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)

Daily prayers in Ordinary Time
with USPG: (124) 29 September 2023

Skellig Michael and the Skellig Rocks … both the church and the monastery were dedicated to Saint Michael (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

We are in Ordinary Time in the Church Calendar, and this week began with the Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity (Trinity XVI, 24 September 2023).

Two of us are travelling to York later today. But, before the day gets busy, I am taking some time this morning for prayer and reflection.

The Church celebrates Saint Michael and All Angels today (29 September). So my reflections each morning this week and next are taking this format:

1, A reflection on a church named after Saint Michael or his depiction in Church Art;

2, the Gospel reading of the day in the Church of England lectionary;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

The ruins of Ballinskelligs Priory, Co Kerry … still a place of prayer and peace for pilgrims and tourists alike (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Skellig Michael and Ballinskelligs Priory:

Legend says that the first inhabitants in Ireland arrived in in the Bay of Ballinskelligs. The myths say that Ireland was uninhabited until a woman named Cessair, accompanied by her father, two men and over 40 women, arrived in a ship that landed at Ballinskelligs Bay in the year 2361 BC.

The legend says Cessair was the granddaughter of Noah, who had no room for her in the Ark when he had finished building it. She built her own three ships and set sail for Ireland, believing it was free from sin.

After surviving a voyage that endured for seven years and that suffered the loss of two ships, Cessair landed in Ballinskelligs and decided to stay. Two of the men died, the third fled, leaving Cessair so heart-broken that she too died soon.

I first became enamoured with Ballinskelligs when I spent the summer of 1966 at Dungeagan as part of an Irish summer school programme that my parents hoped would give me adequate Irish to pass the ‘Inter Cert’ (Junior Certificate) in 1967.

It was a beautiful summer, but I learned less Irish than they probably expected, and I have memories of endless, sun-filled afternoons swimming at the long sandy beach, reading Anne Frank’s Diary and Catcher in the Rye in the sand-dunes, watching the 1966 England v Germany World Cup final on the only television my cousins and I could find – a black and white television in a convent – and maturing as a teenage boy.

I have been back in Ballinskelligs three or four times since, enjoying walks along the long sandy beach, watching the Atlantic waves break against the sand, and walking out to the ruins of the old Augustinian priory, the old graveyard and the ruins of the MacCarthy castle that once guarded the entrance to Ballinskelligs Bay.

It is said the monks of Skellig Michael called Ballinskelligs ‘the nearest thing to heaven’ when they settled in the area, and they made this place a spiritual centre in early Christian Ireland. According to legend, the monks had travelled across Ireland to find ‘a paradise on earth.’

These early Irish monks wished to emulate the sacrifice and the pure withdrawal into a life of faith exemplified by Saint Anthony who went out into the Western Desert in Egypt.

Ireland’s remote and deserted offshore islands offered a parallel experience. The monastic ideal was to demonstrate an intense devotion by acts of self-exile: peregrination pro Dei amore or ‘pilgrimage for the love of God.’

The monastic settlement on Great Skellig is said to have been founded in the sixth century by Saint Fionán, a saint from south Kerry who founded Innisfallen Abbey. The site attracted the support of the members of the local Corcu Duibne dynasty in Kerry, and there the love of God was brought to a new level, for no other Irish monastery was built in such a challenging location.

Saint Finian is said to have founded both the monastic settlement on the Skelligs Islands and a church at Killemlagh in the sixth century. The ruins of two early churches can still be seen near the Skelligs Chocolates factory, a major attraction on the Skelligs Ring, and Saint Finian’s Bay, which offers some of the best views of the Skelligs Rock – although they are often shrouded in clouds and mist at this time of the year.

While the monks settled on the rocks of Skellig Michael, they found a winter home on the mainland in Ballinskelligs.

The first definite reference to monks on the Skelligs dates to the eighth century when the death of ‘Suibhni of Scelig’ is recorded. By the ninth century, the continuity and survival of life on the remote monastery was challenged with the arrival of the Vikings. The flights of steps on three sides of the island, which had provided the monks with landing for their boats in different sea conditions, now gave the invading Vikings the opportunity to attack the monastic site from different sides simultaneously.

The annals record: ‘In 824 AD, Scelec was plundered by the heathens and Étgal was carried off into captivity, and he died of hunger on their hands. There came a fleet from Luimnech [Limerick], in the south of Erinn, they plundered Skellig Michael, and Inishfallen and Disert Donnain and Cluain Mor, and they killed Rudgaile, son of Selbach, the anchorite. It was he whom the angel set loose twice, and the foreigners bound him twice each time.’

It is said that in 993 the Viking Olaf Trygvasson, later to become Olaf I, King of Norway, was intent on a raid of the monastery but instead was baptised a Christian by a Skellig hermit. His son, Olaf II, became the patron saint of Norway.

Increasing hardships, Viking raids and changing climatic conditions all contributed to the eventual decision of the monks to move from their monastic settlements on the Skelligs Rocks to the mainland, settling on an outcrop at the edge of Ballinskelligs Bay.

The Skelligs Rocks and the Abbey at Ballinskelligs shared one abbot, and the move was completed some time between the 11th and 13th century.

The dedication of the monastery to Saint Michael the Archangel appears to have happened some time before 1044, when the death of ‘Aedh of Scelic-Mhichíl’ is recorded. It is probable that this dedication to Saint Michael was celebrated by the building of Saint Michael’s church in the monastery.

The church of Saint Michael is mentioned by Giraldus Cambrensis in the late 12th century. His account of the miraculous supply of Communion wine for daily Mass in Saint Michael’s Church implies that the monastery had a large community at the time.

The Church was being reorganised along diocesan patterns in Ireland in the 12th and 13th centuries. These changes, and harsher winter storms, forced the monks to abandon the island.

By then, the monks on Skellig Michael had adopted the rule of Saint Augustine. Eventually, they left the island and settled on the mainland at Ballinskelligs, where they founded a new abbey. In the early 14th century, the Prior of the Augustinian Abbey at Ballinskelligs was referred to as the Prior de Rupe Michaelis, indicating that the island still formed an important part of the monastery at the time.

The ruins of the later Augustinian Priory date from ca 1210, and include a church, the prior’s house, cloisters and a refectory. A number of buildings, mainly from the 15th century, constitute the priory, including a rectangular church. The church and the other buildings were arranged around a central cloister, which had covered walkways for working and praying. Parts of the cloister and a large domestic hall still survive.

The abbey is one of a number of important spiritual sites dedicated to Saint Michael in this area. For visitors who come to Ballinskelligs as pilgrims or tourists, this remains a place of peace and prayer.

The names of the vicars and rectors of Killemlough are known only from the early or mid-15th century. Eugene O’Sullivan was appointed to the parish ca 1447 even though he had not been ordained. He was eventually forced out of the parish in 1459 because he had still not been ordained.

His successor, Florence O’Sullivan, also had to leave the parish after he was ‘said to have committed simony and to be guilty of fornication.’ Cornelius O’Mulchonere had to obtain a dispensation to be ordained for the parish because he was the illegitimate son of an Augustinian Canon Regular – perhaps a friar from the priory at Ballinskelligs.

In the Church of Ireland, the parish was known as Killemlough and sometimes as Killemlagh or Kyllemleac, and the parish included the offshore island of Puffin Island and the Skelligs Islands.

The Parish of Killemlough was held by the Treasurers of Ardfert from 1615 to 1839. They included William Steere, who became Bishop of Ardfert in 1628, James Bland, who became Dean of Ardfert in 1728, and William Cecil Pery, who became Bishop of Limerick. The Church of Ireland parish was united with Valentia in the 1870s.

Meanwhile, the connection between the monastic settlement on the Skelligs Rocks and the people of Ballinskelligs remained part of romantic memory and folklore.

In the late 1930s, JB Leslie recalled a custom from 60 years earlier known as the ‘Skelligs Lists.’ Doggerel poetry was issued early in Lent naming and pillorying couples who were supposed to be courting but who had not married before Shrove Tuesday.

‘Sometimes those lists were distinctively libellous and perhaps malicious, but were anonymous,’ Leslie notes.

Leslie quotes the phrase ‘send them to Skelligs,’ and suggests ‘that on the island (Skelligs) marriages might be celebrated, perhaps as in Gretna Green.’

‘Or could it have been,’ he asks, ‘that the keeping of Easter and Lent was different in Skelligs and on the mainland, so that marriage could be celebrated there after Shrove Tuesday?’

The monks from Skellig Michael settled at the priory in Ballinskelligs in the 13th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

John 1: 47-51 (NRSVA):

47 When Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him, he said of him, ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’ 48 Nathanael asked him, ‘Where did you come to know me?’ Jesus answered, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.’ 49 Nathanael replied, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’ 50 Jesus answered, ‘Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.’ 51 And he said to him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.’

The ruins of the Augustinian priory, behind the beach at Ballinskelligs (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Today’s Prayer:

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), is ‘Flinging open the doors.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday by the Revd Anthony Gyu-Yong Shim, Diocese of Daejeon, Korea.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (29 September 2023, Saint Michael and All Angels) invites us to pray:

Almighty God, renew your spirit within us and your churches across the globe.

A lancet window in the old priory buildings in Ballinskelligs (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Collect:

Everlasting God,
you have ordained and constituted
the ministries of angels and mortals in a wonderful order:
grant that as your holy angels always serve you in heaven,
so, at your command,
they may help and defend us on earth;
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:

Lord of heaven,
in this eucharist you have brought us near
to an innumerable company of angels
and to the spirits of the saints made perfect:
as in this food of our earthly pilgrimage
we have shared their fellowship,
so may we come to share their joy in heaven;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The monk’s beehive at Saint Michael’s Well, behind the house where I stayed in my teens in Dungeagan in Ballinkselligs (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Yesterday’s Reflection

Continued Tomorrow

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 beach at Ballinkskelligs, close to the monastic settlement founded by the monks from Great Skellig (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)