Simi Cohen: The Jewish ‘Saint’ who Fled Gibraltar to become a Nun

Rosario Pérez | Photos: Fran Montes

The fascinating story of Simi Cohen, the Jewish ‘Saint’ who fled Gibraltar to become a nun | Based on the book “Simi Cohen, Gibraltareña, judía y monja”

After carefully planning her escape, on the 1st of March 1817 a young Simi Cohen Leví fled Gibraltar; never to return.

She passed away 70 years later, on the 8th January 1887, and was buried at the Medina Sidonia convent in the Province of Cádiz where she spent most of her life; first as a novice and then as a nun.

In November 2001, the process for her beatification began, culminating eleven years later, in November 2012.

In this way, she lived a far from ordinary life, but what makes this a special story, as you have probably deduced from the title, is its origin… Because Simi, of Jacob Cohen and Esther Leví, who died during childbirth in the spring of 1801, was not only a Gibraltarian by birth, but also Jewish.

Simi Cohen Saint Gibraltar

Her story was recovered in 1989 by the now deceased priest and writer Martín Bueno Lozano, who published a book about her after extensive and valuable research; “Simi Cohen, Gibraltareña, judía y monja” (Simi Cohen, Gibraltarian, Jewish and a nun).

The book tells how Simi Cohen was only 16 years old when she ran away from the house where she was born, crossed the frontier and fled without looking back.

She arrived in San Roque with the help of a muleteer who welcomed her into his house, and, once there, a notary called Francisco Zagala who assumed his defence and avoided giving in to the emissaries from the Rock with the mission of returning her to her father.

The young Simi, who refused to learn Hebrew or go to the synagogue, had already expressed her firm determination to convert to Christianity, which her father forbade, and those who welcomed her in her flight did not betray her …

Shortly after, the young woman swore allegiance to the Spanish flag, in a ceremony held at the City Council of San Roque which was even attended by the Spanish Royal representative in the locality, the “Corregidor”.

A couple of months later, Simi Cohen made her way to the Cadíz municipality of Medina Sidonia, where she received baptism in the Church of Santa María La Coronada on June 1, 1817, just 3 months after her successful escape.

After taking the Christian name of María de los Dolores Trinidad Josefa Cohen, and Holy Communion for the first time, the young woman entered the Convent of San Cristóbal, and later, as a novice, in the Convent of Jesús María y José, where two years later, on July 21, 1819, she would become a nun.

Following in the footsteps of another Gibraltarian, although one of Catholic origin, Juana María Teresa de San Nicolás (who had done so in 1693), the protagonist of Martín Bueno’s book entered the Order of Augustinian Recollects and became a key figure in the convent, where she was a keeper of the wardrobe, nurse, woodworker, carer of the sacristy, sub prioress…

She enjoyed a long and happy life, which she believed God had chosen for her.

Although she did not leave written memoirs, some of her writings were preserved, and in addition, as Martín Bueno explains, part of his biography was “saved” by another religious, with whom she had an almost mother and daughter relationship; Sister Inés del Corazón de María.

Thanks to this work, it is known, for example, that the Cohen family had enjoyed a prosperous financial position in Gibraltar, and that, as a girl the Simi had been cared for by Spanish servants, who were, of course, Christians.

This she recounted in a letter, dated March 16, 1875, to Josefa Begoña de Helván, her friend and a benefactor of the convent, whom, more than half a century later, narrated in writing the great adventure of her life, with the help of Sr. Inés, confessing that “since I had the use of reason, the Christian religion was the only one I believed in, and had a secret voice that impelled me to abandon my parents’.”

In that letter she also told of her confrontations with his father (who “continually rebuked me for being a friend of the maid, and I went through a lot for things that I couldn’t keep to myself, and I answered back when he criticised the law of the Christians”), and she recorded his gratitude to all the people who helped her in her particular odyssey.

In the Essence of Holiness

Simi Cohen Jewish Nun Gibraltar

Once the “nihil obstat” of the Holy See was obtained, the process of canonization of Simi Cohen began on November 18, 2000, in a solemn act held in the church of Santa María la Coronada of Medina Sidonia and was presided over by the then Bishop of Cádiz, Antonio Ceballos, and in which the then Bishop of Gibraltar, Charles Caruana, and the mayors of Medina and Gibraltar, Francisco Carrera and John Alcántara, respectively, in addition to numerous faithful from both cities also participated.

Finally, on November 10, 2012, already under the presidency of Bishop Rafael Sormoza, the monastery of Jesús, María and José de Medina Sidonia hosted the closing of the diocesan phase of the process of beatification and canonization of Sr. Maria de los Dolores del Amor of God.

The event ended with a Eucharist in honor of Our Lady of Europe, patroness of Gibraltar, Whom Simi Cohen had prayed to so many times, asking for guidance.

The fascinating story of Simi Cohen, the Jewish ‘Saint’ who fled Gibraltar to become a nun | Based on the book “Simi Cohen, Gibraltareña, judía y monja”

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