The most beautiful church in Jerusalem is often overlooked

By John F. Fink

As we approach Holy Week and meditate on Jesus’s suffering and death, I thought I should tell you about a church that has a direct connection with those events. It’s not the Basili-ca of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Yes, that’s the holiest shrine in Chistendom, but the Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu should not overlooked, and it frequently is.

Most archeologists believe that the Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu sits over the high priest Caiaphas’s home, although it cannot be proved. According to the diary of the anonymous Pilgrim of Bordeaux in 333, “Going up from the Pool of Siloam to Mount Zion one would come across the House of the Priest Caiaphas.” This is where Jesus was taken after his arrest.

The home would have been a large villa. Excavations have uncovered an almost com-plete set of Hebrew measures, a stone mill, a dungeon, a courtyard, servants’ quarters and re-mains of a Byzantine church. The Byzantine church was erected in 457, but was destroyed by the Fatimid caliph Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah in 1010. The Crusaders rebuilt the church in 1102, but after the fall of Jerusalem it again fell into ruin.

The present church, built by the Assumptionist Fathers in 1931 and renovated in 1997, is, I believe, the most beautiful church in Jerusalem. “In Gallicantu” means “Cock Crow” and refers to the fact that this is where St. Peter three times denied knowing Christ before the cock crowed.

In a courtyard next to the church is a magnificent sculpture showing Peter denying that he knew Christ. The expressions on the faces of Peter, the woman who is pointing toward Christ, and a Roman soldier are marvelous. There is also a cock on the top of a column in the sculpture.

Nearby, at the top of the steps leading from the Pool of Siloam, are two reliefs, one of Christ leading his apostles down the steps to Gethsemane and the other of Christ being dragged up the steps after his arrest.

In the church itself, Peter’s repentance rather than his denial is commemorated. There are fabulous mosaics on either side of the altar, one of men repenting (with the Good Thief as the center) and the other of women repenting (with Mary Magdalene as the center). But the largest mosaic, over the altar, shows Christ being tried by the Sanhedrin.

Still another mosaic shows Christ being led down the steps from Caiaphas’s home, looking back at Peter who apparently has just denied him. The text under the mosaic, though, rather than describing the scene, has the words of Christ, “Thou art Peter and upon this Rock I will build my church.”

The ceiling of the church is dominated by a huge cross-shaped window designed in a variety of colors.

There are more chapels at the level under the main church. This level is built over Caia-phas’s prison. Christ was probably kept in this prison after his arrest and, again, after his in-dictment. Visitors to the Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu can climb down into this dungeon. On my first visit to the church, my small group had Mass there, celebrated by Msgr. John P. Foley, who would later become Cardinal John Foley, grand master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem.