16 July 2014

‘They murder the widow and the stranger;
the orphans they put to death’

Mary Elmes (1908-2013) ... the only Irish-born person among the Righteous Among the Nations

Patrick Comerford

Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin

16 July 2014

12.45: The Eucharist

Isaiah 10: 5-7, 13-16; Psalm 94: 5-11; Matthew 11: 25-27.

May I speak to you in the name of + the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

At that time Jesus said, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants.’ – (Matthew 11: 25)

It is not the custom or practice in Christ Church Cathedral to have a sermon, homily, or even a brief reflection at this mid-day Eucharist. So I am going to be very brief and very short.

But I could not let today [16 July] pass without mentioning that in its Liturgical Calendar, the Episcopal Church in the US has a feast day honouring the “Righteous.”

The Righteous Among the Nations is an honorific used by the State of Israel for non-Jews who risked their lives during the Holocaust to save Jews from extermination by the Nazis.

The term originates with the concept of “righteous gentiles,” a term used in rabbinical Judaism for non-Jews who abide by the Seven Laws of Noah.

When Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, was founded in 1953, one of its tasks was to remember the “Righteous among the Nations,” who are also offered honorary citizenship of Israel.

So far, about 25,000 people from 45 countries are recognised in this way.

The only Irish woman on this list is Mary Elmes from Cork, who risked her life to save Jewish children from the Nazi gas chambers. The children she rescued include Michael Freund, a boy of five, and his two-year-old little brother, Ronald Friend, who went on to become a Professor of Psychology at Stony Brook, New York.

Mary Elmes was born in 1908 and was educated in Trinity College Dublin, the London School of Economics and in Geneva. She joined the London University Ambulance Unit in February 1937, and worked in a children’s hospital during the Spanish Civil War.

In 1939, she joined thousands of refugees fleeing Spain across the Pyrenees into France. There she continued her work with the Quakers, and provided food supplies and school books for children.

When the Nazis started taking people on trains from France to concentration camps, Mary Elmes and the Quakers started a campaign to move children under the age of 16 to children’s colonies. Under this ruse, she transported many children across the border, hiding them in her car and driving them high into the Pyrenees. We shall probably never know how many children were saved by “Miss Mary,” as they knew her.

She was arrested in January 1943 and was held for six months in a prison near Paris. After the war, she married Roger Danjou and they settled in France and had two children. She made frequent return visits to Cork before she died in 2002. She never sought special recognition and even declined the Légion d’Honneur. Her bravery was eventually recognised by Yad Vashem in 2013.

Our Old Testament reading this afternoon (Isaiah 10: 5-7, 13-16) portrays an horrific account of the evils of war.

The Psalmist (Psalm 94: 5-6) speaks of the mentality of those who wage war without thinking of the consequences for women, children and the outsider:

“They crush your people, O Lord, •
and afflict your heritage.
They murder the widow and the stranger; •
the orphans they put to death.
And yet they say, ‘The Lord will not see, •
neither shall the God of Jacob regard it’.”

Later this month, we are about to mark the centenary of the beginning of World War I in July 1914. But war is an every-day reality for children, women and non-combatant men throughout the world today –in particular, I have the people of the Middle East in my prayers this afternoon, the people of Gaza, Palestine, Israel, Syria and Iraq.

Who speaks out today for the victims of racism, war and genocide?

Who speaks out today for children who are the innocent victims of the failed politics of adults?

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.


O God, the protector of all who trust in you,
without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy:
Increase and multiply upon us your mercy;
that with you as our ruler and guide,
we may so pass through things temporal
that we finally lose not the things eternal:
Grant this, heavenly Father,
for Jesus Christ’s sake, our Lord.

Post Communion Prayer

Eternal God,
comfort of the afflicted and healer of the broken,
you have fed us at the table of life and hope.
Teach us the ways of gentleness and peace,
that all the world may acknowledge
the kingdom of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord.

Canon Patrick Comerford is lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This reflection was shared at the mid-day Eucharist in the cathedral on 16 July 2014.

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