Friday, 9 November 2012

Liturgy (part-time) 4: visiting the Dublin Jewish Progressive Synagogue

The Dublin Jewish Progressive Congregation (Knesset Orech Chayim) on Leicester Avenue in Rathgar (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Patrick Comerford

This evening, as part of the Liturgy module, we are visiting the synagogue in Leicester Avenue, the Dublin Jewish Progressive Congregation (Knesset Orech Chayim), where we will be welcomed by the president of the synagogue, Mrs Hilary Abrahamson.

Shabbat services are usually held here at 11 a.m. on Saturdays and at 10.30 a.m. for b’nei mitzvah and certain festivals. However, there is no service tomorrow morning, and instead we are visiting this evening for the Kristallnacht service.

Kristallnacht, or the “Night of Broken Glass,” recalls a pogrom or planned night series of co-ordinated attacks against Jews throughout Nazi Germany and in Austria on the night of 9-10 November 1938. The attacks left the streets covered with broken glass from the windows of Jewish-owned shops, buildings, and synagogues.

At least 91 Jews were killed in those attacks, and a further 30,000 arrested and sent to concentration camps. Jewish homes, hospitals, and schools were ransacked as the attackers demolished buildings with sledgehammers. Over 1,000 synagogues were burned – 95 in Vienna alone – and over 7,000 Jewish businesses were destroyed or damaged.

Kristallnacht was followed by an intensification of the economic and political persecution of Jews, and is viewed by historians as the beginning of the Holocaust.

This is an important night, and not just for the Jewish community in Dublin. But it also gives us a good opportunity to see how sacred and liturgical space is used in another community of faith, and to see how they welcome others and offer hospitality.

Since its foundation in 1946 by members of the Irish Jewish Community, the DJPC has built a congregation based on values of inclusivity and the practice of Liberal Judaism. The earliest meetings were held in a Quaker meeting house.

Membership is open to anyone of the Jewish faith and the participation of non-Jewish spouses or partners in the life of the congregation is welcomed. The synagogue has a reputation for providing a warm welcome at its services to everyone, including numerous visitors from around the world.

Services are held every Erev Shabbat, on High Holy Days and the Festivals, and on many Shabbat mornings. Frequent family services are also held in the synagogue as are special events marking key milestones in Jewish life – births, Bar or Bat Mitzvah, Kabbalat Torah, weddings and anniversaries.

The synagogue or shul is an international partner in Mitzvah Day UK and members of the congregation are involved in a wide variety of Irish interfaith and other local cross-community activities.

Cheder is held on Sunday mornings during school term for the children of members – in addition to teaching Hebrew and Bible studies along with Jewish customs and practices, there is a variety of outings and special events for the pupils and their families. Each year some of the older youth and young adults from the congregation attend Jewish camps organised in Europe, Israel and the UK by Liberal Judaism.

The first reference to the presence of Jews in Ireland is in the Annals of Innisfallen, which record the arrival of five Jews, probably from Rouen in France, in 1079. Following the expulsion of Jews from Spain and Portugal in the late 15th century, more Jews settled in Ireland, and 1555 William Annyas became the Mayor of Youghal, Co Cork, and the first Jewish mayor in Ireland.

However, the first synagogue in Ireland did not open until 1660, with the opening of a prayer room in Crane Lane, opposite Dublin Castle.

Famous Jewish politicians and judges in Ireland have included Mr Justice Henry Barron, Otto Yaffe, who became the first Jewish Lord Mayor of Belfast in 1899, Bob Briscoe, the first Jewish Lord Mayor of Dublin in 1956, and Gerald Goldberg, the first Jewish Lord Mayor of Cork in 1977, and of Ben Briscoe of Fianna Fail, Alan Shatter of Fine Gael and Mervyn Taylor of Labour. When Gerald Goldberg was Lord Mayor of Cork, he opened the Trinity pedestrian bridge, which is also close to the synagogue on South Terrace where he had been President. The bridge was named after a nearby church, but local wags nicknamed it “the Passover.”

Judaism in Ireland today:

Rabbi Zalman Lent speaking to the Church of Ireland Interfaith Conference in Terenure Synagogue two years ago (Photograph: Orla Ryan, 2010)

There is a popular story that 55 years ago in New York, the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Robert Briscoe, led the Saint Patrick’s Day parade on New York's Fifth Avenue. In 1956 Two Jews were watching the parade.

One Jew said to the other: “Did you know that Robert Briscoe is Jewish?”

“Amazing! Only in America,” replied said his friend.

Since the arrival of the first Jews here in 1079, a number of Jews have been elected to high office William Annyas was Mayor of Youghal, Co Cork in 1555; Sir Otto Yaffe was Lord Mayor of Belfast in 1899; in 1956 and 1961, Robert Briscoe of Fianna Fail was Lord Mayor of Dublin; in 1977, Gerald Goldberg was Lord Mayor of Cork; Ben Briscoe, a Fianna Fail TD, followed in father’s footsteps when he was elected Lord Mayor of Dublin in 1988. In my own lifetime there have been Jewish TDs for all three main political parties: Ben Briscoe (Fianna Fail), Alan Shatter (Fine Gael) and Mervyn Taylor (Labour).

The present Jewish community in Ireland dates mainly from the 1880s, when immigrants from Lithuania fleeing pogroms in the Tsarist empire found refuge in Dublin and Cork. At its highest point, the Jewish population of Ireland stood between 3,500 and 4,000 from 1911 until 1948. By 1991, this number had dropped to 1,581.

The decline in Ireland’s Jewish population appears to have been arrested. According to last census (2006), the community has experienced a marginal 2.2 per cent increase in the Republic of Ireland from 1,930 in 2006 to 1,984 in 2011, with probably another 150 in Northern Ireland. There are two synagogues in Dublin: one Orthodox synagogue on Rathfarnham Road in Terenure, and the Liberal- Progressive synagogue at Leicester Avenue in Rathgar. In addition, there is one small synagogue in Cork that rarely opens, and one synagogue in Belfast. Other synagogues in Dublin – including the ones on Adelaide Road, Walworth Road, and on the South Circular Road (Greenville Hall) have closed in the 1970s and 1980s.

The synagogue on Walworth Road now houses the Irish Jewish Museum, which was opened in 1985 by Chaim Herzog, President of Israel from 1983 to 1993. He was born in Belfast in 1918, and his father, Dr Isaac Herzog, was the first Chief Rabbi of the Irish Free State.

The museum was opened in 1984 by the former President of Israel, Chaim Herzog (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

There are Jewish cemeteries in Ballybough, with graves dating back to the early 18th century, in Dolphin’s Barn, which opened in 1898, and close to the Orlagh Retreat Centre in Rathfarnham, which opened in the early 1950s. Stratford College, on Zion Road, is a Jewish-run school. But Dublin’s kosher bakery, The Bretzel in Portobello, has been owned by non-Jews for two generations.

Most Irish Jews are comfortably middle-class, many are professionals or in business, and many are third- or fourth-generation Irish-born. But they are asking themselves whether Jewish life is going to continue in Ireland? And if so, for much longer?

Emigration, an aging population, intermarriage and assimilation have all taken their toll, and some estimates say that within a generation or two only a handful of Jews are likely to remain in Ireland. Raphael Siev, who founded the museum, has estimated “there are more Irish-born Jews living in Israel than in Ireland.”

During the Church of Ireland Interfaith Conference in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute two years ago [September 2010], we visited the synagogue on Rathfarnham Road, where Rabbi Zalman Lent speculated that the decline has been arrested. He pointed out there is a young Jewish population in Dublin, and some Jewish immigration.

Personal encounter

Terenure Synagogue, Rathfarnham Road ... I was born a few doors away in 1952 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Close to Harold’s Cross Bridge, there is a terrace of houses on Clanbrassil Street where James Joyce says Leopold Bloom was born. Joyce made Bloom the archetypal “Dub” of the early 20th century when he wrote Ulysses.

There, in Little Jerusalem, my grandfather had cousins who shared a house with Lithuanian Jewish immigrants and cousins who lived two doors away from the house where Joyce says Bloom was born.

I was born on Rathfarnham Road, a few doors away from the Terenure Synagogue. In my youth, I knew the streets of Little Jerusalem, off the South Circular Road and Clanbrassil Street in Dublin.

Over the years, I have visited the synagogues in Dublin at Adelaide Road and Walworth Road (both now closed), Rathfarnham Road and Leicester Avenue, Rathgar, and I have written about and I have visited synagogues and Jewish communities in Austria, Britain, China, France, Greece, Hungary, Hong Kong, Israel/Palestine, Italy, the Netherlands, Romania, South Africa and Turkey.

The Jewish experience in Europe

The Jewish Holocaust Memorial on Platia Eleftherias near the port in Thessaloniki .... in July 1942, all the men in the Jewish community aged from 18 to 45 were rounded up in this square for deportation (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Jewish contribution to Western culture cannot all be compartmentalised into the wanderings of Leopold Bloom in Ulysses, the movies of Woody Allen, amateur dramatic stagings of Fiddler on the Roof, the novels of Chaim Potok or James Heller, the songs of Bob Dylan, the poems of Leonard Cohen, Erich Segal’s Love Story, the politics and conflicts around Israel, or Madonna’s dabbling in the Kaballah.

But over the centuries, European civilisation and our spirituality have been challenged by, have been enriched by and have engaged with innumerable Jewish thinkers and philosophers, including:

● Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), who declared that religious faith “consists in honesty and sincerity of heart rather than in outward actions.”

● Karl Marx (1818-1883), who irreversibly changed political and social thinking.

● Jacques Derrida (1930-2004), the father figure of post-modernism, who argued: “We should stop thinking about God as someone, over there, way up there, transcendent and, what is more … capable, more than any satellite orbiting in space, of seeing into the most secret of places.” Instead, he said, we should see God as “the structure of conscience.”

Stars of David in the darkness of the night at the synagogue in Rathfarnham Road, Dublin ... the spirituality that sustained a people and a faith through the dark night of the Holocaust is rich, deep and profound (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The spirituality that sustained a people and a faith through the dark night of the Holocaust must be very rich, deep and profound, and has to have something deep and beautiful to contribute to us today, and to say to us as we experience and live our lives spiritually. Any introduction to Jewish spirituality needs to imagine the profound impact of the Holocaust on Jews collectively and on our society. And an introduction to Jewish spirituality also needs to take account of the Hasidic movement, which has influenced many writers outside its own circles.

Eight key contemporary Jewish figures:

Fragments of Jewish gravestones scattered by the Rotunda in Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

There is a perception that Jewish religious activity is confined to concerns about the modern state of Israel or debates about the observation of kosher regulations. But there are other sources and strengths for the practice of Jewish spirituality today.

And, for me, eight key personalities serve to illustrate the sources and strengths for the practice of Jewish spirituality today:

Martin Buber (1878-1965), was a leading Austrian-born Israeli philosopher, translator, and educator. His evocative, sometimes poetic writing style has marked the major themes in his work: the re-telling of Hasidic tales, Biblical commentary, and metaphysical dialogue.

For Martin Buber, the Hasidic ideal was a life lived in the unconditional presence of God, where there was no distinct separation between daily habits and religious experience. This was a major influence on his philosophy of anthropology, which considered the basis of human existence as dialogical.

In 1923, he wrote his famous essay on existence, Ich und Du (later published in English as I and Thou), in which he argues there that a person is at all times engaged with the world in one of two modes of being: one of dialogue (Ich-Du) or one of monologue (Ich-Es). Ich-Du (“I-Thou”) is a relationship that stresses the mutual, holistic existence of two beings. It is an encounter in which infinity and universality are made actual, rather than being merely concepts.

Buber describes God as the eternal “Du,” and so one key Ich-Du relationship he identifies is that between a human being and God. He argues that this is the only way it is possible to interact with God, and that an Ich-Du relationship with anything or anyone connects in some way with the eternal relation to God.

On the other hand, in an Ich-Es relationship there is no actual meeting. He argues that human life consists of an oscillation between Ich-Du and Ich-Es, and that Ich-Du experiences are few and far between. He argues that Ich-Es relations – even between human beings – devalue not only those who exist, but the meaning of all existence.

Simone Weil (1909-1943) was a French philosopher, Christian mystic and social activist, who was born in Paris into an agnostic Jewish family. She wrote extensively with both insight and breadth about the political movements she was a part of and later about spiritual mysticism. Her biographer Gabriella Fiori says she was “a moral genius in the orbit of ethics, a genius of immense revolutionary range.”

From 1938 on, her writings became more mystical and spiritual. She declined to be baptised until the very end of her life – a decision she explained in her book Waiting for God.

She does not regard the world as a debased creation, but as a direct expression of God’s love – although she also recognises it as a place of evil, affliction, and sees the brutal mixture of chance and necessity. This juxtaposition leads her to produce an unusual form of Christian theodicy. She also writes on why she believes spirituality is necessary for dealing with social and political problems, and says the soul needs food just as the body needs food.

Elie Weisel (born 1928) is a Romanian-born modern Jewish novelist, political activist, and Holocaust survivor. He is the author of over 40 books. His best-known book, Night (1958), describes his Holocaust experiences in several concentration camps: “I was the accuser, God the accused. My eyes were open and I was alone – terribly alone in a world without God and without man.”

In one searing passage in Night, he recalls “the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky,” and says: “Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever … Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God himself. Never.”

He has written over 40 books and was instrumental in the building of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. In 1986, he received the Nobel Peace Prize for speaking out against violence, repression, and racism. His writing is considered among the most important in Holocaust literature, and he is credited by some with giving the term “Holocaust” its present meaning.

His statement, “... to remain silent and indifferent is the greatest sin of all ...”, stands as a succinct summary of his views on life and serves as the driving force of his work.

J├╝rgen Moltmann, in The Crucified God, was the first theologian to adapt Wiesel’s graphic and horrific story of a Jewish boy hung by the Nazis along with two men in a camp. It took half an hour for the youth to die and, as the men of the camp watched his torment, one asked: “Where is God now?” Wiesel heard a voice within him answer: “Where is he? He is here. He is hanging there on the gallows.”

But, while Wiesel interpreted his inner voice as expressing what has now become disbelief in a loving and just God, Moltmann used the story to argue for a God who suffers in union with those who suffer.

Dr Jonathan Henry Sacks is the (Orthodox) Chief Rabbi in Britain, and is a well-known spokesman for the Jewish community, as a frequent guest on television and radio shows, and for his regular newspaper columns.

In the 1990 BBC Reith lectures (published in 1991 as The Persistence of Faith), he argued that faiths must remain open to criticism, and while keeping alive their separate communities must contribute to national debates and moral issues.

Rabbi Lionel Blue is an English Reform rabbi from the East End of London, a journalist and broadcaster, and the first openly gay British rabbi. He is well known for his wry, gentle sense of humour on A Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4.

Through those contributions to A Thought for the Day over the past 25 years, he has given hundreds of thousands of listeners their daily ration of spirituality and religion, and has bridged the gap between not only Judaism but all religion and the demands of the secular world. “Well good morning Sue and good morning John and good morning everybody” is a typical opening for A Thought for the Day.

He has said: “I don’t believe death is the end. This world is like a corridor, like a departure lounge in an airport. You make yourself comfortable and get to know people – then your number comes up and you’re called.”

Dan Cohn-Sherbok is a Reform rabbi and Professor of Jewish Theology at the University of Wales in Lampeter. He argues that today Judaism is pluriform in nature, that it no longer has an over-arching authority that can determine correct belief and practice.

In The Crucified Jew (1992), he challenges Christians to face up to 2,000 years of anti-Semitism. In Glimpses of God (1994), he invites a variety of writers, Jewish and Christian, to say whether we can find a glimpse of God in the everyday life.

Michele Guinness bridges Judaism and Anglicanism in her own life story. A vicar’s wife and a broadcaster for many years, she has written eight books and is a regular contributor to television, newspapers and magazines.

In her best-selling book, Child of the Covenant (1985), she talks about making sense of being both Jewish and Christian. She has argued that as a member of the Church of England she never lost her sense of being Jewish, and she continues to practice many aspects of her Jewish faith. She talks of a Jewish girl rediscovering her roots by finding Christ.

Leonard Cohen is a Canadian born poet and song-writer and I have been a fan of his since the late 1960s, and have delighted in his recent concerts in Ireland. There is more to his spirituality than Hallelujah. Like most Jews, he has been irrevocably changed by entering into the shared, post-Holocaust experience. Like many Jews, he has tried to balance between a critical and an ambivalent attitude to the religious teachings of Judaism, but he has never abandoned it.

His poetry and his lyrics are deeply influenced by Hasidic ideas too, and even when he is apparently at his most bawdy he remains deeply mystical and spiritually challenging.

He sings his poem, If it be your will, as a deeply moving prayer:

Leonard Cohen, ‘If it be your will’

If it be your will
that I speak no more
and my voice be still
as it was before
I will speak no more
I shall abide until
I am spoken for
if it be your will

If it be your will
that a voice be true
from this broken hill
I will sing to you
from this broken hill
all your praises they shall ring
if it be your will
to let me sing
from this broken hill
all your praises they shall ring
if it be your will
to let me sing

If it be your will
if there is a choice
let the rivers fill
let the hills rejoice
Let your mercy spill
on all these burning hearts in hell
if it be your will
to make us well

And draw us near
and bind us tight
all your children here
in their rags of light
In our rags of light
all dressed to kill
and end this night
if it be your will

If it be your will.

Appendix 1: The Irish Jewish Museum

The Irish Jewish Museum and Heritage Centre is housed in two terraced houses in area once known as “Little Jerusalem” (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

At another time, you might also consider visiting the Irish Jewish Museum and Heritage Centre, which is housed in the former Walworth Road Synagogue in Portobello. The museum is housed in what were originally two adjoining redbrick terraced houses in Walworth Road, which had a functioning synagogue in the upstairs floor.

That area once had a proportionately large Jewish population, so that some of the streets around this end of the South Circular Road were known as “Little Jerusalem.”

Due to the drift of the Jewish population from Portobello and Little Jerusalem to the suburbs of south Dublin, the synagogue fell into disuse and stopped functioning around 1970. The premises were locked for almost 15 years, and but the building was brought back to life again with the formation of the Irish Jewish Museum Committee in 1984. The museum was opened by the Irish-born former President of Israel, Dr Chaim Herzog, during a state visit to Ireland the following year.

The Irish Jewish Museum and Heritage Centre is housed in the former synagogue on Walworth Road, which opened in 1915 and remained in use until the 1970s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

On the ground floor, the museum preserves an important part of Ireland’s cultural and historic heritage, with a collection of memorabilia relating to Ireland’s Jewish communities and their associations and contributions to present-day Ireland. The material relates to the last 150 years and tells the stories of Jewish communities not just in Dublin but also in Belfast, Cork, Derry, Drogheda, Limerick and Waterford.

The museum is divided into several areas. In the entrance area and corridors, there is a display of photographs, paintings, certificates and testimonials. The ground floor contains a general display relating to the commercial and social life of the Jewish community.

The exhibits on this floor also include memorabilia and photographs from Dublin’s many synagogues, including the now-closed synagogues on Adelaide Road and the South Circular Road (Greenville Hall).

A special feature on the ground floor of the museum is a kitchen with the kosher double sink and a table that is laid out with the traditional Sabbath or Festival meal setting of a typical Jewish home in this area of Dublin in the late 19th and early 20th century.

The displays include photographs of some of the Jewish characters mentioned by James Joyce in Ulysses, as well as many religious and other Jewish objects mentioned in this book. One showcase displays a selection of items referred to in the various episodes of Ulysses that have a Jewish or Irish connection.

There has never been any concern within the Dublin Jewish about James Joyce’s portrayal of Leopold Bloom. The Jerusalem Post on Bloomsday last year reported: “Nobody has ever complained about the fictitious character Leopold Bloom. In fact, everyone enjoys it. Jews everywhere have accepted it as a story.”

The synagogue was used for a wedding recently (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Upstairs, the original synagogue retains all its ritual fittings. The synagogue could hold about 150 men and women. It has never been formally deconsecrated, and so was used for a wedding last year. There is still a pair of mannequins beneath a canopy, dressed for a wedding.

What was the women’s gallery now houses the Harold Smerling gallery, with many religious objects, including richly decorated covers for Torah scrolls.

The Irish Jewish Museum seeks to collect, preserve and present for public display material and artefacts relating to the Irish Jewish Community and Judaism in general and to make this memorabilia available to visitors, researchers and students.

The Irish Jewish Museum, 3 Walworth Road, off the South Circular Road, Dublin 8, is open 1 May to 30 September: Monday to Thursday, 11 am to 3.30 pm; 1 October to 30 April: Sunday only, 10.30 am to 2.30 pm. Admission is free but donations are gratefully accepted. Arrangements can be made outside opening times for adult and school groups. Contact:


Saturday, 10 November 2012:

Baptism and Eucharist (2) liturgical renewal in the 20th century; the contemporary life and mission of the Church;

5.2: 5.2: Rites of passage, e.g., Marriages, Funerals.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin. These briefing notes were prepared for Year II M.Th. students (part-time mode) in advance of a visit to the Dublin Jewish Progressive Synagogue, Dublin, on 9 November 2012, as part of the Module EM8824: Liturgy, Worship and Spirituality.

Some favourite autumn walks and strolls around Lichfield

A stroll in the countryside near Lichfield yesterday morning (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Patrick Comerford

Strolling from the Hedgehog along Stafford Road and Beacon Street into Lichfield Cathedral for mid-day Eucharist and Evensong has been a real pleasure this week.

This has been a retreat and time for prayer, reflection and contemplation, and that walk has been a real joy a regular part of my spiritual exercises.

But there are a few other walk around Lichfield that I think are worth sharing.

1, The Cathedral Close

The Cathedral Close in Lichfield is a quieter place at night (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The old buildings clustered around the cathedral in the Cathedral Close are full of ecclesiastical history, including the hidden, timber-framed mediaeval houses in the two courtyards at Vicar’s Close, the former Bishops’ Palace, the old stables, the former theological college, and the houses of the residentiary canons.

It is always worth dropping into the Cathedral Shop facing the west door of the cathedra. At the back of the shop is whole section of second-hand books, and as I browsed through the shelves I was reminded of the Staffs Book Shop on the corner of Dam Street and Market Square and thought what I loss to Lichfield it is.

At night, when the tourists and school groups are long gone, the Cathedral Close takes on a new atmosphere. There is little light pollution here, and virtually no traffic here so that one evening this week I stood still watching the stars twinkle above the three spires.

2, The Minster Pool

Late autumn colours at the Minster Pool early yesterday afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

On the south side of the cathedral, between Dam Street and Bird Street, the Minster Pool and Walk have been restored over the past year or two by Lichfield District Council as part of the Lichfield Historic Parks restoration project.

The project saw the transformation of Beacon Park, Minster Pool and Walk and the Garden of Remembrance, and has recently received a BALI National Landscape Award in the Restoration and Regeneration category.

Minster Pool played an important role in the defence of the Cathedral Close in the past. The pool was formed in the 11th century when a boggy stream was dammed at its eastern end to drive a mill on the appropriately-named Dam Street. The pool was used as a mill pond and fishery until 1856 when the mill was demolished.

One evening this week, we sat at a table in Ego Restaurant, looking out on the pool, and enjoying the reflections of the cathedral spires on the water.

3, Cross in Hand Lane

Autumnal arches at Cross in Hand Lane (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

At the back of the Hedgehog, the quaintly-named Cross in Hand Lane provides a tranquil walk through fields and farmland that eventually leads out to the villages of Farewell and Chorley.

The autumn leaves on the branches were still providing arches across the lane yesterday morning as we began a walk in the Staffordshire countryside.

Autumn and winter bring their own seasonal work to the farms at Cross in Hand Lane (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

A large field at the junction of Cross in Hand Lane and Stafford Road was being prepared for next year’s work – each season brings its own work and times for farmers.

4, Abnalls Lane

Wooden posts and styles mark out the paths for walkers and ramblers near Abnalls Lane (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

From the junction at the Hedgehog with Cross in Hand Lane we walked back down the grassy path on the western side if the Western By-Pass to Abnalls Lane. Along the way, wooden posts and styles mark out the paths for walkers and ramblers.

On this dry, sunny winter’s morning, the fields were bright and there were many people taking advantage of the well mapped-out Heart of England Way.

Autumn turns to winter along Abnalls Lane on the edges of Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

We strolled a little along Abnalls Lane and I took a note of another walk worth planning on a future visit, with woods and coppices around delighting in names such as Fitzherbert Firs, The Dell, Lady Muriel’s Belt and Sloppy Wood.

5, Beacon Park
Trying to see the spires from the trees ... a glimpse of Lichfield Cathedral through the tress of Beacon Park (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

As we continued south along the grassy path beside the Western By-Pass, we could glimpse the spires of the cathedral through the trees of Beacon Park, and I found myself asking whether I could see the spires for the trees.

Grey squirrels were playing through the leaves that fallen from the trees. It was as though autumn was struggling to linger a little longer.

There is a rural charm about the houses in Townfields in Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

But instead of crossing through the park to Bird Street at the Cathedral Close, wee ambled down to Townfields, another hidden corner of Lichfield, where some of the houses could be in remote rural England.

Eventually, we strolled along Queen Street and Sandford Street, and after our morning’s walk we were in Lichfield Cathedral for the mid-day Eucharist.

Some appropriate advice from Dr Johnson ... in the Hedgehog in Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Later we strolled back up Beacon Street, and from the Pinfold made our way along the southern end of Cross in Hand Lane to Hedgehog, for a late lunch. We would return along Beacon Street to the city centre at the close of the day.

Molehills and autumn leaves on a grassy spot on Stafford Road near the Hedgehog before strolling down Beacon Street to the Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Beacon Street ... a Lichfield street lined with old schools

The Renaissance-style building that was once Beacon School is now an apartment block on Beacon Street, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Patrick Comerford

Walking into Lichfield Cathedral two or three times a day this week from the Hedgehog, near the point where Stafford Road meets Beacon Street, it is striking how many buildings along Beacon Street have strong educational associations.

Half-way down Beacon Street, on the corner with Abnall’s Lane, the former Beacon School is now an impressive-looking apartment block in a Renaissance-style building. The Beacon School began life as the quaintly-named Midland Truant School in 1893 when the three boroughs of Burton upon Trent, Walsall and West Bromwich acquired an eight-acre site at the north end of Beacon Street and built an industrial school for boys.

The Renaissance-style buildings, in brick with Bath stone dressings, were built by Stevenson of Burton. From 1926, Walsall Borough had sole responsibility for the school, as the carved name above the central block indicates, and it then became a residential school for children with special educational needs.

But by 1989, there were only 20-30 children from Walsall and Sandwell in the school. It closed in the 1990s, and the building was converted into flats and apartments in 2002.

The former Beacon Street School, which opened in 1876, was built for Saint Chad’s Parish (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Across the street, the Springfield Day Nursery is housed in the Beacon Street School, later Springfield Infants’ School, which began life as a parish school for Saint Chad’s Parish.

Saint Chad’s parish raised a voluntary rate for a new parish school. The site on the east side of Beacon Street was given to the parish by Thomas George Anson (1825-1892), 2nd Earl of Lichfield and a former MP for Lichfield, in 1875, and Charlotte Stripling, a parishioner of Saint Chad’s, paid for a schoolroom.

The school opened in 1876, and a classroom was added in 1881. Part of the site was let, providing a small income. By 1901 the school was for girls and infants and had fewer than 100 pupils on its books.

In 1913, it became an infants’ school. The school name was changed in 1958, and the school was closed in 1982. A private nursery school took over the building in 1988, and today the Asquith Springfield Road Day Nursery has four age specific, bright and cheerfully decorated rooms.

The Lonsdale name is still remembered in a house name in Beacon Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

In addition, there are some houses on Beacon Street that have links with the Friary School, which stood for many years on Friary Street, the site of Lichfield Friary and now the library.

The Friary School is now located on Eastern Avenue, but traces its story back to Lichfield High School for Girls, the Friary School, and Friary Grange School.

Canon John Gylby Lonsdale’s monument in the north transept in Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Lichfield High School owes its origins to Sophia Lonsdale and her committee. Sophia Lonsdale was the daughter of Canon John Gylby Lonsdale (1818-1907), Vicar of Saint Mary’s (1866-1878), Lichfield, and a grand-daughter of John Lonsdale (1788-1867), Bishop of Lichfield.

Bishop Lonsdale’s vision led to the foundation of Lichfield Theological College in 1872. He was a supporter of Wilberforce and a friend of the radical theologian FD Maurice. It was said at the time of his death that John Lonsdale was the best bishop the diocese had ever had, the “perfect model of justice, kindness, humility and shrewd sense.”

Sophia Lonsdale grew up in Saint Mary’s Vicarage in the Cathedral Close. She shared her grandfather’s values, and was one of Lichfield’s great Victorian social reformers. In the 1880s, she declared that Lichfield’s slums were worse than anything she had seen in London. She was an active in demands for poor law reforms and her outspoken criticism eventually led to a slum clearance programme in Lichfield from the 1890s on.

Sophia Lonsdale’s new school for girls opened in Market Street in 1892, with two women teachers, a pupil-teacher, and 15 pupils. This was a fee-paying Anglican school, with both day girls and boarders from the age of eight and above. It also had a kindergarten for boys and girls up to eight.

By 1896, the school had 60 pupils and eight teachers. It moved that year to Yeomanry House in Saint John Street., and within a decade had almost 90 pupils.

However, a potential crisis arose in 1907 when the headmistress left to start a school in Derby, taking several teachers and almost all the boarders with her. By 1911, there were only 47 pupils in the school, all day girls. The school merged with another girls’ private school, Saint John’s School, in 1916 to become a maintained secondary school with 99 pupils.

By 1919, there were 169 pupils and 10 full-time teachers. A staff hostel had opened in Beacon Street a year earlier, and an adjacent house, Beaconhurst, was bought as an extra boarding house in 1919.

Nether Beacon House on Beacon Street ... once a house for boarders from the Friary School (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

When the Friary Estate was given to the city in 1920, Lichfield City Council leased the Friary building to Staffordshire County Council and the high school moved into the Friary in 1921. Beaconhurst on Beacon Street then became the staff hostel, and the boarders moved to a rented house, Nether Beacon.

In 1925, the county council bought the Friary and some of its land. The school was renamed the Friary School in 1926 and stopped taking boarders. A large new building, including an assembly hall, a refectory, laboratories, and an art room, was added in 1928. During the 1930s, numbers increased both in the main school and in the preparatory department, which took boys and girls up to 10.

Westgate House, Beacon Street ... a boarding house for girls from the Friary School until 1981 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

In 1944, the school became a secondary grammar school for girls, and when the preparatory department closed in 1948, the Friary became a girls-only school. By 1954, there were 415 pupils, and a boarding house for about 30 girls was opened in 1952 in Westgate House, Beacon Street, opposite the Cathedral Close.

In 1971, the Friary School became a mixed comprehensive. When the first stage of a large school in Eastern Avenue, Friary Grange, opened in 1973, the older girls moved there.

Westgate House on Beacon Street was closed in 1981, and once again the school stopped taking boarders. The school was still split between two sites until 1987, when the Friary site was closed and the Friary Grange school on Eastern Avenue was renamed the Friary.

The western end of the buildings on the original Friary site became Lichfield College in 1987. The eastern end was converted into the public library and record office, which moved there in 1989 from its Victorian buildings on Beacon Street, on the corner of Beacon Park.

After her death in 1936 at the age of 82, Sophia Lonsdale was described in an obituary in The Times on 27 October 1936 as “remarkable in her generation.”

The Times obituary sad “she made her mark in the city where most of her life was spent by her business capacity and readiness to undertake any work which came to hand, especially if it entailed rectifying abuses. She was absolutely fearless and disinterested, and no difficulty was too great for her to face. To her was owing the regeneration of the local workhouse, the sanitation of the city, the foundation of the High School, and the establishment of the Lichfield Charity Organisation Society. She was at her best when she had some big battle to fight, and it is not too much to say that she was invariably came out victorious.”

It added: “Her strong sense of religion was the directing star of all her activities.”

But the educational link with Beacon Street continues. The Music Department of the Cathedral School is now housed in Dimble House on Beacon Street.

The Music Department of the Cathedral School is now house in Dimble House, Beacon Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)