A helping hand at Christ’s birthplace

A group of Irish midwives is helping to change lives in Bethlehem, writes Louise McCarthy

At Christmas, hearts and minds turn to Bethlehem, the town of Christ’s birth. Just a short distance from the site of his birth, the Holy Family Hospital, funded by the Order of Malta, ensures that local women can have the best possible care during and after their pregnancy, giving their children the best start in life.

Irish midwives are among those behind the state-of-the-art maternity unit which shines as a beacon of hope in a region blighted by conflict and mistrust.

Former matrons of Dublin’s National Maternity Hospital and St James’ Hospital, Maeve Dwyer and Peta Taaffe, are some of the Irish midwives raising standards at the Holy Family Hospital.

Peta and Maeve have been helping to transform services for pregnant women in Bethlehem and across the entire West Bank. When Ms Dwyer visited Bethlehem 10 years ago, there was just one midwife available, leaving many women in labour unaccompanied. Perinatal mortality was extremely high.

“It was so inferior to Ireland. There was a simple baby unit. Babies had better chance in Holy Family than elsewhere but not the same chance as in Dublin,” Ms Dwyer told The Irish Catholic.

“I would now be happy to have my sister attend the Holy Family Hospital,” she said.


Bethlehem’s maternity hospital is located just 800 metres from the birthplace of Christ. Many of the Palestinian women who have their babies there have had as many as 12 children, and often have their first baby as young as 15.

The Order of Malta has been working hard in recent years to improve outcomes for pregnant women in the region. In the past, Ms Dwyer recalls, “the expected outcomes were much poorer”.

In November, a woman presented with twins at 24 weeks pregnant. There was little chance of a live birth 20 years ago but now “there is a superb neo-natal unit,” said Ms Dwyer.

Women in Bethlehem also have access to antenatal care in contrast to a time when the only time they presented for care was when they were about to give birth.

Because Palestinian women generally marry young and midwifery training took up to six years, there was a lack of qualified midwifes available.

The Order of Malta funds a four year direct-entry midwifery course in Bethlehem University.

In Bethlehem, Nargis is a  nurse and mother of four small children. Her husband died, leaving her as the sole breadwinner. The Order of Malta Ireland funded a four-year degree allowing her to train as a midwife while still retaining her salary as a practical nurse.

The Advanced Life and Obstetrics course teaches midwives how to practice delivering a baby in events such as when a shoulder gets stuck or a woman haemorrhages blood.

Labour ward superintendent at Dublin’s National Maternity Hospital Kathryn MacQuillan audits the Holy Family Hospital. 

Just one of the techniques she teaches midwifes includes how to listen to foetal heartbeats on a scanner.

To ensure the smooth running of the maternity unit, almost €5 million is required annually. The average cost of a typical delivery is €441, with a normal stay of three days. A one-day stay in a neonatal unit is €431, while drugs for premature babies cost an average of €1,000. The average stay is 15 days, €6,500 will ensure a baby arrives home safely. Under the management of the Order of Malta since 1990, over 62,000 babies have been born, many requiring lifesaving neonatal care.

The Order of Malta also helps to fund a mobile van visiting UN refugee camps in the Judean desert to treat women and babies living without sanitation, electricity or clean running water.

The Holy Family Hospital has undergone significant development since the Order of Malta took over. Improvements for women and babies first started with Irishman John Bellingham.


Following his retirement from the national maternity hospital in Holles Street, Declan Meaghar spent two years in the Holy Family Hospital in Bethlehem and was largely responsible for setting up the clinical side of the hospital.    

Women aged over 45 in Bethlehem can now get gynaecological services previously unavailable, such as hysterectomies and treatment for cervical cancer.

The Holy Family Hospital is located 10km from Jerusalem and just over 70km from the Gaza Strip, leaving Bethlehem vulnerable to political tensions.

Prior to developing top-class standards at Holy Family, more women and children had to face problems accessing emergency care in Jerusalem through checkpoints along the route of the Israeli security barrier.

“These women are living 10km from a city like New York with five star hotels. They are not far from the first world, but they can’t get to it. If the Holy Family Hospital was not there, they would have third-world care,” according to Ms Dwyer.

The hospital operates under the constant shadow of the Arab-Israeli conflict that surrounds it.

All of the work carried out by the Irish midwifes for the Order of Malta is voluntary. “We have been there with shooting guns up in the air, it was quite tense last November when there were things happening in Jerusalem,” Maeve Dwyer said.

She has only felt frightened once: “A group of [Israeli] settlers shot into the air on my journey from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. They were all armed, I feared for my life,” but, she added, all was well.


All of the hard work and determination from the Irish midwives has paid off and the spiritual dimension to the work is not lost on the women. Ms Dwyer recalls delivering a baby in the hospital in June 2012. “For me as a Catholic to deliver a baby in Bethlehem, 800m from the birth of Jesus, is amazing.”

This Christmas, the Order of Malta is reaching out to Irish parishes asking them to place a small collection box beside their crib to support the ‘Gift of Life’ crib appeal to provide ongoing care for vulnerable babies and mothers in the birthplace of Jesus Christ.