July 25, 2016

The Easter Miracle at Temple Beth El in Camden, South Carolina

  • By: Bill Fitzpatrick
  • Photography: Bill Fitzpatrick
Temple Beth El, Camden

Your name is Barbara James. You are one of 11 remaining members of the historic Temple Beth El. Your cell phone rings. You answer.

“Hello, this is Barbara, may I help you?”

“Good morning, Barbara. I am calling from Our Lord of Perpetual Help Catholic Church. We were wondering if it might be possible to have one of our school classes visit Temple Beth El on Good Friday. We’d like our kids to learn more about Passover and those other rites and rituals that our two faiths have in common. Would such a trip be possible?”

“Of course! Glad to have you visit!"

On Good Friday morning, James made her way to the temple. The town’s Jewish faithful are now so few in number that the temple only opens twice a year; once for Rosh Hashanah, once for Yom Kippur. She parks her car, opens the temple door, takes a few steps, and then stops.

"Oh my God."

Thick black mold covered the walls and ceiling. Never mind the Good Friday visit from the Catholic school group; the future of the temple was now in doubt.

South Carolina’s first Jews arrived in Charleston during the late 1600s. Like the Quakers and Huguenots, they came to the colony seeking freedom of religion, a privilege the English extended to anyone who would move to the seemingly inhospitable area.

In 1730, wishing to settle the interior parts of the colony, South Carolina's government created nine townships, including the area that encompasses modern Camden. Most of its first settlers were Quakers and Scots-Irish from nearby Virginia. Jews migrated to the Camden area in the 1780s, trickling in from other cities in South Carolina as well as Europe. The state’s first Catholics also arrived during that era.

Neither the Catholics nor the Jews had enough members to build their own place of worship in Camden until the Catholics celebrated their first Mass in St. Mary’s Church in 1903. In less than two decades they had outgrown the small structure. In 1921, they sold the building to the Jewish community.

“When the Hebrew Benevolent Association acquired this building from the Catholics in 1921, we had every expectation that our community would continue grow," James says. "In 1927, our temple had over 100 members. But a decade later, we were down to 67. In another decade or two, that number dropped to 20 or 25. And now, there are just 11 of us left.”

Today, the black mold that once greeted James when she opened the temple doors has been eliminated. The beautiful shared history between the Catholic and Jewish communities of Camden, South Carolina, survives.

“Yes, it was a close call,” James tells me. “Turns out, we had a leaky roof. When we got those heavy winter rains, water got into our sanctuary. If the Catholics hadn’t called to ask for a Good Friday visit, and I had not said, ‘sure,’ we would not have found the mold problem until the fall. There's no telling how bad the damage would have been.”

I walked around the sanctuary and took photographs of the stained glass windows that line the sides of the temple. They are not original to the structure. It seems that a vandal destroyed those. The ones behind the altar are original to the building. The Catholics had installed those two in 1903.

“God works in mysterious ways. That’s what I believe,” James says when I am done. “I believe that phone call was nothing less than an Easter Miracle; a call to get down here and save our temple.”

I have traveled tens of thousands of miles in my home state, listening to seemingly simple stories of our faithful people and religious history. Let the records show that when James told me that she believed the call from the Catholics to be a miracle, that I said, “Yes, me too.”

Bill Fitzpatrick is a South Carolina writer and photographer.

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