MELVILLE, New York — A harsh audio signal burst from Sue Thompson’s phone, much like an Amber Alert or a severe weather warning. But this alarm was for something different: rocket attacks in Israel.
Thompson and her husband, Dale, were in Bethlehem on Saturday, Oct. 7, for a Holy Land pilgrimage with other members of their parish, Church of St. Patrick in Sarasota, Florida.
They had downloaded the “rocket app” issued by the U.S. State Department for its citizens traveling in Israel, so they weren’t totally surprised by the alerts. Then, they intensified.
By noon, news reports told of the massacres of Israel civilians and soldiers near Gaza, about 46 miles southwest of Bethlehem.
“It was really surreal to think that could be occurring at a time when we’re witnessing some of the most beautiful things in Christendom,” Thompson said. “Everybody was just heartbroken. “There was little for us to do but pray, and we did.”
The pilgrimage was arranged by Peter’s Way Tours of Melville, New York, which handles trips for Catholic churches throughout the U.S., including many in the Diocese of Brooklyn.
Peter Bahou, founder and president of the company, got busy arranging for the evacuation of the Thompsons and about 60 other fellow travelers from Sarasota.
Bahou, a Catholic born and educated in Jaffa, Israel, knew firsthand the danger that was unfolding for Israelis. As a child, he lived through the Six Day War in 1967.
But the ferocity of the Oct. 7 attacks was nothing like he had ever experienced or heard of in his 40 years of providing travel experiences around the world, including the Middle East. Getting the Floridians home safely became his sole focus.
“I was stressed over the weekend,” Bahou told reporters from Currents News and The Tablet on Oct. 13 at his office in Melville.
“But,” he added, “they are our clients. We are in business because there is trust. We will not let them down.”
Shepherding the group in the Holy Land was Bahou’s longtime associate, Fabricio Lomanto, a multilingual tour guide from Italy.
Lomanto formerly lived in Israel near Gaza while working for the United Nations. At first he thought the Oct. 7 rocket attacks would subside shortly, like so many he had witnessed before.
But the widespread ground attacks on civilians near Gaza indicated something far more dangerous was happening.
Lomanto recounted to The Tablet how he got everyone on their two buses for a return trip to their lodgings, the Dan Hotel in Jerusalem.
The next morning he “faced them with the problem.”
“I said, ‘Guys, the situation is escalating in a very worrying way. My advice is to leave the country,’ ” he said.
Thompson was among 16 members of the group who boarded an alternative flight out of Tel Aviv. But it was a 44-hour circuitous route that took them to Ethiopia, Ireland, Washington, and, finally, Tampa.
The other pilgrims traveled by bus to Jordan where they were flown back to the U.S.
Lomanto said the group, mostly senior citizens, was obviously anxious yet remarkably well composed, and gracious.
“As an experienced manager,” he explained, “I’m used to hearing complaints, grumpiness, fear, panic, unhappiness — you know, the whole list.
“But most of them said, ‘It’s OK. Thank God we saw what we could. Thank you.’ ”
Bahou said his company’s Holy Land tours typically cover sites involving the birth of Jesus, his ministry, and his death.
He said Peter’s Way specializes in tours for choir groups and seminarians.
Bahou and Lomanto both remarked that they especially enjoy working with St. Joseph’s Seminary and College in Dunwoodie, Yonkers, which forms priests for the Diocese of Brooklyn and Rockville Centre, and the Archdiocese of New York.
Peter’s Way also handled the arrangements for the recent World Youth Day in Lisbon, Portugal. Bahou noted that the Diocese of Brooklyn had the largest contingent of all the groups he helped for the event.
Bahou said he was taking a wait-and-see approach to see if Holy Land tours would resume next year. For now, he is offering to cancel and refund tours planned through the end of this year.
He suggested would-be tourists and pilgrims who’ve already booked trips to stay up to date by contacting the leaders in their parishes, because he is updating them.
“We need to give it another two or three weeks or maybe one month to make a decision,” Bahous said of the tours planned for 2024. “But yes, there is a concern right now to travel anywhere.”
Thompson is director of religious education for her parish. She said her tour of the Holy Land, though abbreviated by tragedy, was an unmatched experience.
“We went down to the spot where Mary lived, where the Angel Gabriel spoke to her,” Thompson said. “The Franciscans were there, and the sisters were there. They were praying for the feast of St. Francis.
“The bells were going off and we all did the Angelus together. It was so beautiful.”