Image on century-old lapel button is priest, not rabbi

Rt. Rev. Anton Niermann, who served at St. Joseph Parish in Davenport, appears on a 1909 lapel button that Rabbi Mark Hurvitz of New York bought.

By Barb Arland-Fye

Rabbi Mark Hurvitz, a New Yorker who collects Judaic lapel buttons, discovered he’d inadvertently added a bit of Roman Catholic history to his collection.

The 1909 button he purchased on eBay does not, as it turns out, feature a rabbi but a Catholic priest in Davenport being recognized on the golden jubilee of his ordination.

Rt. Rev. Anton Niermann is shown with a long white beard, which possibly covered a Roman collar. He served as pastor of St. Kunigunde (St. Joseph) Parish in Davenport for years, according to various Web sites and diocesan records.

“The guy looks like he could be a rabbi — rabbis were called reverend in those days,” explained Rabbi Hurvitz who has collected more than 3,000 lapel buttons over the years. “Each one represents a different moment in the American Jewish life and offers a way to learn about the Jewish experience,” he says on his Web site: http://www.davka.org/what/judaic-lapel-buttons/.

He paid $30 for the Niermann button, which is more than he usually pays. “But this was from the turn of the century and he looked like an Orthodox rabbi,” the New Yorker said. “Now I find out he’s one of your guys.”

The case of mistaken identity surfaced this month while Rabbi Hurvitz was scanning the database of his collection. He writes a blog for his Web site about the buttons, usually on an anniversary date. Rt. Rev. Niermann’s name and title, the dates 1859 and 1909, and Davenport, IA., appear on his lapel button.

 Rabbi Hurvitz contacted a colleague in Davenport, Rabbi Henry Karp, to see what he might know about the clergyman featured on the lapel button.

“I looked at the pin; you have to admit the guy looks like a rabbi,” Rabbi Karp said. But the dates didn’t mesh with the history of German Jews in Iowa. Temple Emanuel in Davenport, which Rabbi Karp leads, is the oldest Jewish congregation in continual existence in Iowa and it was established in 1861. The name Niermann doesn’t appear among the list of rabbis who have served the area, Rabbi Karp said.

So he did a Google search on the Internet, which led to the discovery that Rt. Rev. Niermann actually was a German Catholic priest who served St. Joe’s. Rabbi Karp e-mailed his colleague with the facts. But mistaking a priest for a rabbi isn’t so unusual because of Davenport’s strong German heritage.

“Our congregation’s roots are German. In fact the earliest minutes are written in German. Reform Judaism was born in Germany,” Rabbi Karp said.

“You win some, you lose some,” Rabbi Hurvitz said in a good-natured way. “I’m a firm believer in putting things away and making them available to anybody of interest.”

The Davenport Diocese is interested in the lapel  button.

In a letter to Rabbi Hurvitz, Fr. George McDaniel, the diocese’s chancellor and archivist said: “Rabbi Henry Karp wrote to say you have a commemorative button for Msgr. Anton Niermann.  We would be glad to accept it for the archives of the Diocese of Davenport.

“Msgr. Niermann was a giant in his day, one of those pastors who built a parish to serve the immigrant population here in Davenport. People who know anything about him at all (admittedly not many these days) always mention his distinctive beard. This button will be a valuable addition to our information about pioneer priests in the Diocese of Davenport.”

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