29 September 2023

Wolverhampton’s only
synagogue survived
for 90 years and is
now used as a church

Wolverhampton Synagogue was rebuilt in 1903 and closed in 1999; it is now Saint Silas Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

Have you heard about the street named Short Street that became Long Street?

Or about the synagogue in the West Midlands that has become a fundamentalist church?

Wolverhampton Synagogue, also known as Wolverhampton Hebrew Congregation, was once the only synagogue in South Staffordshire, and closed in 1999. While I was in Wolverhampton last month, I went in search of the synagogue that has since been turned into a church by a fundamentalist evangelical group.

Wolverhampton is a city with a population of over 260,000, about 15 km north-west of Birmingham. It was part of Staffordshire until 1974, when it became a metropolitan borough in the newly created metropolitan county of West Midlands. It became a Millennium City in 2001.

The Jewish community in Wolverhampton dates back to the 1830s. Levi Harris, who is the first known Jew to settle there, arrived in Wolverhampton in 1834, having made the journey from Kretinga, Lithuania, to Gravesend, Kent, two years earlier. Levi Harris was a pawnbroker and clothier and he spent the last 21 years of his life in Wolverhampton. He became a British citizen in 1849, and owned property in Berry Street and Worcester Street.

Levi Harris was joined in Wolverhampton by a small Jewish presence. The first organised congregation reputedly owes its origins to a Mr Aarons of Berry Street who, after the death of his father in the mid-1840s, was able to organise a minyan or prayer quorum of 10 local Jewish men at his home to recite prayers during the week of shiva (שִׁבְעָה‎) or mourning.

At the end of the week, those 10 men met and decided to form an organised congregation. They initially meeting in private homes, with Marcus Gordon of Saint George’s Parade, Wolverhampton, acting as a lay reader. Later, premises were rented for a synagogue that opened on 16 October 1850. David Lazarus Davis from Kent was elected chair and Levi Harris became vice-chair of the synagogue.

The synagogue was rebuilt in 1903-1904 by the Wolverhampton architect Frederick Thomas Beck (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

That first synagogue in Wolverhampton was a licensed room in a house in the now demolished St James’s Square, Horseley Fields, that is now demolished. It was the home of Rabbi Isaac Barnett, a Polish Jew who had moved to Wolverhampton from Woolwich with his wife and three children. There was also a Jewish boys and girls school in St James’s Square, perhaps also in Rabbi Barnett’s house. The schoolmaster was the Revd Manasseh Cohen, originally from Pzydry, Poland.

The Duke of Sutherland agreed to a piece of his land becoming an Orthodox Jewish burial ground in 1851. The first burial was seven-year-old Benjamin Cohen. Levi Harris died on 5 November 1855 at the age of 60. The last burial was in 2000.

When the lease for the synagogue and house expired in 1857, a site for a new synagogue was bought on the corner of Fryer Street and Long Street – previously known as Short Street. The foundation stone was laid by JC Cohen, President of the Birmingham synagogue, in 1858, and the synagogue was consecrated later that year by the Chief Rabbi, Dr Nathan Marcus HaCohen Adler (1803-1890). By then, the Revd Manasseh Cohen was the resident rabbi in Wolverhampton.

Key prominent Victorian Jews were donors to the new synagogue, including Sir David Salomons, Baron Rothschild and Sir Moses Montefiore.

The synagogue had two doors, one for men and one for women (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The synagogue suffered a major fire in 1902. Remarkably, the Ark and the Torah scrolls were untouched by the fire. The entire building was largely rebuilt in 1903-1904 in the Ashkenazic style by the Wolverhampton architect Frederick Thomas Beck, a pupil of TH Fleeming, who designed some of the Victorian buildings in Wolverhampton, including the Municipal Grammar School, Midland Counties Eye Infirmary and Barclay’s Bank in Queen’s Square.

Beck was based in Darlington Street and he designed several churches in the area and many domestic and commercial buildings, including the Posada on Lichfield Street.

The exterior of the synagogue was said to be ‘very pleasing’ and made of Kingswinford brick with York stone dressing. There are two doors into the building, one for men and one for women.

Inside, men and women were seated separately, with men in the main hall below and women in the gallery. The interior was described as ‘light and attractive,’ panelled out and enamelled in cream with gold detail. The pillars raising the gallery were green and gold, with the pews and remaining woodwork made of oak. Electricity was added to the building and a Mikvah or women’s ritual bathing room and other accommodation were added in the basement.

The exterior of the synagogue was said to be ‘very pleasing’ and made of Kingswinford brick with York stone dressing (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The synagogue’s heyday was in the 1930s. Meanwhile, a Liberal Jewish Circle was formed in Wolverhampton In the mid-1960s and continued in existence until the mid-1970s.

The Revd Abraham Bernstein was the last resident minister to serve the Wolverhampton Hebrew Congregation. He arrived in 1953, and was the minister until about 1967. He then served in the South-East London District Synagogue at New Cross and retired to Prestwich, north Manchester, around 1972.

However, the congregation of Wolverhampton Hebrew Congregation had dwindled gradually after World War the II. When a quorum or minyan could no longer be found, the membership transferred to Singers Hill Synagogue in Birmingham in 1999.

Wolverhampton Synagogue closed in 1999, but narrowly escaped demolition, thanks largely to the Wolverhampton Civic Society. It was sold in 2000 and converted into a place of worship known as Saint Silas Church for an ultra-conservative evangelical breakaway group formed in 1994 and that calls itself the Church of England (Continuing). It has two bishops, two priests and four small congregations. It opposes the ordination of women, Anglo-Catholic liturgical practices and liberal religious and social values.

The Hebrew date 5663 and the western date 1903 mean the building is recognisable as the former synagogue(Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Although the old synagogue is now a church, it is still recognisable as the former synagogue, with an inscription of the Hebrew date 5663 and the western date 1903.

Many of the original interior features from the synagogue have been preserved, including the Ark, the gilded, double headed Luhot or Ten Commandments, the galleries, furniture, railings and panelling, although the Gothic bimah and pews have not survived.

Only three or four Jewish families survive in Wolverhampton today.

Meanwhile, the Jewish festival of Sukkot or Festival of Booths begins at sunset this evening (29 September 2023) and ends at nightfall on 6 October 2023. The first two days of Sukkot, from sundown of the first date until nightfall two days later, are full-fledged, no-work-allowed holiday days.

Shabbat Shalom

Wolverhampton Synagogue is now used by the Church of England (Continuing) as Saint Silas Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very interesting reading