PLYMOUTH, Minn. – From carols in the classrooms to the nativity scene on the front walk, Providence Academy has all the symbols one might expect at a proper Catholic school. Then two buses pull up, carrying visitors from afar.
"Boys and girls, we're glad to have you here," says Providence headmaster Todd Flanders as he welcomes the young teens bounding onto the sidewalks.
The 8th graders have just arrived from Amos and Celia Heilicher Minneapolis Jewish Day School. They've been drawn to Providence by the light.
The light, is actually a lamp - a 1600-year-old clay oil lamp purchased at a New York auction house by Bob Cummins, the founder of Providence Academy.
"When they talk about lamps in the bible, a lot of people think it's like Coleman lanterns that you haul around and they really don't know what an ancient lamp actually is," explains Cummins.
Cummins, who collects antiquities, was especially captivated with the lamp, because it was being sold with the mold in which it was made. "I said, I just have to have this, because you don't get a better teaching tool than this."
Cummins oversaw the making of plastic molds from the original and Providence high school students began working with art teacher Christopher Santer on recreating the lamps from 400 A.D.
After trial and error, they achieved success in molding and firing the clay into a workable lamp. But those involved realized how much more meaningful the project would be if they could share it with their Jewish counterparts – thus the invitation to the Jewish Day School.
Robert Portnoe, who teaches Bible and Rabbinic Studies at the Jewish school, jumped at the opportunity. "It's a real connection for them, and that makes the learning much better," he said.
Cummins cites three dozen references to oil lamps in the bible, Old Testament and New. Oil lamps form the basis for Hanukah and are present in early Christian traditions too. "We have this in common," said Cummins, surrounded by Catholic and Jewish Students working together molding lamps.
After being fired, the finished projects will be taken home and shared with families.
"It gives us another form of connection," said Portnoe. "We realize that people who are different in religion share a common understanding and a common experience of what's important and that's really to bring light into the world."