by Hank Greenwald
“Hello, Father. My name is Abraham Laser,” said the man with the heavy, dark beard.
“Hello, Rabbi. I’m Father Ryan of St. Mary’s,” replied the bristly-haired priest.
The two men had noticed each other many times on the streets of Mobile. They would nod as if to recognize the sorrow-filled purpose that they shared. Their faces reflected the sadness of their work.
On this hot, humid day, the priest and the rabbi approached each other. Both men wore black and carried worn and tattered Bibles.
The smell of death was in the heat-filled air. It was 1870. The pestilence of the yellow fever epidemic was everywhere. Thousands had fled their homes in the beautiful, oak-adorned Alabama city to the surrounding hills.
To continue visiting and comforting their sick and dying congregants, both men had refused to leave Mobile.
The rabbi had sent his family away while he stayed in the plague-stricken environs.
Soon, a friendship formed…and a commonality of purpose. They walked side by side and visited their congregants together. Years later, Rose Laser, the Rabbi’s daughter, wrote, “In the midst of my father’s labors, there was always by his side or close at hand the dauntless Catholic priest.”
Two teachers–leaders in their respective religions–had come together under harrowing circumstances to do good. The differences in their divergent backgrounds were never a consideration.
Rabbi Laser had immigrated from Germany. He had met and married his wife Lizetta in Maryland. There, the young couple had begun a family, then ventured south to teach the Jewish faith. Their journey ended in Mobile, where Rabbi Laser taught Judaism and later formed one of the first synagogues in the South, Sha’arai Shomayim.
Father Abram Joseph Ryan had previously served as a chaplain in the Confederate Army. He had arrived in Mobile during the summer of 1870, at the height of the epidemic. Later in his life, he would become a household name in The South, following the publication of his poetry. Known as “The Poet Priest” and later “The Poet Laureate of the Confederacy,” his happiest days were spent as pastor of Mobile’s St. Mary’s Church.
Thus, these two men of vastly different faiths and politics, in a time of the worst circumstances, joined in respect and a mutual desire to help others. Their genuine friendship bloomed and was recognized by the citizens of Mobile.
Rabbi Laser had died on the last day of the epidemic. His daughter, Rose Laser, later wrote, “When the plague added my father to its toll of victims, Father Ryan’s grief was as deep as any of the members of the Jewish congregation who had loved him during a lifetime.” Rose, who met Father Ryan years later, afterwards recalled that when “I told him I was the daughter of his old friend, his eyes filled with tears.”
To the Mobile congregation and many others in Mobile, he became known as “The Martyr Rabbi”. A monument was built over his grave. He was the first rabbi to be buried in the Jewish section of Magnolia Cemetery.
Author’s note: Rabbi Laser was my great grandfather. He became a hero during an epidemic, as have so many in America today. His friendship with Father Ryan was admired. In our times, perhaps working together toward common goals would make us stronger. E pluribus unum.