They expected to be moved and inspired, and they were. They didn't expect the worry, warnings and a quick getaway.
A big group of Clark County parishioners from Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church was in Jerusalem, finishing a whirlwind 13-day tour of Israel, when rockets fired from neighboring Gaza started falling Friday.
"We were there when the air raid si
rens started going off," said pastoral assistant Sue McDonald, 58. Also on the trip was their pastor, the Rev. Michael Radermacher.
The group of 40 was staying at in a Rosary Sisters guest house, and hanging out on an outdoor patio, when air raid sirens wailed. A booming announcement from a loudspeaker system at the American consulate next door warned everyone to take cover immediately.
"We knew it wasn't just a drill," McDonald said. "When they shoot off those bombs they really don't know where they're going to hit."
The group hustled to the Rosary Sisters' basement cafeteria, McDonald said, and waited there with total tension. They never heard any explosion or impact, she said, but they were surrounded by gunfire — the Muslim population in the area fired angry rounds into the air, she said.
The group was supposed to head for the airport later that day, she said, but at that point their bus driver and the nuns at Rosary Sisters agreed it would be best if they left immediately.
"We had half an hour to get our things together. You could hear the gunshots going off. It was all around us and it was pretty loud," McDonald said.
On the way to the airport in Tel Aviv, she said, the group watched missiles being shot from Israeli territory -- what she assumes were part of the anti-missile "Iron Dome" defense battery, she said.
The group flew out of Tel Aviv and arrived back in the United States on Saturday.
Before hostilities broke out, McDonald said, the group enjoyed its pilgrimage all over Israel and didn't feel unsafe -- even as they visited potential hot spots like the West Bank and the Golan Heights.
"We went from end to end," McDonald said. The group also came within about a mile of the Syrian border, she said.
Through all that, McDonald received regular email security alerts from the U.S. State Department. But nothing felt scary until the final five days in famously divided Jerusalem.
The group happened to be touring the Muslim part of the city when noontime prayers were called. As soon as that began, she said, the group's tour guide decided to lead them out.
"He just said, 'We need to get out of the old city.' I didn't understand the language, but you could tell the prayers were very angry."
She pressed the tour guide for more, but he didn't want to translate what he was hearing. But a Muslim shopkeeper she passed on the street "called us some pretty bad names" that she could understand. "Something I would have washed my children's mouths out with soap for," McDonald said. "It was a very tense walk out."
"I feel so bad for all the people because there is so much anger there. That was our impression. And it goes back thousands of years."