28 October 2022

A rabbi during Limerick’s
‘pogrom’ with ‘ability and
courage of a high order’

The Jewish cemetery in Limerick is at the end of a lane in Castletroy (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

I received an invitation earlier this week to a book launch next month for a new book to which I have contributed two chapters.

Of Limerick Saints and Seekers is edited by David Bracken and was published in Dublin last month by Veritas. The book is being launched by Dr Liam Chambers in Limerick Diocesan Centre, Saint Munchin’s, Corbally, later next month (Tuesday 22 November 2022).

In this new book, David Bracken invites readers to journey with him and over 50 other scholars through a millennium and a half of Limerick church history with saints and scribes, poets and preachers, martyrs and missionaries, and founders of churches, monasteries and religious communities.

The book spans religious history in Limerick, from early Ireland to the present day, with a collection of the lives and stories of extraordinary people from a variety of faith traditions and backgrounds, from well-known saints to unknown and unsung religious.

But the book is not confined to the Christian tradition, still less to the Catholic experience. The Limerick historian Dr Seán William Gannon tells the story of Rabbi Elias Bernard Levin (1863-1936), who came to Limerick from Lithuania, and brought together the Jewish community in the Colooney Street or Wolfe Tone Street area.

The community reached its apogee in the mid-1890s, with a vibrant Limerick Hebrew Congregation and about 200 Jews living in the city.

Hillview on Wolfe Tone Street … once a synagogue in Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In his chapter in this new book, Dr Gannon identifies Rabbi Elias Bernard Levin as the ‘central figure in this community.’

He was born in Telz, Lithuania, and served briefly as a rabbi in Lithuania before moving to Limerick with his wife Anna in 1882. The Levins remained in Limerick until 1912. In address to mark his departure, the president of the Limerick Hebrew Congregation, Hyman Graff, told him ‘the entire community recognised the valuable services he rendered … during the troubled period of antisemitic outbreak at Limerick and in all other communal affairs.’

The ‘Limerick pogrom’ was sparked or stoked by two virulent antisemitic sermons by the Redemptorist priest John Creagh (1870-1947). It eventually forced the Levin family to leave the city and settle in Leeds. There he served briefly as a rabbi and reader at the Old Central Synagogue and at the city’s Great Synagogue on Belgrave Street.

Rabbi Levin died in Leeds in 1936. He is described by Seán Gannon as having ‘ability and courage of a high order.’

Limerick’s last rabbi was Simon Gewurtz from Bratislava. The Jewish community in Limerick was without a rabbi after 1939, and the synagogue at 72 Wolfe Tone Street closed its doors for the last time eight years later. The building was closed in 1953, marking what the Jewish Chronicle called ‘the final chapter of an interesting community.’

The Limerick Pogrom, as it became known, remains controversial to this day. Even its classification as a pogrom is controversial, with some historians feeling that this cheapens the horror of the ‘real’ pogroms at the time Russia and Eastern Europe.

It was an exceptional event in Irish history. The tragedy is that this conflict involved two deprived communities living in miserable conditions. Father Creagh’s mission lost Limerick some of its finest citizens.

The controversy surrounding Kanye West and his racist, antisemitic outbursts, and the anniversary this week of the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh in which 11 people wre murdered on 27 October 2018, are reminders of how we must continue to tell the stories of saints and seekers like Rabbi Elias Bernard Levin and the antisemitism and racism they faced.

Shabbat Shalom

Of Limerick Saints and Seekers, edited by David Bracken (Dublin: Veritas Books, September 2022), 266 pp, ISBN 9781800970311.

Rabbi Levin lived at No 18 Wolfe Tone Street, Limerick, from 1889 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Praying in Ordinary Time with USPG:
Friday 28 October 2022

Saint Clement Danes, The Strand, London … founded on the site of a well outside Temple Bar (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

In the Calendar of the Church, today is Feast of Saint Simon and Jude, Apostles (28 October).

Before today gets busy, I am taking some time this morning for reading, prayer and reflection.

For the rest of this week, I am reflecting in these ways:

1, One of the readings for the morning;

2, A reflection based on six churches or church sites I visited in London last week;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary, ‘Pray with the World Church.’

Inside Saint Clement Danes, London, facing east (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Saint Simon and Saint Jude are named among the twelve apostles in the three synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke. Simon is called ‘the Zealot’, probably because he belonged to a nationalist resistance movement opposing the Roman occupation.

Saint Luke describes Saint Jude as the son of James, while the Letter of Jude has him as the brother of James. It seems he is the same person as Thaddeus, which may have been a last name. Owing to the similarity of his name to that of Judas Iscariot, Jude was rarely invoked in prayer and became known as the patron saint of ‘lost causes.’ The two apostles are remembered together on 28 October because a church that acquired their relics was dedicated to their memory in Rome on this day in the seventh century.

John 15: 17-27 (NRSVA):

[Jesus said:] 17 ‘I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

18 ‘If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. 19 If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world—therefore the world hates you. 20 Remember the word that I said to you, “Servants are not greater than their master.” If they persecuted me, they will persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also. 21 But they will do all these things to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me. 22 If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have sin; but now they have no excuse for their sin. 23 Whoever hates me hates my Father also. 24 If I had not done among them the works that no one else did, they would not have sin. But now they have seen and hated both me and my Father. 25 It was to fulfil the word that is written in their law, “They hated me without a cause.”

26 ‘When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. 27 You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.’

Inside Saint Clement Danes, London, facing west (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Saint Clement Danes, The Strand:

Saint Clement Danes is on a traffic island in The Strand, in front of the Old Bailey or the Royal Courts of Justice and a few minutes’ walk from Trafalgar Square.

Although the first church on the site was reputedly founded in the ninth century by the Danes, the present church was completed in 1682 by Sir Christopher Wren. Wren’s building was gutted during the Blitz and not restored until 1958, when it was adapted to its current function as the central church of the Royal Air Force.

The church is sometimes said to be the church featured in the nursery rhyme ‘Oranges and Lemons’ and the church bells play that tune four times a day, at 9 am, noon, 3pm and 6 pm. However, Saint Clement’s, Eastcheap, also claims to be the church in the rhyme.

Saint Clement Danes is known as one of the two ‘Island Churches’ in the area, the other being Saint Mary-le-Strand.

Saint Clement was Bishop of Rome in the first century. Legend has it that he was martyred during the reign of the Emperor Trajan by being tied to an anchor and thrown into the sea.

There are several conjectures about to the connection between church and the Danes. A popular theory is that in the ninth century, the Danes colonised the village of Aldwych on the river between the City of London and the future site of Westminster. At the time, London was on the dividing line between the English and the Danes. The Danes founded a church at Aldwych, giving the church the final part of its name (Ecclesia Clementes Danorum).

An alternative theory says Alfred the Great built the church after driving the Danes out of the City of London. King Harold I ‘Harefoot’, who is said to have been buried in the church in 1040, also had Danish connections. In the 12th-century, William of Malmesbury said the Danes burnt the church on the site of Saint Clement Danes before they were later slain in the vicinity.

In any case, the church was named after Saint Clement, patron saint of mariners. The church was first rebuilt by William the Conqueror, and then again later in the Middle Ages.

A new chancel was built over part of the churchyard in 1608, at a cost of more than £1,000, and repairs and improvements to the tower and other parts of the church were made in 1618 at a cost of £496.

The reredos, depicting the Annunciation, is by Ruskin Spears (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

After the Great Fire in 1666, the steeple and tower were rebuilt in 1669. But the rest of the church was in such a poor state that it was agreed it should be completely rebuilt. Wren employed Edward Pierce to create the ornate interior.

Saint Clement’s was rebuilt in 1680-1682 to a design by Sir Christopher Wren, incorporating the existing tower that was reclad. The new church was constructed from Portland Stone, with an apse at the east end. A steeple was added to the tower in 1719 by James Gibbs.

The interior has galleries on three sides supported by square pillars, continued above gallery level as Corinthian columns, supporting, in turn, a barrel-vaulted ceiling. Wren used the same scheme again at Saint James’s Church, Piccadilly, begun two years later. Above the galleries, each bay has a cross vault, allowing the building to be lit from large round-headed windows on the upper level.

The reredos, depicting the Annunciation, is by Ruskin Spears, the stained-glass windows are by Carl Edwards, the pulpit by Grinling Gibbons (1648-1720) was stored in Saint Paul’s Cathedral for safe-keeping during the Blitz.

Parishioners in the 18th century included Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) from Lichfield, compiler of the first Dictionary, although he was buried at Westminster Abbey.

Former rectors of Saint Clements include George Berkeley (1786-1795), son of the Irish philosopher Bishop George Berkeley, and William Webb Ellis (1843-1855), often said to have invented the game of Rugby while he was a schoolboy at Rugby in 1823. The Webb Ellis Cup is presented to the winners of the Rugby World Cup.

The church was almost destroyed by German bombs during the London Blitz on 10 May 1941. The outer walls, the tower and Gibbs’s steeple survived the bombing, but the interior was gutted by fire. As a result of the blaze, the church’s 10 bells fell to the ground. Later, they were placed in storage and were recast after the war.

The church was restored under the supervision of Sam Lloyd, and was reconsecrated on 19 October 1958 to become the central church of the RAF.

There are features throughout and outside the building commemorating people and units of the RAF. The donors of the altar, pulpit, font, pews, paschal candle and chairs include Sir Douglas Bader and air forces in Australia, Belgium, the Netherlands and Norway. The church floor is inscribed with the badges of over 800 RAF commands, groups, stations, squadrons and other formations. There are memorials to Polish, US and Commonwealth air forces.

The statue of WE Gladstone outside Saint Clement Danes Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Outside the church is a statue of WE Gladstone and statues of two leading RAF figures, Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris and Hugh Dowding, both by the sculptor Faith Winter. The statue of Harris is controversial because of his responsibility for the bombing of Dresden and other bombing campaigns against German cities. The statue was erected in 1992 despite protests from Germany, including from the mayors of Dresden and Hamburg, as well as some protests in Britain. The statue has been sprayed with graffiti frequently.

On a sweeter note, Saint Clement is commemorated every April at Saint Clement Danes, with a modern revival of the clementine custom. It was initiated by the Revd William Pennington-Bickford in 1919 to celebrate the restoration of the church bells and carillon, which he had had altered to ring out the popular nursery rhyme. This special service ends with the distribution of oranges and lemons to children.

Pennington-Bickford’s father-in-law, the Revd JHH Septimus Pennington, donated the bronze statue of Samuel Johnson behind the east end of Saint Clement Danes. Pennington died just as the statue and the three bronze reliefs on the plinth was ready, so it was thought appropriate to unveil the work as his body was brought into the church for his funeral.

Percy Hetherington Fitzgerald (1834-1925), the Irish sculptor, sculpted a similar statue of Johnson in the Market Square in Lichfield, using the same moulds. He modelled the face on Johnson’s portrait by Reynolds and Nolleken’s bust. Fitzgerald unveiled the statue on 4 August 1910 when the death of Edward VII caused the planned royal unveiling by his daughter, Princess Louise, to be cancelled.

• Sunday services are the Eucharist or Matins at 11:00, Holy Communion is celebrated in Crypt Chapel on Wednesday and Friday at 12:30, and the church is open daily 9 am to 4 pm.

The east end of Saint Clement Danes Church, one of the two ‘island churches’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Today’s Prayer (Friday 28 October 2022, Simon and Jude, Apostles):

The Collect:

Almighty God,
who built your Church upon the foundation
of the apostles and prophets,
with Jesus Christ himself as the chief cornerstone:
so join us together in unity of spirit by their doctrine,
that we may be made a holy temple acceptable to you;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Post Communion Prayer:

Almighty God,
who on the day of Pentecost
sent your Holy Spirit to the apostles
with the wind from heaven and in tongues of flame,
filling them with joy and boldness to preach the gospel:
by the power of the same Spirit
strengthen us to witness to your truth
and to draw everyone to the fire of your love;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The theme in the USPG Prayer Diary this week is ‘Theology in Korea.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday.

The USPG Prayer Diary invites us to pray today in these words:

Let us give thanks for the lives and works of Saint Simon and Saint Jude. May we emulate them in our discipleship and witness to the Good News.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

The bronze statue of Samuel Johnson by Percy Fitzgerald at the east end of Saint Clement Danes (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

The Irish sculptor Percy Fitzgerald made the bronze statue of Samuel Johnson at Saint Clement Danes (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)