The Stella Maris Monastery complex has an idyllic location on the western edge of Mount Carmel overlooking the magnificent forest-covered hills, and bay of Haifa. The Stella Maris Monastery location was chosen for its proximity to the biblical site of Elijah’s sacrifice, and where he challenged the priests of Baal to produce fire.
When they couldn’t, Elijah miraculously produced fire on a wet altar. The mount is also where Elijah took shelter in a cave on his journey into the wilderness (1 Kings 19:8. The monastery and church marking this biblical site, are religious and historical landmarks in the Holy Land.
The Catholic Order of Carmelites take its name from Mount Carmel, where their order was established. In the 12th-century several Crusaders came to live on Mt. Carmel wanting to follow a hermit-life like the Prophet Elijah had done. They found grottos on the mountain slopes and established their community. By 1214, they had obtained official recognition by the Patriarch of Jerusalem incorporating them into the church as the Carmelite Order.
They built a chapel and most of the monks continued to live in the remote area, while a small group returned to France in 1254 at the end of St. Louis First Crusade. The Carmelites founded several monasteries in Europe. Meanwhile, in the Holy Land, the Crusaders were forced to leave when the Mamluks took Acre. It was over 300 years before the Carmelites returned to Mount Carmel in 1631, led by the Venerable Fr. Prosper.
He oversaw the construction of a small monastery that accommodated the Order until 1767 when Daher el-Omar banished the Carmelites. Instead of leaving the hills, they established a new monastery and church built over a cave where the Prophet Elijah was said to have lived. They were not the first to build on this site, and to construct their monastery the Carmelites first had to clear away remains of the medieval Greek Abbey of St. Margaret and an ancient Byzantine chapel.
The church was seriously damaged during Napoleon’s campaign in Palestine (1799) and the French used the monastery as a hospital for sick and wounded soldiers. When Napoleon retreated he left the infirm soldiers to be massacred by the Turks, and the priests were forced to leave.
They later returned and gave the soldiers a decent burial. In 1821 the ruling Turk, Abdallah Pasha of Acre, ordered the complete destruction of the church. Soon after, Brother Casini began work on a new church and monastery which was opened in 1836. The Vatican declared the monastery of Stella Maris to be a Minor Basilica.
Before entering the church, visitors should take a look at the pillar and statue of the Immaculate Conception that stands opposite the entrance. The monument was dedicated by the people of Chili in honor of their patron saint. A pyramid memorial outside the church entrance is dedicated to the French soldiers left here to die by Napoleon in 1799.
As you enter the Stella Maris Church the room immediately to your right has a permanent nativity scene on display and an exhibition of artifacts from the Byzantine church that once stood here. This magnificent church has a dome decorated by Luigi Poggi depicting scenes from the Bible including the episode where Elijah ascends to heaven in a chariot of fire.
Above the altar is Our Lady of the Scapular, a statue of Mary holding baby Jesus and a scapular (religious garment). The head of the statue is the work of Caraventa of Genoa (1820) and the cedar wood body was added about a hundred years later by Riedi before being blessed by the Pope and sent to the Carmel monastery. Under the altar is the entrance to Elijah’s cave, and within the cave is a rock-carved altar.
During the First World War, the statue was hidden in Haifa for safety. In 1919 a procession ceremoniously returned the statue to the church. Since then the procession has become an annual event and the second largest religious procession in the country. Each year on the same date as the original procession (first Sunday after Easter), the statue is taken from downtown Haifa, up the western slope of Mount Carmel to the church accompanied by Christian leaders and crowds of devoted Catholics.
If you are interested in visiting Stella Maris Monastery, choose one of our Haifa private tours.