Letter written by Mrs. Mary Hollenbaugh and sent to Sister Emerenziana …

(February 2011)

Picture: Hollenbaugh Family at the Church of the Transfiguration: (Left to Right – David Hollenbaugh, Aaron Hollenbaugh, Amy Gillespie, Kenny Gillespie w/Noah, Mark Hollenbaugh, Michelle Hollenbaugh, Wayne Hollenbaugh, Mary Hollenbaugh)

Five precious Franciscan Sisters in Israel became part of our lives forever on December 24, 2010. God is a God of Love and Mercy and continues to show humanity through history that we are all equal and one together at the Foot of the Cross. We thank Him for the honor of sharing that Cross with these Sisters.

Following are some personal reflections from four of our family members who were there on that tragic day….

Mark’s Reflections:

The family and I were driving near Bet She’an, on our way to Jerusalem, very excited to see the Holy City.  After driving past an intersection on a road in a seemingly peaceful farm area we noticed a car smashed against a cement block which appeared to hold a power line upright.  The power line pole was toppled to the ground and Israeli soldiers, Arab farmers, and Hasidic Jews were surrounding the car in a frantic cooperative effort to extract the people inside the car.  Because we noticed that the people were still in the car, members of my family suggested stopping and aiding in the effort.  My father who was driving our rental van pulled our vehicle to the side of the road possibly 200 meters in front of the crashed car.

Everyone in the family except my elderly uncle and baby nephew got out of the van and ran towards the crash site.  My brother, being a fast runner, approached the car before I did and assisted some Israeli soldiers and Arab locals in extracting one of the nuns who had apparently been thrust from the back seat to the front seat due to the force of the impact.  She took her last breath in my brother’s arms as he laid her on the ground next to the car.

As I approached the car, the woman who had been driving the car was sitting up straight on the side of the road next to the driver door.  Upon observing her attire I knew immediately that she was a Franciscan nun as I have met a few in the past when attending Hebrew University.

I heard people at the crash site asking if anyone had “Miyam,” which is “water” in Hebrew.  I ran back to the van and got a big bottle of spring water that was under my seat and ran back to the site.  I gave the bottle to one of those trying to help the nuns, of whom some were already by that time taken out of the car and laid on the ground.

Toward the back of the car on the ground, my father was knelt down praying with one of the nuns.  She was lying down on the ground and I knelt down and held her hand whispering, “Yeshua! Yeshua! Yeshua!” She moved her eyelids, uttered a faint moan, and passed away in front of me.  That was the first time I had ever witnessed someone die.

Not more than a foot away from her was another woman who was conscious but very dazed.  My mom held her head in her lap and conversed with her to give her comfort.  A day after the incident we learned that she died a few hours after that moment with my mom.

This incident showed me for the first time the full reality and fragility of human life.  This incident also spoke powerful words about the true nature of human beings in relation to other human beings: the ones who were helping those nuns were of such starkly different backgrounds.  Israeli soldiers...Arab farmers…religious Jews…and my protestant Christian family…all frantically and desperately putting our efforts into saving these Catholic nuns. At that moment we were all related to each other and we were all of one heart and soul.  We were simply God’s children.

Michelle’s Reflections:

I saw everything from an observant point of view.  At first, I saw Kenny walk over to the first nun lying in front of the car. He prayed as he helped her sit up and conversed with her for a few moments, and continued praying and walking on to the back of the car.  At this point, I heard people yelling out "Ma'im, ma'im!!!!!" which means "Water, water!!" in Hebrew.  I told Mark to run back to the van and take out the big bottle of water we had in the back of the van, and he ran back and brought it.  One of the policemen took the bottle and splashed water in the driver's face to keep her conscious.  After this, I noticed that Amy was walking towards the scene to see what was going on.

The nun who Aaron pulled out of the car first had died in his arms. This was Valeria. I then witnessed a woman standing by me take the nun’s hand to pray for her passing.  The woman also covered her with a coat out of respect.  I also prayed for her passing right there.  I circled around to the back of the car and saw the other nuns lying on the ground.  I started to get very emotional and started crying for them, and prayed for them and held my cross.  I asked the Lord to keep them safe and if it was their time to enter His Kingdom then I would understand.

I saw Mark and Dad watching and praying over another nun who was lying next to Salvatorina. This was Rania who Aaron had also been with earlier. Mark held her hand as she took her last breaths, and the EMT asked Dad to open her mouth to check her breathing. When they realized she had died the EMT then laid a blanket over her. After that had happened, I remember seeing Mom holding the head of Salvatorina, conversing with her to keep her awake. Salvatorina sounded like she was in a lot of pain, but Mom kept talking to her to keep her conscious. Our family all continued to pray over all of them in our hearts and minds.  I don't remember very much after this because I seemed to black out a little bit as I was praying since there was so much going on.

I also noticed the mix of people there.  There were Israeli soldiers, Israelis, Hasidic Jews, Arabs, and we Americans were also there.  I believe we were the only Christians there.

We are all so very thankful to have been there to help the nuns on this trip.  The Lord told us that He needed us there to pray for them as some passed on to the other life.  It was a very sad time because of how they left the earth, but they left in order to be with God in His Kingdom.  It was all so ironic how God took them on the day that He did.  We pray for those family members who lost their loved ones, and pray that God will protect those two who were injured.

Aaron’s Reflections:

When I got to the scene, I noticed that it was silent. I didn't know if anyone was alive or not. Two soldiers were trying to pull someone out of the front seat, I saw them struggling, so I grabbed her arm put it over my shoulder and pulled her out. I didn't know who it was until we pulled her out and when I looked down, I was shocked to see who I was holding. A sweet little nun, holding on to her precious life was looking up at me. At that moment, I felt all of my strength get stripped away. I have never felt so helpless in my life. All that I knew to do was to pray. After she died, I laid her down and ran to the other side of the car to help the others.

When I got to the other side of the car, there was another nun lying halfway out of the back passenger seat. I knew she was still alive because she was blinking. I ran up to her, put her arm around my shoulder and yelled to the other soldiers to help me. When we pulled her out, I could tell she was dying. We laid her down, and I prayed with her. After a few minutes had gone by she lost consciousness and died.

Once the ambulances arrived, we put the remaining nuns in the ambulances. I remember saying to one of the nuns that "God loves her so much!" She replied by giving me the biggest smile I ever received. It turns out that this nun died later that day.

The most intimate moment I've ever had with anyone was watching those nuns die.  I will never forget those moments. I experienced those moments of the nuns’ suffering for a reason - reasons that I don't know of now, but they are there to prepare me for my life. I still ask the questions: why was I the last one they saw? Of all the people they prayed with in their lives, why was I the last one they prayed with?

Mary’s reflections:

Our family embarked on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to the Holy Land this past Christmas. We knew our adult kids and their families were making plans to scatter to far ends of the earth from this point on in life in 2011, and this opportunity to be together for this specific amount of time would not likely happen again. We called this our Israel 2010 Christmas Family Adventure. In the months prior I had researched the places we wanted to visit while in Israel and had developed a specific itinerary for each day. On Christmas Eve Day we were scheduled to travel from Shibli Village at Mount Tabor, where we had been staying for the past six days, to Jerusalem for Christmas and days following. We chose to drive down through the Jordan Valley route from the Sea of Galilee so we could enjoy the scenic view of the lush, fertile landscape on our way. Reservations had also been made in advance to stay at Tantur Ecumenical Institute close to Bethlehem for the next several days so we could visit Manger Square on Christmas Eve night. I describe all of this to say this: God arranged the timing of our family travelling on this particular road in advance so that these dear Sisters could hear God loves them and know He had not forsaken them even during such a dark, painful moment in their lives as this would be. I understand that there is not anything special or particularly important about us – we are very plain and ordinary people. God just allowed us to be His Hands on this earth that day, and it was your Sisters He had His watchful Eye on to love and comfort, and for some to meet Him in Glory that day.

As we came upon the accident that had apparently happened only moments prior, many of us jumped out of our van and ran to the scene. My sons, son-in-law, and husband initiated helping in various forms such as extracting the sisters from the badly damaged car, praying and comforting them, and assisting and guiding the soldiers and police in being careful and mindful of specific medical issues/concerns, ie., protecting their necks/spinal cords prior to and after the ambulances arrived. My oldest son, Mark, had lived in Israel on two different occasions while attending Hebrew University and had a working knowledge of the unique blend of cultural characteristics in Israel, as well as, Hebrew/Arabic languages. Therefore, he was able to communicate with the initial police, soldiers, and by-standers for how to assist, as well as, intercede for the situation at hand.

Sisters Valeria and Rania spent their final moments with both my sons, Aaron and Mark, and one can be assured that their prayers and words to the sisters were of great comfort, peace, and hope. Aaron is 19 years old and an Oral Roberts University pre-med/psychology major in Tulsa, OK, and has a strong missionary heart after God and His Will. Mark is 24 years old and an electrical engineering major in Richmond, VA, and has great appreciation and compassion for peoples of all races and nations. My spouse, Wayne, and son-in-law, Kenny, are Army chaplains and actively offered prayers for the sisters and provided help and support to the police/rescue personnel when needed. My daughter Amy, daughter-in-law Michelle, and brother-in-law David, prayed and interceded for the sisters from a distance throughout the ordeal and days following, as well.

When I first approached the scene of the accident I briefly attended to a teenage girl bystander with her dog on the side of the road who was traumatized from just witnessing the accident. When I looked over and realized the serious injuries of the passengers in the car I ran to see how and who I could help. I was, primarily, with Sister Salvatorina throughout the course of events, as the other nuns were already being attended to by military soldiers and my other family members when I first approached the car. I knelt down and attempted to smooth the ground around and under Salvatorina’s head and held her head in my hands. She looked up at me and we began communicating. She tightly gripped her glasses in her right hand throughout the time she was there. I asked her what her name was and she managed to tell me – so glad she did. I called her by name and reminded her often that God loved her and Jesus loved her. I reminded her that she was very precious to God and her family, and that it was important to not leave us when she began to show signs of losing strength and consciousness. On a side note, I had recently purchased an olive seed cross necklace and had put it on shortly before we came upon the accident scene. As I was bending over Salvatorina I struggled often to get it out of the way so it wouldn’t annoy her in the midst of everything else she was enduring. Little did I know at the time how much that cross symbol must have meant to her!

Salvatorina was visibly in extreme pain and bleeding from her abdomen but her facial expression remained soft and controlled and hopeful that relief would come soon. In fact, all of the sisters around me were so quiet and serene and patient in the midst of the difficult process of triage and chaos of the accident scene. I often felt so helpless and frustrated that I couldn’t run to the other two nuns in my view, as well, to assure and comfort them. At one point when I saw that Rania had died a little farther away from Salvatorina, I distracted her and explained that everyone was working to help her family and she could trust they were being taken care of (I did not know who the sisters were or their relationships at the time), and she visibly relaxed and appeared comforted in knowing that particular detail. I kissed her cheeks and let her feel the warmth of my face and described to her that she was beautiful and had beautiful skin and eyes. She studied my face as I said this and faintly nodded. At one point the ambulance crew asked me to move aside so they could attempt to assess her injuries, which I did. After they went on to triage another nun I went back to Salvatorina and stayed with her until she was taken to the ambulance.

That whole afternoon as we travelled on to Jerusalem trying to sort out the shock and turmoil of what we had just experienced, our family speculated what and where the sisters were going as my son, Mark, relayed that he knew they were Franciscan nuns. We thought they may have been on their way to Bethlehem as we were planning on this special Christmas Eve day. That evening as most of our family walked to Bethlehem just beyond Tantur where we were staying and up the streets to Manger Square, we commented to one another that we were going there for the Sisters tonight (and without knowing at the time what their destination was to have been).

We followed the details of the accident on the internet while in Jerusalem and I was able to learn from one of the sisters at Tantur when the funeral was to be held in the Old City. We found the church in the Old City, albeit the end of the service, and even though we weren’t able to attend the Mass my son, Aaron, made his way up to the sanctuary and obtained several programs while  we remained below. We attempted to follow the procession to the cemetery following the service so we could, hopefully, meet some family members and tell them our story but we got lost on the way. However, at dusk we came upon an Israeli man who guided us to the cemetery where the nuns had been taken. He spoke Hebrew and English and I asked if he could call to the gardeners inside to see if anyone was still there and, possibly, open the gate for us to say goodbye to the three sisters. Fortunately, the gardeners were there and in the final stages of sealing the sisters’ tombs. They let us in, and as they completed their work our family was able to observe and acknowledge the sisters’ commitment to God in private in the midst of a quiet, misty, solemn evening.

I had previously included on our itinerary a visit to the Galilee area and Mount of Beatitudes on the 31st, so we were able to meet with members of the Franciscan Family there in the late afternoon and relayed the events and details of the accident as we knew them. Our family was very relieved to have finally been able to connect with those who intimately knew the five nuns and share our story, as we understood the importance of close family knowing, if possible, what happened in the final moments of their loved ones’ lives.

*** An ironic detail that became so meaningful to me as I later learned who the five sisters were and where they were going that Christmas Eve Day was this: there were many single-wrapped, expensive looking foil candies scattered all around the ground where the sisters lay with some on their bodies, as well, as I approached the scene and throughout the time the rescuers/police were there. At the time I was so confused about this and could not understand how or why the candy was there, especially why the candy pieces seemed to be so articulately placed on and around the sisters’ bodies, especially Salvatorina’s. (I actually thought it may have been a cultural/religious ritual that the police or someone else had done shortly before we arrived!) However, as I later learned where their travel destination was and why, I could then see the irony - in the midst of such bitterness and pain, the sweetness and beauty of yummy candy sprinkled around them was a final offering back from God for their dedication to a life of love and good works for Him. Oh death, where is thy victory? Oh death, where is thy sting?

Thank you, Father, for your faithful servants and women of integrity and goodness. Thank you, Father, for the honor of knowing and appreciating this vast, wonderful Franciscan Family here and abroad who is dedicated to showing the Love of Jesus and Your Grace and Mercy throughout this earth. May the two Sisters who survived make full recovery and continue to carry the Message of Jesus’ Birth, Life, Death, and Resurrection to the world they have been assigned by Him.


Mary Hollenbaugh