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From 1974 to 2003, Bishop Walter Sullivan was the region’s Catholic leader.Photo courtesy of the family of Bishop Walter J. Sullivan
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Sullivan (second from right) marches with other religious clergy at a 1982 anti-nuclear rally in New York City. Photo courtesy of the family of Bishop Walter J. Sullivan
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For 29 years, Bishop Walter Sullivan presided over the diocese of Richmond. Catholics had never seen a bishop who was so unafraid to speak truth to power, or who did things that most other bishops did not — such as visiting prisoners on death row, celebrating Mass for gay and lesbian worshipers, or declaring war and nuclear weapons immoral.
A deeply ecumenical man, Sullivan traveled to Europe and saw for himself the death camps of the Holocaust. He returned determined to reach out to the Jewish community in Richmond. The results are movingly described in this excerpt from Theroux's biography, The Good Bishop , which was finished shortly before Sullivan's death on Dec. 11, 2012, and is being released this month by Orbis Books.
Chapter 12: An Instinct for Brotherhood
There was a time," said Jay Weinberg, a member of Richmond's Congregation Beth Ahabah, "when my temple did pulpit exchanges. It was a historic thing that happened. There we all sat, [Rector] Jack Spong from St. Paul's Episcopal and [Father] Nick Dombalis from the Greek Orthodox Church, hearing about how Jesus was a Jewish rabbi, and how many of the prophetic injunctions, like feed the hungry and clothe the naked, are the same in all our religions. But when we invited Bishop Sullivan's predecessor, Bishop [John] Russell, he said he couldn't do it. Catholic priests weren't allowed to sit on any altar that wasn't Catholic. When we asked Bishop Sullivan, he said, sure, he'd come. Sullivan didn't care. If he was convinced something was right, he did it."
That series of pulpit exchanges was one way in which Sullivan came into deeper contact with the Jewish community. But Rabbi Jack Spiro and Rabbi Myron Berman were an important part of the Tuesday morning breakfast club, the Ecumenical Social Concerns Alliance, and the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, all of which were created to turn prophetic injunctions into realities. The interaction also sensitized the Christians and Jews to each other's needs.
"In Richmond, the public schools would schedule football games on Friday nights during high holidays. The Jews found that very offensive," said Weinberg. "Our boys couldn't play in or go to the games. It was always Bishop Sullivan or Nick Dombalis who would say, ‘Don't worry, we'll go to the school board, we'll fix this.' "
"Richmond was unique," Weinberg recalled." It was in many ways much more broad-minded than other cities, and certainly more so than where I grew up in Portsmouth, Virginia. I think the reason why it was easier is because of a handful of people like Walter Sullivan who made it mighty easy to be Jewish in Richmond. He did the right thing when no one was looking."
In 1964, when he was still rector of the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, Bishop Sullivan attended a conference of Catholics and Jews who had come together to identify common community problems. One of the speakers, Joseph Lichten (a Polish diplomat who took part in the first Anti-Defamation League interfaith conference), exhorted everyone to combine their talents and listen with attention and regard to each other. "We are born," he said "with a veritable instinct for brotherhood. If we deny its fulfillment, we deny our very human nature."
Sullivan's ears were open for such a dialogue. "At my [discussion] table," he recalled, "was none other than Nathaniel Krumbein. We knew so little about one another's traditions, but that was the starting point of a lasting friendship."
Sullivan was ahead of his own church. A year later, in 1965, during the last months of Vatican II, Pope Paul VI issued a declaration (Nostra Aetate) that exonerated the Jewish people from that old charge of deicide and called all anti-Semitism and acts of hatred toward the Jews deplorable. Publicly, the Catholic Church was beginning to repair the centuries of damage its prejudice against the Jews had done to them.
Later, when he became bishop, Sullivan appeared with leaders in the Jewish community before the General Assembly to speak on behalf of Virginians who had no voice or power. "They were very much a part of our prison witness, probably because of the Holocaust," he said.
Once, when attending a service at Beth Ahabah, the bishop heard a Catholic priest preach on the subject of "When will the Jews forget the Holocaust?" The priest answered himself: "When Christians begin to remember."
"Those words touched me deeply," said Sullivan. "I knew then that our journey together was incomplete."
Serendipitously, one of Sullivan's friends, Al Meyer, had just returned from a trip to North Carolina, where he had seen a monument to the Holocaust on the grounds of a Protestant church. He told Bishop Sullivan that he ought to do something similar. It just so happened," said Sullivan, "that the head rabbi from New York was in our office. I asked the rabbi what he would suggest that I do, and he said, ‘Why don't you put a memorial of Rachel weeping for her children in front of the Cathedral?' "
Sullivan liked the idea and set about looking for a sculptor. He did not have to look far. One of the best lived right in Richmond: Linda Gissen, the wife of Ira Gissen, the head of Virginia's Anti-Defamation League and a close friend of the bishop. Sullivan commissioned her to create a Holocaust memorial, dipping into a trust fund from his aunt to pay for it.
On April 26, 1987, a bronze and copper figure of Rachel surrounded by six tongues of flame, representing the 6 million Jews who were murdered, was installed on the grounds of the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart. Her fingers are pressed against her eyes as she weeps. Beneath her, on a stone, is carved one word, "Remember," in Hebrew and English. It was the first memorial to the Holocaust on the grounds of any Catholic church in the United States.
Present at the ceremony that day on the cathedral grounds was Jay Ipson, a Holocaust survivor who had escaped from Lithuania to America with his parents at the age of 12. It was the first time Ipson had seen Bishop Sullivan. But Ipson was preoccupied by his father, who had come with him to the ceremony.
"What I really remember from that day was how my father felt really uncomfortable, because his pain was far greater than mine," Ipson said. "That morning, being inside a Catholic church was more than praying for the souls of people who had died at the hands of Christians." He thought, "Here they killed us and now they're praying for us." When it came time to enter the cathedral, Ipson's father stayed outside. "If he were alive today, he would be accepting, but then he thought that it was a service by non-Jews instead of Jews."
For many years, Ipson, who owned a wholesale auto parts business in Richmond, dreamed of one thing: the day when Richmond could have its own Holocaust museum. In 2001, he was deeded for one dollar by the state an abandoned tobacco warehouse. "I didn't have any money to build it and someone, it might have been Neil November, suggested that I go to see Bishop Sullivan. So I went to the cathedral and asked to see him. His assistant, who I think was Father [Pat] Apuzzo, said that the bishop wanted to come down and see me at the museum site."
In 2001, the Holocaust museum consisted of a couple of wooden desks and some chairs in a partitioned-off room in the middle of a vast, empty warehouse. "The bishop came, and after we had talked for awhile, he said, ‘Jay, I was going to give you $5,000, but now that I see you and talk to you, I'm going to give you $25,000 — from my aunt's estate. He didn't take it from the church, but from himself."
"There is no end to my admiration for Bishop Sullivan," said Ipson. "Integrity means more than anything else to me and the way he is, outreaching and accommodating, is absolutely a gift from God. When we're together, we don't talk about religion. We talk about the Holocaust, about human behavior."
Today, the Virginia Holocaust Museum is a thriving, multipurpose museum, with an outreach program for teachers, online research facilities, and a performance hall where lectures, musical events, and films are presented throughout the year. In 2003, Ipson went back to Kaunas, Lithuania, where his family lived, to duplicate the synagogue. "I got the original drawings, photographed the synagogue, and took a cabinetmaker back to the U.S. I also went back to the potato hole where my family had hidden after we escaped from the ghetto." That potato hole has been duplicated in the museum, too.
"Before I knew Bishop Sullivan," said Ipson, "there wasn't much of a relationship between the Jewish community and the Catholic community. My personal experience had not been a good one. If you're familiar with the history of World War II, you know that the Catholics were totally against the Jews. All the problems were blamed on the Jews. We had such a bitter relationship in Lithuania. If the Catholic Church had gotten involved, thousands and thousands of Jews would have been saved."
Ipson's own consciousness has undergone a gradual evolution. Before he came to the United States, the only black people he knew in Germany were American GIs. "They looked to me to be very sharp and beautifully dressed. But then the prejudices of the people I was associating with started to seep in. I went with the flow." Now Ipson uses the museum to teach other people how devastating such prejudice can be.
"There was a big incident at Bishop Sullivan High School. They had a basketball game with Norfolk Academy, which had a significant number of Jewish students, and the kids from the Catholic school were really abusive. The principal of the Catholic school contacted the principal of Norfolk Academy, and I was asked to talk to the kids at Bishop Sullivan High School. I said, ‘No, who wants to listen to an old man? Let them come here.' And so they did, and the whole attitude changed. Now they come here every year."
In 2010, a church group from Kansas came to picket in front of the Holocaust Museum. "They called to say they were going to do it because God hates the Jews." Ipson's first inclination was to lock up the museum and let them picket an empty building. But then he thought better of it.
"I said, ‘That's not me.' So I got in touch with the Interfaith Council [of Greater Richmond] and with some of the Christian community and some rabbis. The next day when I went out to greet the picketers, about 400 supporters from churches and synagogues in Richmond stood behind me in silence."
"I said to the picketers, ‘Well, God must love this Jew because I am here. Would you like to come inside?' They folded up their picket signs and left. A couple of young Christian kids who came to support me took up a collection and raised $1,500, which they gave to us."
In 2011, a traveling exhibit of the late Pope John Paul II's evolving relationship to the Jewish people in Poland came to the Virginia Holocaust Museum. "As Christians and Jews, following the example of the faith of Abraham, we are called to be a blessing to the world," Pope John Paul II wrote in a 1993 letter commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Warsaw ghetto uprising. "This is the common task awaiting us. It is therefore necessary for us, Christians and Jews, to first be a blessing to one another."
In 2005, Bishop Emeritus Walter Sullivan was awarded the Neilson J. November Award, given by the trustees of the Virginia Holocaust Museum to the man or woman who exemplifies its mission: "Tolerance through Education." If there was any one person interviewed for this book who convinced me that Walter Sullivan's life was too full of equally large characters to be an oral history, it was the man who endowed the award.
Neil November is an energetic, smiling man with piercing eyes and the mental quickness of a stand-up comedian. We first met in his office at 3600 W. Broad St. on the sixth floor. It is a narrow, unpretentious space, like a dorm room, with a couple of desks and a lot of plaques and photographs on the wall, plus a collection of bronze eagles on a filing cabinet. November was waiting for me with his feet on a spare chair, semi-dozing. But there was nothing sleepy about him when he sat up and began to talk.
I asked him how he had gotten to know Bishop Sullivan. "Walter was looking all over the country for a sculptor who could create a Holocaust memorial. Then he bumped into my wife, who told him about Linda Gissen, who lived right here in Richmond. That's how I first came into contact with him."
November makes no pretense about his religious convictions. "I'm suspicious of all religions, the Catholics in particular. As far as I'm concerned, all of them are just enhanced superstitions to keep people feeling afraid. And almost everybody is anti-Semitic. I don't know why, but we've always been hated. Ignorance, of course, is the basis of it. But it's amazing to me that people will line up behind something, and when they're told Jesus was Jewish, they either don't hear it or don't believe it. Or they believe it for their own purposes. The evangelicals love us because how their story turns out depends upon how the Jewish story turns out."
Why then, given these strong views about the negative role of Christianity and the Catholic Church in particular ("Catholics have been more antagonistic toward us than most," he said), does November have such a strong affection for a Catholic bishop?
"Because this guy, Bishop Sullivan, is genuinely not anti-Semitic. He takes you for what you are, not for your circumcision. The other bishops are standard hubcaps. They quote from the Bible, and that's about all. But Walter is like a light bulb. He can see through the trappings of his religion. He doesn't get weighed down by all of the ceremony and accoutrements, those things they carry down the aisle and trail smoke."
November's father gave him an eye for authentic, large spirits. "He infused me with his spirit of magnanimity. With over 2,500 employees, he never fired anyone and would always find room for a worker who was a loyal employee."
This early example made a big impression on him. He taught November that pretentiousness was a barrier. "My father said I had to have my office on the floor. That way, people could find me and lean over the railing next to my desk and tell me what was on their minds. No air conditioning. My father was too smart for that. Once I remember looking up from my desk and seeing a lady fingering her way across the wall until she found the staircase. She was suffering from dementia, but we found a place for her in the shipping department."
November, whose philanthropy has literally opened up the stage for thousands of Virginians — he has vowed to build, refurbish and rename every theater in Richmond for his wife, Sara Belle — knows a generous spirit when he sees one.
"There is a stratum of people who live outside the restrictions of their religion," said November. "Bishop Sullivan is one of them. He really sees the people and their problems. That's how I feel about him. He doesn't let the church stand in his way."
To ensure that Rachel Weeping for Her Children is never removed from the south lawn of the cathedral, November and several other members of the Jewish community recently put together a sizeable purse and gave it to the diocese, in Bishop Sullivan's name, so that the memorial will always be well-maintained. It is not the first time that people in the Jewish community in Virginia have indicated how seriously they take the presence of a Jewish memorial to the Holocaust on Catholic soil, or how deeply they appreciate the bishop for making it happen.
Shortly after Rachel Weeping was installed, Sullivan ran into some trouble with a home for the elderly the diocese was building in Charlottesville. John Barrett, the diocese's chief financial officer, was in a quandary. "The street in front of the home had not been deeded back to Albemarle County. We were getting dangerously close to completing the project but had no way to get into the property." Then Barrett got a phone call from the owner of the property.
"He asked to remain anonymous, but he said, ‘I'm going to give you ingress and egress to the property across my land. Otherwise, you won't be able to use your facility.' I thanked him and asked him what the cost to us would be. He said, ‘I'll charge you what Walter Francis Sullivan charged us when he put the monument of Rachel Weeping for Her Children on the cathedral grounds.' "
Just before Bishop Sullivan retired in 2003, a chair in Catholic Studies was established in his name at Virginia Commonwealth University. Eugene Trani, the legendary president of VCU who transformed the university (and the Richmond skyline) during his tenure, spearheaded the drive for funds. A devout Catholic, Trani admits to having sat unhappily in many pews over his lifetime, listening to bishops and priests whose narrow vision he did not share.
"Many bishops of the church are isolated, but he wasn't," said Trani. "That's what attracted me to him. He opened up the gates of the church, and it's what inspired me to raise money for endowment."
Sullivan's friends in the Jewish community were very generous. "They put us over the top," confirmed Trani. "Their affection for the bishop is well known."
On Sunday, April 22, 2012, a soft, steady rain fell upon the umbrellas of the men and women who made their way up the steps of the Sacred Heart Cathedral. By 2 o'clock, they were assembled in the pews. It was the 25th anniversary celebration of the installation of the Holocaust memorial. Linda Gissen, who created the haunting statute of an emaciated, sorrowing Rachel, was there. She was profoundly altered, the victim of Lou Gehrig's disease, and barely able to move, reclining in a hospital bed at the end of the first row. It was her day.
Ahead of her, to the left of the raised altar, was Bishop Sullivan. Time had altered him as well. When he commissioned Gissen to create a Holocaust memorial, he was 59 years old, in the energetic, project-creating prime of his life, a dervish of activity. Now he was an old man, sitting quietly in a side chair following the program while his successor, the current bishop of Richmond, Francis DiLorenzo, presided over the service. But everyone in the cathedral had their eyes upon Bishop Sullivan. And everyone had their own individual story about their friendship with the bishop who brought them there.
Filling up the side pews to the right of the altar was an interfaith crowd of Bishop Sullivan's Catholic, Protestant and Jewish colleagues. Seated in the front row was Father Tom Shreve, next to the Rev. Fletcher Lowe, beside Rabbi Emeritus Jack Spiro. When the cathedral choir opened with the lilting words from Brahms' Requiem, "How Lovely Is Thy Dwelling Place," the faces in the pews were the loveliest part.
It was a carefully prepared program, weaving together violins, psalms, Jewish hymns, Kaddish, and prayers. A cantor sang, "Let my tongue be silenced, if I ever forget you." A rabbi read from Ezekiel: "I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh."
When Spiro rose to speak, Jay Weinberg sat in his pew and thought back to the old interfaith pulpit exchanges at Congregation Beth Ahabah. "When I saw Rabbi Spiro in the pulpit of the Catholic cathedral, I thought to myself, ‘Well, well, we've come a long way.' "
In his "Spoken Reflection," Spiro referred to Rachel as the spirit of God. "God is also weeping," he said. Then came a "music reflection." A young woman stood with her violin and played the theme from Schindler's List, releasing a bright scarlet ribbon of sorrow into the air.
It was over all too soon, with people searching for their umbrellas, but reluctant to leave a warm cathedral for a wet gray day. Nobody was anxious to depart. Gov. Tim Kaine and his wife, Anne Holton, taking time out from a senatorial campaign, stayed behind to say hello to the bishop. Jay Ipson in his trademark white cowboy hat chatted with Eugene Trani, the former president of VCU.
Friends from all segments of the bishop's life gathered around him and each other to celebrate a miracle, or at least something that had not been seen before. One man's gesture had filled a Catholic cathedral with Jews who would not have crossed the threshold if Walter Sullivan had not been waiting for them, "with a heart of flesh," on the other side.