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Special to the JTA the Hebrew Letters on the Cathedral Wall

Visitors to this city’s St. Francis Cathedral with a keen eye for architectural details are often surprised to see Hebrew letters inscribed in the sandstone above the main entrance. Enclosed in a prominent triangle are four Hebrew letters spelling “Yahveh” or God.

How the Hebrew inscription came to be placed on this Roman Catholic church is a question which goes back to the time of the construction of the church. But the answer to this question is not easily found and remains a source of controversy.

One frequently heard tale about the inscription involves the original construction of the cathedral in 1869. Building was started under the direction of Archbishop Jean Baptiste Lamy, who, parenthetically, earned notoriety as the subject of a 1926 novel by Willa Cather, “Death Comes for the Archbishop.”

JEWISH BUSINESSMAN CREDITED

Legend has it that the Archbishop ran out of construction funds, and it appeared for a time that the cathedral could not be completed. Abraham Staab, a Jewish businessman in Santa Fe, who was a friend of Lamy, is often credited with having helped finance the completion of the project.

It is said that there was understanding between Lamy and Staab in which Staab would make available the funds necessary to complete the building by cancelling a loan which he had previously made to Lamy. In return, Staab could place an inscription of his own choosing over the entrance of the cathedral during construction. Lamy agreed, and the inscription suggested by Staab was placed according to the agreement: the Hebrew word for God.

However charming an explanation, there is reason to believe that this loan theory involving Staab may not be true. An interesting research report on the subject was written by Rabbi Floyd Fierman of El Paso, Texas. Writing in the New Mexico Historial Review in 1962, Fierman noted that Dr. Edward Staab, Abraham Staab’s son, indicated that his father was not the type of individual who would require that his own inscription be placed over the entrance to the cathedral in return for his donation of funds.

Fierman also pointed out that the Hebrew word for God is enclosed in a triangle, which in Europe was a common religious symbol denoting the Christian sense of Trinity. For example, the same symbol is said to exist inscribed in northern European churches and embroidered in various religious garments. In fact, a similar triangle with Hebrew inscription has been found in a vestment which Lamy or his successor had sent from France to the Cathedral in Santa Fe.

HEBREW INSCRIPTION IN OTHER CHURCHES

The current Visitor’s Guide to the cathedral also puts emphasis on the importance of the triangle surrounding the Hebrew word for God. The Guide points out that since the inscription is located within a triangle, it was not meant as a “compliment” to Jews, although “it could have been mutually meant and interpreted as such.”

The cathedral in Santa Fe is not the only Roman Catholic institution to utilize the Hebrew inscription, and it is said that similar letters have been used in other church materials. Fierman, for example, noted that at another church in New Mexico, a similar image of the lettering was found inscribed in the base of a set of brass candlesticks.

A similar inscription is located at the Church of St. Louis IX in St. Louis, Missouri. That church was constructed in 1834, 35 years before St. Francis in Santa Fe. When contacted for more information, a representative of the St. Louis Church indicated that she thought that the Hebrew inscription in that church was originally placed to denote the “outgrowth of Catholicism from Judaism.”

With the knowledge that there are contradictory theories of the origin of the inscription, current day visitors to the Santa Fe cathedral can speculate whether it may have been the generous donation made by one of Santa Fe’s pioneer Jews which led to the Hebrew word over the entrance. Or, as seems more likely from an academic review of the available evidence, whether the friendship of Lamy and Staab was a coincidence, having no bearing on the origin of the famous triangle and Hebrew inscription.

Whichever interpretation might be true, it is clear that Archbishop Lamy was friendly with Staab and other early Jewish settlers in Santa Fe, and that there were Jews among early contributors to the construction of the cathedral. The legends surrounding this unusual inscription still stimulate controversy and interest, particularly among visitors.

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