Unique shop brings Holy Land art here, sustains Christians there

Popular Bethlehem Handicrafts opens store in Aurora

Roxanne King

It’s the only one in the United States and it’s located in the Archdiocese of Denver. The well-known and respected Bethlehem Handicrafts, which imports carved olive wood items from the Holy Land to sell here at parishes and mall kiosks and internationally online (bethlehemhandicrafts.com) opened a store April 2, Easter Monday, in Aurora.

Located at 4114 S. Parker Road, the well-stocked store offers an array of exquisite olive wood items ranging from religious statues, crucifixes and rosaries to jewelry and kitchen items crafted by over 400 Holy Land artisans, providing them with a means to support their families.

“We are the only store in the United States that does this,” said George Bannoura, 40, a co-owner of the family business.

Bethlehem Handicrafts was born 15 years ago when Bannoura, a native of Beit Sahour (Shepherds Field), which is located just east of Bethlehem and is home to the largest Christian community in the Holy Land, brought goods from there to sell in Denver to keep his family and fellow artisans from poverty after tourism tanked due to escalating violence in the Middle East. The vast majority of Christians living in or near Bethlehem depend on tourism for their livelihoods. Their numbers have steadily declined due to unrest and lack of work.

We are proud to be considered part of the living Christian heritage of the Holy Land. Our local Christians go back to Christ’s time. We are the first believers of the Lord.”

“Twenty years ago in the city of Bethlehem, Christians were 85 percent of the population. Now, we are only 15 percent of the population,” said Bannoura, whose family still maintains both their workshop and homes there.

Numbers for the larger Holy Land are even more telling. In 2014, Israel had just over 8 million people, the Palestinian Territories 4.5 million and Jordan 6.5 million. Christians were estimated to make up from 2 to 3 percent of those totals (2-plus percent in Israel and Jordan, and about 1.25 percent in Palestine).

“Our main mission [at Bethlehem Handicrafts] is to help ourselves as a community,” Bannoura said. “We want to help our livelihood so Christians can stay there. I always ask, If there are no Christians left in the Holy Land, what will happen to the sacred sites?”

Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila, recognizing the importance of a Christian presence in the land where Jesus walked, has periodically sent letters to parishes urging prayers for Holy Land Christians and support for Bethlehem Handicrafts.

“Our faith was born in a land that is both holy and often in turmoil,” he wrote last April. “Our brothers and sisters in Christ who live in the Holy Land undergo many hardships to practice their faith, but they remain committed to the land where Jesus lived, preached, died and rose from the dead…. Your parishioners’ support of the Bannoura’s business can help maintain their presence in Bethlehem.”

Father James Spahn, pastor of St. John Paul II in Thornton and Immaculate Heart of Mary in Northglenn, has visited the Bannoura family’s workshop in Bethlehem.

“They use the olive wood from the area and carve religious items from it,” he said. “[The work] helps the Christians there who have a hard life with very little opportunity and it brings beautiful religious items here for people’s homes and for our parishes. It’s a win-win situation.”

To be a Christian in the Holy Land facing the circumstances they do today has been described as a vocation and as a mission. The Bannoura family has embraced that vocation and mission wholeheartedly.

“We are proud to be considered part of the living Christian heritage of the Holy Land,” Bannoura said. “Our local Christians go back to Christ’s time. We are the first believers of the Lord.”

Committed to offering the highest quality wood and artistry possible, Bannoura said the family opened their store because they can only take a limited number of their 800-plus items to display at parishes and at seasonal mall kiosks. And while people can view items online, it’s not the same as viewing them in person.

The newly-opened Bethlehem Handicrafts storefront in Aurora features hand-carved statuettes and crosses made our of olive wood from the Holy Land. (Photos by Andrew Wright)

“We recently added hand-painted ceramic items, olive soap, icons, kitchen utensils and silver jewelry,” Bannoura said, motioning to shelves lined with colorful plates and cups, fragrant soaps and eye-catching jewelry. “A good number of women make the rosaries and bracelets.”

Bethlehem Handicrafts also leads pilgrimages to the Holy Land, which Blessed Paul VI called “the fifth gospel,” to enliven one’s faith, and to support and encourage Christians there. Bannoura said he’s always asked if such journeys are safe. Despite hotspot instability, pilgrimages to the Holy Land are remarkably safe and have recently seen increased numbers.

“If it weren’t safe,” Bannoura declared, “I wouldn’t take my wife and children there.”

Reflecting on the newest venture in the family business, opening the store, Bannoura said he is filled with gratitude for his home here and the warm support the Catholic community has given to Bethlehem Handicrafts.

“We love Denver, we love Colorado,” he said. “This is my second home. I thank Archbishop Aquila, Bishop Jorge Rodriguez, Bishop Michael Sheridan, Bishop Stephen Berg and all the priests and faithful who have been great supporters of us.”
Bethlehem Handicrafts
Store: 4114 S. Parker Road, Aurora, CO 80014
Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday; 9 a.m.-noon Saturdays
Online: www.BethlehemHandicrafts.com
Phone: 720-201-7193 or toll free 844-999-4659

COMING UP: Colorado Capuchins celebrate 50th anniversary the same way they serve – humbly

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On May 5, the Colorado Capuchins quietly marked their 50th anniversary of serving in Colorado.

What was intended as a jubilant celebration with Masses from both of Denver’s bishops did not happen due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the postponement of public Masses. However, the friars of the Capuchin Province of St. Conrad celebrated by doing what they do best: humbly serving the people of Colorado.

In the spirit of the present circumstances, however, they also began reaching out to people in a socially-distant way. They began livestreaming a Mass from the St. Francis of Assisi Friary for the faithful to tune into and are creating a series of videos on their rich 50-year history here in Colorado. Additionally, the friars have been posting daily videos of encouragement on their YouTube channel (youtube.com/user/CapuchinFranciscans). The Masses can also be viewed there.

In a blog post published on the Capuchins’ website July 12, Brother Mark Schenk, O.F.M Cap., Provincial Vicar of the St. Conrad Province in Denver, wrote about the mission of the Capuchin Franciscans in Denver over the past 50 years.

“This year our province joyfully commemorates 50 years of Capuchin presence in Colorado,” Brother Schenk wrote. “Pope Pius XI once said of the Capuchins, ‘When help was sorely needed, in places that were abandoned and where no one else would go, there you will find the Capuchins.’

“Over the past 50 years, we have striven to be faithful to that identity, bearing the joy of the Gospel to the marginalized and forgotten. It was need that brought us westward and it was need that inspired our multitude of ministries to the poor, lost, sick, dying and imprisoned of Colorado.”

Fifty years ago, Capuchin Franciscan friars made their way to Colorado to serve the people here, and they have been a vibrant piece of the faith community ever since. (Photos courtesy of the Capuchin Franciscans)

The Capuchins came out west to Kansas in 1878 in response to a request from Bishop Louis Mary Fink of Leavenworth to care for the numerous German-speaking immigrants from Russia’s Volga River who were settling in the area around Hays. In 1970, following the Capuchin charism of going where they are needed, they expanded their ministry to Colorado at the request of Archbishop James Casey, who needed assistance in pulling Annunciation Parish in Denver back together.

On the morning of May 5, 1970, Father Paulinus Karlin and another friar on loan from Puerto Rico left Kansas and drove to Annunciation where a new chapter of Capuchin history began. The Capuchins remain at Annunciation Parish to this day, where they continue to embody the spirit of St. Francis of Assisi in brotherhood, poverty and fierce dedication to the parish and the people in the surrounding neighborhoods.

“Today we continue the ministry of St. Francis of Assisi, bearing the Gospel to peoples and places that are neglected and forgotten,” Brother Schenk wrote. “Whether it be in the poor parishes ministering to immigrant populations, in the hospitals and care centers where our friars kneel in prayer at deathbeds or on the city streets where we offer food and fraternal love to the downcast and destitute, we want to venture where no one else will go.”

In March, the friars began livestreaming Mass from the St. Francis of Assisi Friary in Denver. Fifty years ago, Capuchin Franciscan friars made their way to Colorado to serve the people here, and they have been a vibrant piece of the faith community ever since. (Photos courtesy of the Capuchin Franciscans)

Among the many footprints the Capuchins have laid down in Colorado is the Samaritan House, which is now the largest Catholic homeless shelter in Colorado. Although they are no longer directly involved with its operation, the friars helped to plant the seeds for it through their Samaritan Shelter opened in 1982, and they maintain a constant presence there through a friar who serves as a chaplain.

One of the more innovative ways that the Friars reach out to those in need is through a food truck that the province launched in November 2018. Painted Franciscan brown with colorful artwork depicting local friars engaged in ministry as well as Saints Francis of Assisi and Padre Pio, and Blessed Solanus Casey, the truck includes white text on the back acknowledging partnership with the Routzon Family Foundation, while messaging on the sides identifies it as belonging to the Capuchins and describing their mission as “Messengers of God’s mercy” and “Brothers to those in need.”

Two Sundays a month the truck heads to downtown sites where the homeless gather. There, friars and volunteers hand out sack lunches and beverages. They also give out seasonal items those living on the street may need such as hats, gloves and socks. Resources the poor can avail themselves of such as medical and mental health services are listed on the lunch bags.

“At first the people were hesitant because they saw a food truck and thought they had to pay,” said Capuchin Brother Jude Quinto, recalling the truck’s first run Nov. 25. “But when they saw friars in brown habits running around, then they knew what we were up to and a crowd started forming.”

The friars opened a food truck in November 2018 as a way to help the homeless of Denver have access to free, healthy meals. Fifty years ago, Capuchin Franciscan friars made their way to Colorado to serve the people here, and they have been a vibrant piece of the faith community ever since. (Photos courtesy of the Capuchin Franciscans)

Additionally, in 2011, the friars founded the Julia Greeley guild in honor of Julia Greeley, a former slave and lay Franciscan whose cause for canonization is currently underway. If she is canonized, she would be the first saint declared from Colorado.

Today, pandemic or not, the Capuchin Franciscans of the St. Conrad Province continue to live out their charism of brotherhood and sharing the Gospel with those who need it most/

“We continue to seek out the abandoned places where aid is sorely needed,” Brother Schenk concluded, “working alongside the laity to bear the good news of the Gospel where the need is desperate and few are willing to go.”