06 March 2020

Plaque marks site of first
Sephardi synagogue on
Creechurch Lane, London

The ceramic plaque on Cunard House marks the site of Creechurch Lane Synagogue, the first synagogue founded in England since the expulsion of Jews in 1290 (Photograph Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

Creechurch Lane is a small street in the Aldgate Ward of the City of London. It is just 120 metres (400 feet) long, and runs south from the junction of Bevis Marks and Duke’s Place to Leadenhall Street.

I walked along this small street close to Liverpool Street Station this week [4 March 2020] in search of a ceramic plaque on the wall of Cunard House, on the corner of Creechurch Lane and Bury Street. This plaque marks the site of Creechurch Lane Synagogue, the first synagogue founded in England following the readmission and resettlement of Jews in 1656, and the first since the expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290.

Creechurch Lane Synagogue was a Sephardic synagogue and the first Synagogue of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews’ Congregation. The actual founder of the synagogue was Antonio Fernandez Caravajal, a successful Jewish merchant of Portuguese birth. He was born ca 1590, probably at Fundão, Portugal. He left Fundão because of the persecutions of the Inquisition and moved to the Canary Islands, where he acquired much property and made commercial connections.

He seems to have moved to London around 1635, and settled in Leadenhall Street. The council of state appointed him one among the five persons who received the army contract for corn in 1649. By 1653, he owned ships trading with the East and West Indies, Brazil, and the Levant, dealing in gunpowder, wine, hides, pictures, cochineal, corn and silver, bringing £100,000 worth of silver to England each year.

At first, he attended Mass in the Spanish ambassador’s chapel, but in 1645 he was informed against for not attending church. However, the House of Lords quashed the proceedings.

When war broke out with Portugal in 1650, Carvajal’s ships were exempted from seizure, although he was nominally a Portuguese subject. He and his two sons became English subjects in 1655, and when war with Spain broke out in the following year, Oliver Cromwell made arrangements for Carvajal’s goods to be sent from the Canaries in an English ship that was flying Dutch colours.

When Menasseh Ben Israel came to England in 1655 to petition Parliament for the return of the Jews to England, Carvajal, though his own position was secured, associated himself with the petition. He was one of the three persons in whose names the first Jewish burial-ground was acquired after the Robles case had forced the Jews in England to acknowledge their faith.

Cromwell gave Carvajal the assurance of the right of Jews to remain in England. Carvajal died in London on 10 November 1659.

Meanwhile, the Sephardi community acquired a lease on a building on Creechurch Lane on 16 December 1656 and services began the following month, in January 1657. A month later, in February 1657, the community acquired a lease of land in Mile End, to the east of the City, for use as a cemetery. This was the first Jewish cemetery in England since 1290. The cemetery became known as Mile End Velho or Old Cemetery.

A second Jewish congregation may have been present in the area of Saint Helen’s in the mid-1660s, but there is little surviving information about it.

Cunard House stands on the site of the 17th century synagogue (Photograph Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Some sources suggest Rabbi Samuel Levy may have served the congregation at first. But Rabbi Moses Athias was brought over from Hamburg as the first Haham or rabbi in 1656 and was still there in 1660. Three years later, the diarist Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) visited the synagogue on Creechurch Lane during Simchat Torah, but seems to have been totally bewildered by the boisterous celebrations he saw there.

Rabbi Moses Athias seems to have been succeeded as Haham by Rabbi Jacob Sasportas (1664-1665), the first Haham of the Sephardi Community in London.

The building on Creechurch Lane was enlarged in 1674, when the Haham was Rabbi Joshua (Yehoshua) da Silva (1670-1679). Later Hahams or Rabbis at the synagogue included Jacob Abendana (1681-1685) and Solomon Ayllon (1689-1700).

This was a Sephardi synagogue, but until an Ashkenazi synagogue was established nearby at Duke’s Place in 1690, a large number of Ashkanazi – or Tedescos as they were referred to by the Sephardi – attended the synagogue. However, they were not allowed to hold office, to vote or to take part in the services.

Eventually this early synagogue on Creechurch Lane was succeeded by the Bevis Marks Synagogue in 1701. The building then returned to domestic use. It later became the Parish Workhouse, and remained so until 1857, when it was demolished.

The plaque on Cunard House today marks the site of this former synagogue, the first established in England since the expulsion of Jews in 1290.

Creechurch Lane is a small street just 120 metres long (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

‘Rise – take your mat
and walk!’ Praying with
the people of Zimbabwe

With Bishop Chad Gandiya, the acting principal of Bishop Gaul Theological College, during his visit to Ireland as Bishop of Harare

Patrick Comerford

World Day of Prayer,

6 March 2020,

11 a.m.,
Embury Close Hall, Adare, Co Limerick

Reading: John 5: 2-9a

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

I found it difficult to understand at the end of 2017 how it took so long for Robert Mugabe to resign or be removed from office as President of Zimbabwe. Despite what seemed to be a military coup, it took him some time to step down, to accept his impeachment, and, until he died recently, he continued to deny that he had signed his own resignation.

He was a complex character, who claimed he had learned his values from Irish Jesuit missionaries and from the example of Gandhi. But when he became Prime Minister and then President, he betrayed those values and betrayed the trust many people had placed in him in the struggles and campaigns for a just, peaceful and democratic Zimbabwe that would replace the white, racist regime of Ian Smith’s Rhodesia.

Many years before Mugabe’s fall from power and his disgrace, I was frustrated and angry when I was invited to a lecture in UCD and dinner with Mugabe. At the time I was the Foreign Desk Editor of The Irish Times.

In previous years, I had campaigned and protested on his behalf, joining marches and pickets in London and Dublin demanding democracy and freedom in Zimbabwe. But that evening in the Belfield campus of University College Dublin, Mugabe was brusque, arrogant and rude.

I found is curious that while the Irish Independent could invite me, from The Irish Times to dinner on two separate occasions with Archbishop Desmond Tutu and President Nelson Mandela, my own newspaper was inviting me to meet Robert Mugabe, who had betrayed so much I had once campaigned for.

And yet, as we read this morning’s Gospel reading (John 5: 2-9a), it is good to remind ourselves that Christ’s healing comes as a promise not just to individuals but to people and to whole nations too.

As Mugabe was falling from power, with complete lack of grace, many people feared for the future of the churches in Zimbabwe. But Dr Chad Gandiya, Bishop of Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, described what was happening as ‘one of the most peaceful takeovers anywhere in the world.’

However, Bishop Chad also urged Christians everywhere to pray for Zimbabwe ‘during these uncertain times.’ His colleague, Archbishop Albert Chama, admitted at the time that ‘this sad situation needs more than a political solution. It needs all people of faith to pray, all citizens to engage and ensure a peaceful transition in Zimbabwe.’

There was a marked contrast between Robert Mugabe and Chad Gandiya, and the attitude to the people of Zimbabwe from these two leaders who had lived many years in exile.

I got to know Bishop Chad when he was working in London as the Regional Desk Officer for Africa and the Indian Ocean for the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel). I have been a supporter of USPG all my adult life, and I am a trustee of USPG – I was in London for a trustees’ meeting for a full day two days ago [Wednesday 4 May 2020].

USPG is a long-standing partner of the Anglican Church in Zimbabwe, with a relationship that dates back to 1891, and among those we remembered in our prayers at the end of the meeting on Wednesday was Canon Noel Joseph Alexander Scott, an Irish-born missionary in Zimbabwe from 1969 to 2003, who died a month ago [6 February 2020].

When I first got to know Bishop Chad, he was overseeing projects for USPG such as health, leadership development, education and theological education. He has also been on the staff of the former United College of the Ascension in Birmingham, where I took a course in 1996. His decision to return to Zimbabwe in 2009, during difficult times, was brave and heroic.

He was elected Bishop of Harare as Mugabe was dividing the churches in Zimbabwe and encouraging a schismatic bishop and his breakaway church to use violence to take over many Anglican churches, including Harare Cathedral.

Churches, schools and charities in Zimbabwe were attacked, seized and forcibly closed, priests, teachers, care staff and church workers were threatened, intimidated and physically attacked, and ordinary Christians were beaten up and prevented from going to church.

On one occasion, Bishop Chad was held at gunpoint with his family while his home was ransacked. The gunmen were most interested in taking his communication equipment, targeting laptops and mobile phones while ignoring other portable valuables. All this was set out in a dossier when Archbishop Rowan Williams met Mugabe, and USPG was to the forefront in letting the world know about these attacks.

Yet, as Bishop of Harare, Chad found the time to accept my invitation to preach in the chapel of the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, to deliver a guest lecture, and to visit churches and cathedrals in Dublin, Kilkenny and Belfast and to meet friends and supporters of USPG.

As Mugabe fell from power, Bishop Chad asked people to pray for pray for peace, love, unity and development, for all people in Zimbabwe, and for justice and respect for human rights. He concluded with the prayer, ‘God bless Zimbabwe. Guide her leaders. Guard her people. And give her peace. Amen!’

It seems a prayerful coincidence that in the week the World Day of Prayer is using resources prepared by the women of Zimbabwe, the USPG Prayer Diary is focussing this week on ‘Theological Education: a Key Pillar of Mission,’ with a particular focus on Bishop Gaul Theological College in Harare.

This college takes its name from Bishop Billy Gaul, an early SPG missionary from Ireland. And, just a few weeks ago, Bishop Chad was called out of retirement and was appointed acting principal of the college.

Through the USPG Prayer Diary, I have been praying all this week for Zimbabwe, for the churches there, and in particular for Bishop Chad and his work and ministry.

Long after the USPG Prayer Diary has moved on from Zimbabwe to pray for other countries and other crises, the situation in Zimbabwe is still going to need our prayers as they continue to face political, social and economic crises.

Long after this World Day of Prayer, the women of Zimbabwe are still going to need our prayer.

Long after these days, the people of Zimbabwe will need to find ways live out the hope to ‘Rise – take your mat and walk!’

Please remember to pray for Zimbabwe, its people and its churches, its politicians and its Church leaders.

In the words of Bishop Chad, as Mugabe was falling from power, ‘God bless Zimbabwe. Guide her leaders. Guard her people. And give her peace. Amen!’

Praying through Lent with
USPG (10): 6 March 2020

The gas chambers of Birkenau were blown up by the SS in an attempt to hide their crimes (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

We are more than a week into Lent today [6 March 2020], and later this morning I am speaking at the ‘World Day of Prayer’ service in Embury Court, Adare, Co Limerick.

The theme of ‘World Day of Prayer’ this year is ‘Rise – take up your mat and walk!’ and the resources were prepared by the woman of Zimbabwe.

During Lent this year, I am using the USPG Prayer Diary, Pray with the World Church, for my morning prayers and reflections. Because this year marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and the end of the Holocaust, I am also illustrating my reflections with images on this theme.

USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) is the Anglican mission agency that partners churches and communities worldwide in God’s mission to enliven faith, strengthen relationships, unlock potential, and champion justice. It was founded in 1701.

This week (1-7 March), the USPG Prayer Diary is focussing on ‘Theological Education: a Key Pillar of Mission,’ with a particular focus on Bishop Gaul Theological College in Harare, which takes its name from Bishop Billy Gaul, an early SPG missionary from Ireland. The acting principal, Bishop Chad Gandiya, is a former Regional Desk Officer for Africa and the Indian Ocean at the USPG office in London.

However, the focus of the diary turns today from Zimbabwe to Ghana:

Friday 6 March:

Let us pray for the Anglican Diocese of Accra and for all the people of Ghana as they celebrate their nation’s Independence Day.

Readings: Ezekiel 18: 21-28; Psalm 130; Matthew 5: 20-26.

The Collect:

Almighty God,
whose Son Jesus Christ fasted forty days in the wilderness,
and was tempted as we are, yet without sin:
Give us grace to discipline ourselves
in obedience to your Spirit;
and, as you know our weakness,
so may we know your power to save;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Lenten Collect:

Almighty and everlasting God,
you hate nothing that you have made
and forgive the sins of all those who are penitent:
Create and make in us new and contrite hearts
that we, worthily lamenting our sins
and acknowledging our wretchedness,
may receive from you, the God of all mercy,
perfect remission and forgiveness;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Continued tomorrow

Yesterday’s reflection