The city of Nazareth is one chaotic city with just one main road running through it. Named after ( now) St Paul VI who visited the town in 1964 this city is nestled close to the Sea of Galilee. In the city of Nazareth is the Church of the Annunciation built over the home of Mary and the place of the annunciation. This is also the home of Joseph and Jesus who lived here for many years.
Early sources on Nazareth’s history are scarce, but Eusebius says Nazareth was a small Jewish town in the Roman and Byzantine periods. Evidence of Jewish converts to Christianity in Nazareth is provided by the historian Africanus in the 3rd century and pilgrimages to Nazareth are first attested as early as the late 4th century. More recently, archeological digs have found several caves ( used as homes even by Mary and Joseph) within which were found human skeletons going back to 2500 BC to the Canaanite period.
Within the complex of this Church, no more than a hundred odd meters and separated by the Franciscan monastery, is the Church of St. Joseph. It is here that Joseph lived and ran his carpentry workshop. After his marriage to Mary, this would have be the marital home of Mary and Joseph.
The Greek word ‘tekton’, meaning “builder or artisan,” was used to describe Joseph. He most likely worked with both wood and stone. Furthermore, Joseph most likely walked 50 minutes to work every day from Nazareth to Tzippori, a local Roman city that was being rebuilt at the time.
The only reason Nazareth gained prominence is because it afforded work for its inhabitants in Tzippori. Nazareth came to be what we would liken to a mining or workers’ village. That is why people said in the Gospels, “What good can come from Nazareth?” (Jn 1:46) words of Nathaniel the apostle, whose family home was in the nearby town of Cana. Nazareth was a small backwater town at the time of Jesus. It didn’t even make the list of towns on the Roman census forcing Mary and Joseph to make the long and arduous journey to Bethlehem in the South.
The church now built over this workshop and home of Joseph is also known as the Church of Nutrition and the Church of Joseph’s Carpentry. The location first became recognized as the home of the Holy Family in the 17th century when texts referred to it as “the house and workshop of Joseph.” In the courtyard you can see a beautiful statue of St Joseph the worker besides a sculpture of the annunciation.
Within the apse of the church are paintings of The Holy Family. Among them are the dream of Joseph and the death of Joseph in the arms of Jesus and Mary. The church has several interesting stained glass windows and paintings depicting scenes involving Joseph. There is the scene of Joseph and Mary’s wedding, a scene of Joseph showing Jesus how to work in the carpentry as Mary looks on as well as other scenes of the Holy Family together. The present day church was constructed in 1914 on what remained of a Crusader Church.
Beneath the built structures are caves ( yes Mary and Joseph lived in caves not happy one bedroom homes) which were also used for food storage in Biblical times and this is the place where the workshop was situated. From the present day church there is a stairway going down to a crypt.
On this level you will find the carpenters workshop and a pool or basin measuring 2m² it has a black and white mosaic floor. The basin is thought to have been a baptistery dating back to the 1st century AD but prior to that it was perhaps used as mikveh , an ablution washing basin before one could pray.
There is a mosaic on the floor depicting what appears to be a ladder perhaps symbolizing the spiritual elevation of new converts to Christianity. This indicates that Christians gathered here in Biblical times even before the town had official churches. It appears that the home, having been identified as the home of the Holy Family, was used for Christian worship during the Byzantine era.
There are still further steps, which appear to be older, which reach a narrow passage which eventually opens up into a room. In this room are caves which have been carved into the limestone to be used for storage of grain and as water cisterns. This was a typical method of storage during the Roman era. Opposite the workshop of Joseph is an altar situated around the Church dating back to the crusades.
In 1964 and again in the year 2000, when Popes (now saints) Paul VI and John Paul II visited the Church, the underground passage from the Church of the Annunciation to the workshop of St Joseph was opened for the Popes to walk the path that Jesus and his parents often took.
Fr. Warner D'Souza is a Catholic priest of the Archdiocese of Bombay. He has served in the parishes of St Michael's, Mahim, St Paul's, Dadar East, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Bandra and at present is the priest in charge of St Jude Church, Malad East. He is also the Director of the Archdiocesan Heritage Museum and is the co-ordinator of the Committee for the Promotion and Preservation of the Artistic and Historic Patrimony of the Church.