When I'm traveling and come upon historic religious places, I like to visit them. Being in these places gives me the feel of stepping back into history. As a practicing Christian, these places have meaning to me. There is a life perspective such visits give me. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all come from the same root, Abraham of the Bible. Thus there is a sense of being with family in these places. While visiting Savannah, Georgia, we came upon two such historic sites -- Congregation Mickve Israel and Cathedral of St. John the Baptist.
Savannah, founded in 1733, was the first capital of Georgia. In 1733, the first Jewish settlers arrived in the new colony and set up a synagogue. Today, Congregation Mickve Israel is the third oldest Jewish congregation in America organized in 1735 by mostly Sephardic Jewish immigrants of Spanish-Portuguese derivation from London. Forty-one Jewish settlers came across the Atlantic on the William and Sarah sailing ship and arrived 5 months after the founding of the colony. The brought with them a sefer Torah that contains the five books of Moses (i.e., the first five books of the Old Testament), a gift from Mr. Lindo of the Bevis Marks Synagogue in London. Handwritten on deerskin by scribes, likely in Spain or Portugal, prior to the Inquisitions in Spain and Portugal (1478-1834). They have two of the oldest Torahs in the U.S., produced in 1400!
One of the reasons the Jews were allowed to set up in the new colony was that they had a doctor, Dr. Samuel Nunez, who was able to immediately help with an epidemic underway. The colony's only doctor died from the unknown epidemic disease. Dr. Nunez' family history is a fascinating one about discrimination, death, survival and a daring esca pe from oppression from the Inquisition. Definitely worth a read.
Their current synagogue was built in 1878 and is the only Gothic style one in America. It is on the National Register of Historic Places. Historical trivia: The Girl Scouts were founded in 1912 in Savannah, down the street from the synagogue. The first Girl Scout cookies were baked in a Kosher kitchen by the ladies of Mickve Israel!
A few blocks away is the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, a Catholic church with its cornerstone laid in 1873 and completed in 1876. Their first parish, a wooden structure, was built in 1800. According to the travel book, Conde Nast, this church is one of the top 10 'must see' cathedrals in the United States. It is large, grand, beautiful, and worth a visit. The Cathedral we see today is from 1900, as the original one caught fire and destroyed most of the Cathedral and most all the stain glass windows in 1898.
As expected, the gothic architecture was spectacular. I loved seeing the arches in the ceiling, the pillars and length of the sanctuary. I especially liked the baptismal font as it had an inlay on the bottom of a Celtic knot, similar, but more complex, to the belt buckle I was wearing. The font itself is 8,000 pounds of Italian marble carved in Carrara, Italy. Some trivia: The bells were cast in Baltimore, MD in 1900 and weighs 4,730 pounds; the roof has 45,000 slate tiles and 90,000 copper nails; there are 16 terra cotta gargoyles; there is 14,000 square feet of space with upper and lower space combined.
Everywhere one looks there is art. Stain glass windows depict the history of the church through the centuries with different saints. There are many murals reminding us of the life and events of key people. There are statues of saints. Along both walls the length of the sanctuary (about 114 feet), there are three-dimensional carved figures for the 14 stations of the cross to represent the last days of Jesus, from being condemned, to the march to the cross, to his crucifixion and placement in a tomb.
I am thankful for the devoted members of these worship places because through their practice of their faith they provide a moral foundation that anchors us as a nation. It is the root that keeps us different from all other nations on earth!
© Dr. Baldwin H. Tom CMC, FIMC