,” said Angie Appleby Purcell, Notre Dame International’s senior director of internationalization. Her role includes oversight of the strategic growth of Notre Dame’s presence in Latin America and the Middle East, and she served as the interim executive director of Tantur in 2018-19.
“From the beginning, the institute’s identity was rooted in and shaped by scholars devoted to the study and research of ecumenism. I am encouraged and inspired by that early mandate,” she said.
Eventually, IFCU ceded operational control of the project to Father Hesburgh entirely, due to his access to resources and connections already made in the Holy Land. Father Hesburgh set out to form an academic council and develop the administrative infrastructure. The meetings undertaken in this endeavor started to add up: According to his autobiography, Father Hesburgh estimated he traveled over 250,000 miles to make the pope’s vision a reality.
At least some of those miles were by car, in a visit to Jerusalem to scout suitable property for the institute. A series of misadventures and misunderstandings caused their first choice of land to fall through, and a friend of Father Hesburgh had come across a tract of land owned by the Knights of Malta for the last 800 years. But the knights no longer had a presence there. The only habitable wing of what they had built on the property was occupied by Salesian monks. It was an ideal location for the institute, midway between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, but it wasn’t necessarily for sale. Or was it?
In an interview in 2009, Father Hesburgh recalled discussing the prospect of buying the land with Pope Paul VI.
“He said, ‘It won’t be easy,’ and I said, ‘Holy Father, may I remind you that you are the pope,’” Hesburgh said. “He said, ‘I’ll give it a try,’ and I said, ‘Don’t just give it a try, tell them you want the land.’”
In the end the arm-twisting was successful. The Knights of Malta retained a smaller portion of the land (on which they operate the Tantur Hills Hotel today), and the Vatican purchased the remaining 36 acres, leasing the property to Notre Dame for a symbolic figure of a dollar a year.
It’s difficult to imagine a more advantageous location. The land is next door to Bethlehem, bordered on one side by The Way of Hebron (Hebron Road), which follows the ancient road that connected Jerusalem and Bethlehem. From the hill you can see the Herodion to the southeast and the outskirts of Jerusalem to the north, with several venerable sites in between. (One of the early disqualifiers for the property was the perceived inconvenience of getting to the Old City; with modern infrastructure upgrades, the Old City is an easy 10-minute bus ride from Tantur.)
Once the land was purchased, Father Hesburgh called on architecture department head Frank Montana to design the buildings. The final design was stunning: an extensive connected series of buildings that made use of local “Jerusalem stone” and conformed to the contours of the land. In the meantime, Father Hesburgh went to work negotiating with Jordanian authorities over what the institute would be. He had the Notre Dame charter and bylaws translated into Arabic, and worked through questions of taxation and property rights, among other issues. Permits were signed, rights were granted, and the Jordanian government expressed genuine pleasure with the project. Finally, three and a half years after Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras embraced on the Mount of Olives, groundbreaking was taking place at Tantur.
The shovels turned dirt on June 4, 1967.
On June 5, Israeli planes began flying over the Sinai, dealing a devastating blow to the Egyptian air force. The Six-Day War had begun.
When the shooting stopped June 10, Tantur was in Israeli-controlled territory. To be sure, Father Hesburgh always viewed the ecumenical institute as an entity not necessarily constrained by borders, but the practical matters before him now were the logistical considerations of operating in a different nation than the one in which he broke ground. Fortunately, the indomitable Father Hesburgh had a plan. He reached out to Abba Eban, a key figure with whom Father Hesburgh had forged a prior relationship. Eban was the Israeli ambassador to the U.S. and the U.N., and it just so happened he had been invited to Notre Dame’s campus at least twice to speak at convocations in the preceding years.
Tantur: Hill in the Holy Land
“Right after [the war], Abba Eban gave Hesburgh guarantees,” said Rev. Patrick Gaffney, C.S.C., an emeritus faculty member in Notre Dame’s anthropology department and Tantur historian. “So that was very critical because it was important to have the legal foundations with Israel. So once that was known, they moved forward. They started building. There were many other details, but … at the highest level, Israel agreed to let it happen.
“In those days, Israel was less consolidated as a country. There were several founding figures, Abba Eban one of them, who just had big elbows and they could make things happen in Israel because they knew everybody and they knew this was best and didn’t have to go through the normal bureaucracy,” Father Gaffney said.
Nevertheless, Father Hesburgh now had to re-negotiate the deal and re-navigate the approval process, but under a different nation’s regulations. Yet the approvals were gained with relative warp speed (perhaps because of some “big elbows”), and the institute was ready to commence construction by 1968. Unfathomable construction delays and unrest in the area postponed the opening, and drove up the overall cost. Father Hesburgh had secured an initial gift from I.A. O'Shaughnessy to get the project started, and now returned to his friend to reluctantly ask for more. O'Shaughnessy once again proved receptive, famously telling Father Hesburgh, "It's only money." It's in no small part because of O'Shaughnessy's benefaction that the Tantur Ecumenical Institute held its opening celebration on September 24, 1972.
Some places have a feel. Tantur is one of them. In 1884 a description of the site was included in the memoir of Rudolf, the Crown Prince of Austria, who visited the Knights of Malta installation there. He described white walls and castle-like structures (one piece of which still stands). But with due respect to the crown prince, the Tantur of today is breathtaking.
Some places have a feel. Tantur is one of them.
“You ride up or walk up the winding road to the top of the hill, and you come into the courtyard through this castle-like archway,” said Appleby Purcell. “And then you can’t help but look out and you have 500 olive trees that represent the days of Jesus and before, these hearty trees in the middle of the desert that produce beautiful fruit.
“You feel a sense of relief because you’ve just come from a very busy, bustling, somewhat intense, chaotic surrounding and you can just relax and breathe and take in this space that a lot of people say is an oasis, a place where you can reflect.
“You walk through and you can’t help but feel you’re in this sacred and historic place. … You immediately feel, but also are humbled and inspired by, a deep responsibility that you are in this space that you are pretty confident that prophets, our Lord and Savior, and the Mother of God, walked on. And it gives you chills,” she said.
“Our location is indicative of our vocation,” said Rev. Russ McDougall, C.S.C., Tantur Ecumenical Institute rector. “We have Palestinian neighborhoods to the south and north, Bethlehem to our south, Gilo and Har Homa to our west and east which are technically Jewish settlements. And Tantur is right here at the crossroads.
“That’s really what our fundamental mission is about. It’s about building bridges between faith communities, between peoples who have fundamental differences, whether theological, political or ethnic,” he said.
Father McDougall said that from the start in the 1970s, the scholars who came to Tantur “didn’t want to just live in the beauty, but isolation” of the campus. The balance of engagement with the region and its challenges while providing a place of quiet rest was struck from the early days of the University’s presence in the Holy Land, and it’s been intentionally maintained since.
In the 1980s, Notre Dame undergrads began arriving at Tantur for study abroad programs, and the Ecumenical Institute began receiving more continuing education visitors — clergy from different Christian traditions from around the world who come to Tantur for a pilgrimage and ecumenical experience in the Holy Land. Meanwhile, the institute increased its role in the region. During the 1990s, Tantur became known as a convener for various groups, often among those who were looking to work on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. In this, Tantur’s location again proved advantageous: Almost all parties in the region view Tantur as neutral ground, even if access to the site by Palestinians was made more difficult by the installation of a border wall around Bethlehem in the early 2000s. Still, Tantur Ecumenical Institute carefully built a reputation in the vicinity as a place of common prayer among Christians, with active interfaith and multilateral involvement.
The University took the opportunity of the renewal of the lease with the Vatican to re-evaluate how fulfilling the original mission of the project can continue, while maximizing the potential in other areas of study. In 2014, the University opened the Jerusalem Global Gateway at Tantur, utilizing part of the existing building complex. Global Gateways, operated by Notre Dame International, are part of a global strategy to provide students and faculty opportunities to engage in study and research with international universities and scholars. (The University has four other Gateways, in Beijing, London, Dublin and Rome.) Planning for the future, the University embraced a name change; the collective presence is now known as the University of Notre Dame at Tantur, a title that includes the Tantur Ecumenical Institute and the Jerusalem Global Gateway.
“We’re one of only two U.S. universities to have a physical presence in Jerusalem,” noted Michael Pippenger, associate provost and vice president for internationalization. “To be able to be in the heart of a whole series of conversations and dialogues, and challenges and opportunities, is something that’s unique for our faculty and unique for our students, and we are very grateful to be there. And to that end, we’ve wanted to grow our presence, grow our identity. Tantur Ecumenical Institute is there and continues to thrive and flourish, but so too do our faculty and students in a whole host of other ways that we hope will attract more people to learn about Notre Dame and want to be involved with us.”
“I see it as an expansion, an extension,” said Appleby Purcell. “When I think of the University of Notre Dame, and its Catholic mission, that obviously includes the study of ecumenism and theology. But also, we have a responsibility to engage in intellectual inquiry and research across all disciplines, but rooted in a faith tradition that provides a unique and very important lens through which to look at science, engineering, political science, issues of human development.”
The University is taking a sort of three-pronged approach to expanding its presence in the Holy Land. On campus, Pippenger is engaging faculty and the deans of the colleges and schools to consider what kinds of research projects may be a fit for Jerusalem. Some Notre Dame faculty have been doing this for more than a decade: Asher Kaufman, the John M. Regan Jr. Director of the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, has been using Tantur as a base for his research (and the work of Kroc master’s students) since 2006. Awareness among other pockets of the University seems to be increasing: In the past year, Tantur has hosted faculty studying hydrology and the significance of water sources in conflict, as well as the first-ever official archaeological survey of its grounds, conducted by Notre Dame students in partnership with the Israel Antiquities Authority and Tel Aviv University.
The continued cultivation of partnerships with universities and other organizations for academic endeavors in the region is another focus, and part of the job of Daniel Schwake, recently named the University of Notre Dame at Tantur executive director. The number of students studying abroad in Jerusalem increased after the opening of the Gateway, in part because of the unique opportunity afforded there. Students study at Hebrew University, Bethlehem University (the only Catholic university in that region of the world) and Al-Quds University. The chance to experience three distinct cultural and educational communities is something unique among Notre Dame’s study abroad programs.
“This is Jerusalem,” Schwake said. “Maybe today we don’t believe it’s the center of the world, but it’s definitely a center of the world. Coming here, learning about the heritage, the religious factions and the political environment we have here — for our students to learn that and to live it, to experience it, is something that helps them capture, understand this part of the world and also helps them to understand a larger piece of the world itself. I think Palestine-Israel is fertile land when it comes to education.”
Meanwhile, the Ecumenical Institute continues to optimize its programming, carrying out its original mission of Christian research and dialogue in a broader context. The office recently appointed Rev. Khaled Anatolios, the John A. O’Brien Professor of Theology, to the position of senior ecumenical fellow at Tantur. Meanwhile, the institute is looking to augment its continuing education programs to bring faith leaders from specific cities and regions together at Tantur, with the goal of enhancing interfaith cooperation and dialogue back home after the experience.
“Because of the proximity of Tantur to so many holy sites for Christians, Jews and Muslims, there’s something unique about the work that we’re able to do there.” –Rev. Gerry Olinger, C.S.C.
There’s a benefit to the increased opportunity for encounter that the institute and Gateway together provide, said Rev. Gerry Olinger, C.S.C., Notre Dame’s vice president for mission engagement and Church affairs. Encounter with the land, but also with each other.
“Tantur is one of the most significant ways that we partner with the Vatican,” he said. “I think both ecumenical conversation [and] interfaith conversations are very important to Pope Francis and to the Vatican, as well as to Notre Dame, so I think it’s important and a natural connection.
“Because of the proximity of Tantur to so many holy sites for Christians, Jews and Muslims, there’s something unique about the work that we’re able to do there. But it’s not exclusive to just what happens at Tantur. Our work there helps to inform the work we do here on our campus at Notre Dame.”
And while part of the long-term strategic plans for the University of Notre Dame at Tantur may include things like modifications to the facilities, there is little doubt the feel of Tantur will remain the same: a place of scholarly endeavor, but also of community and reflection, amid a complex and ever-dynamic part of the world.
“We are stewards of that original mission Pope Paul VI gave to Father Ted,” said Pippenger. “I feel very grateful, and I think our faculty and our students who have had the opportunity to go to Jerusalem feel this way as well, that we are following in the footsteps of some tremendous giants. And we’re also fulfilling a legacy that is true to the original mission of Notre Dame, wanting to be a force for good.”