Old Cathedral has Hebrew inscription

Old Cathedral has Hebrew inscription

By Robert A. Cohn, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

To paraphrase Christopher Wren, if you seek the monuments in St. Louis with a Jewish connection, just look about you. In previous Cohnipedia columns, we have noted the Jewish connections to the statue of “The Runner” at Kiener Plaza (Jewish sculptor and rabbinic student model) and the famous Carl Milles “Meeting of the Rivers” fountain across from Union Station (on Aloe Plaza, named after St. Louis Jewish political leader and former Acting Mayor, Louis P. Aloe). But many St. Louisans are surprised when they pay visits to one of the most enduring landmarks in St. Louis: the Old Cathedral, which has a Hebrew language engraving above its entrance at Third and Walnut Streets.

The Old Cathedral is officially called the Basilica of St. Louis IX, the King of France after whom the City of St. Louis is named. The Hebrew lettering, transliterated as the letters “Yud Hay Vov Hay,” are the initials for the ineffable and unpronounceable name of God in the Hebrew Bible, rendered as “YHVH.” It became Anglicized as “Jehovah” in the King James version of the Bible, or as “Yahweh” in some translations of the Hebrew Bible, or Tanakh. According to Jewish tradition, only the High Priest, the Cohayn Godol, a direct descendant of Aaron, the brother of Moses, knew how the word was pronounced. The High Priest, during the periods of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem, would enter the Holy of Holies in the Temple on the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, and pronounce aloud the Name of God.

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Hebraists point out that the Hebrew letter “hay” was incorrectly inscribed as “chet” since the left “leg” of the letter touches the letter’s top “bridge.” The intent was for the engraved inscription to read Yud Hay Vov Hay.  Rev. Thomas Graham, who was the administrator of the historic Old Cathedral at the time of the nation’s 1976 Bicentennial, told the St. Louis Jewish Light that the Latin inscription, which translates, “God, One and Three” and the Hebrew inscription are intended to show that the God of both Hebrew and Christian scripture, called the “Old and New Testaments” by Christians—are the same.

The Old Cathedral is one of the most historic buildings in St. Louis, with roots reaching back to the year 1764, when St. Louis Founders Pierre Laclede and Auguste Chouteau set aside a parcel of land that was then called “the church block.” The present building is the fourth church to be erected on the site. The fourth and current “great stone cathedral,” was started in 1831 and dedicated in 1834. 

Local Jewish historian Donald Makovsky has documented that the first known Jewish resident of St. Louis, the Polish-descended Joseph Philipson, arrived in St. Louis from Philadelphia, to be followed by other members of his merchant family. United Hebrew Congregation, the oldest synagogue in St. Louis, was founded in 1837.

The Cathedral, with its Doric and Corinthian architecture and large colonnaded portoco, includes the Hebrew and Latin inscriptions in a prominent place on the building’s facade. The engraving stands for the positive relationship between the Roman Catholic and Jewish communities in St. Louis from the very earliest days of our city through the present day, when Jews, Catholics and other faith groups come together.

Once again, around almost every corner in Greater St. Louis is a building, fountain or marker celebrating the impact of the Jewish community in our region.