Our History

Estelle Shohet Brettman (1925-1991)

"A few words about the International Catacomb Society, which I was instrumental in founding in 1980.  The Society's members, from varied professions, disciplines and faiths, have been dedicated to three priorities: education, ecumenism, and the need to preserve our past.  Their devotion has made possible the realization of the Society's goal: to create awareness of the need to preserve and document the catacombs, those rare vestiges of history which illustrate the commonalities of origin and expression of Jewish, Christian, and pagan funerary practices during the Roman Empire.  The hope is also that our project will serve to foster respect and appreciation for the roots and traditions of all cultures, so closely interdependent in our contemporary world;  To increase understanding among faiths and cultures by circulating exhibits, sponsoring lectures, and disseminating publications is a major aspect of our work." (Estelle. S. Brettman)


"I have devoted many years to the exploration and interpretation of the Jewish catacombs in Italy.  What began as an intensely personal interest in the historical and cultural bonds uniting Jews and Christians has grown beyond personal bounds.  My research into the origins and sharing of common funerary symbols ... has captured the attention and interest of scholars and laymen in the USA as well as abroad.  Further information and insights in to the oldest continuing community of the Jewish Diaspora will enrich us all, and will pave the way for future investigations into many other areas of Europe, the Near East, and North Africa.  The horizons are unlimited." (Estelle S. Brettman)


Estelle Shohet Brettman was the daughter of a doctor who inspired in her a love for Judaic Studies and the ideals of ecumenism. She was a graduate of Girls' Latin School and majored in sciences at Radcliffe, from which she was graduated in 1945. She began her career as a marine biologist, but by the late 1960s and early 70s, an interest in antiquity led her to become an expert on the iconography of ancient gems and seals, and a docent and lecturer on the subject at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. She also had a thriving business in antique jewelry, for which she made frequent trips to Europe (especially Italy) and North Africa to buy antique and exotic pieces.

The Classical background of her high school years, the fascination with ancient gems that led her to study symbolism and iconography, her travels, and her own heritage came together in preparation for what became the passion of her later life. Her art lover's eye and researcher's intellect were stimulated by the decoration of ancient structures, especially the catacombs, and the inscriptions she sometimes literally stumbled over at ancient sites. Wanting to know more about what she was seeing, she had to delve ever deeper and find her way to original sources.

She set out to learn all she could about the life and beliefs of the people who had created or were commemorated by the ancient remains. She was impressed that for a time under the Roman Empire, Classical paganism, Judaism, and early Christianity existed side-by-side, mingling influences, until the differences between them became the ruling issues and common roots were ignored and lost sight of. To Estelle, the common roots were the keys to reconciliation.

The fragility of the ancient material and the loss that had already occurred of valuable monuments, with all that they could teach us, disturbed her. With characteristic energy and determination, she undertook to awaken people to a cause that few might have been concerned about until Estelle touched them with her vision.

The International Catacomb Society grew out of her heart, her home, and an ever-widening circle of friends that eventually included every creed, class, and interest. It was their dedication, for which Estelle was enormously grateful, that helped her to build the Society and bring the exhibition "Vaults of Memory" to reality.

Estelle spent some of her happiest times in Italy. The beauty, history, and language, the Italian temperament, and the close friendships she formed, made her feel at home. The Italians seemed to respond to her with equal warmth. Her brilliant dark eyes, sparkling with enthusiasm, the quick smile and confiding manner that implied her trust in the listener's readiness to be a friend and make her happy no matter what she asked, seemed to speak to them as clearly as her spoken words in the Italian language. The help and consideration she received from the Vatican, the Antiquities Service, and the innumerable individuals who became supportive friends made her research and accomplishments possible. One of Estelle's great missions was to pass on the knowledge she so delighted in gathering. With her exhibitions, she hoped to get us all to understand how much more we have in common, as people of good will, than there is to separate us.

If Estelle could be summed up in a few words, they would be that she "cared passionately." Whatever she took on, she committed herself to completely. There may have been those who found her intensity and energy too much to keep up with, but for those who could, there was excitement: a sense of being in on something important and of sharing in a significant cause, whether it be to save a local shul or to illuminate an ancient period of history, half a world away.

Estelle gave us a wider vision of what can matter to us. She showed what one woman could accomplish with determination, terrifically hard work, and a gift of persuasion that made her friend Walter Persegati, then Secretary General of the Vatican Monuments say, "They tremble in the Vatican when they hear it is Mrs. Brettman on the telephone." It was hard to say "no" to her.

Estelle hasn't really left us, because her vitality, her dedication and love of scholarship have made such a strong impression on us all; we must see to it that the work she started will go on to be a living memorial to her remarkable life.

- Florence Z. Wolsky, ICS Founding Member and Officer of the Board


It is my distinct pleasure to honor the memory of Estelle Shohet Brettman, the founder of the International Catacomb Society.  We honor her today in a way she would have loved, in fact, would have loved three times over; a lecture, a lecture about art in Italy, and a lecture given by a dear and respected friend. The fact that our lecturer also happens to be an Italian scholar and her friend from the Vatican would certainly have turned triple love into undisguised ecstasy.

I can almost see her now... see the start of that wide, generous smile, see her overflow with warm feelings for everyone around, see her joy infect us all.  However, were it to dawn on her that this event was, indeed, in her honor, I can see her becoming flustered and embarrassed; she would no doubt then pull out her trusty camera and start to take pictures of everything and everyone around.  In this way, she sought some distance and emotional respite, and thus was able to preserve cherished moments for the future, for a private savoring.  And those moments certainly mounted up, for there are literally thousands of her slides left to the Society, documenting a life filled with intense interests and pleasures.  Florence Wolsky's lovely tribute to Estelle describes but briefly her wide range of interests and activities.

But the Catacomb Society was her baby.  She was building an ecumenical family for the Roman catacombs she so dearly loved, for all of them, the pagan and the Jewish and the Christian.  She loved them all.

- Howard Weintraub, MD, President, International Catacomb Society


From her forebears, Estelle Shohet Brettman inherited an ecumenical spirit. Her grandfather, a rabbi known as the "Wise Man of Arbel" in Lithuania, exerted a wise, compassionate influence in his country. Her father, Dr. Gabriel H. Shohet, was a physician who worked with many types of people and wrote a book entitled Kinships about the fundamental bonds uniting all men. His daughter Estelle's search for interpretations and uses of symbols shared by Christians and Jews - such as the dolphin, pegasus, dove, sheep, winged victory, pomegranate, and peacock - seems to have been predestined. Vaults of Memory is the culmination of her years of research at archaeological sites and museums throughout the Mediterranean including trips to Sicily, Italy, Turkey, Morocco, Tunisia, Israel, Spain, and Greece. Her archaeological scholarship and commitment gained her the cooperation of eminent Vatican churchmen in obtaining access to Roman catacombs seldom viewed.

- Boston Public Library Press Release, November 29, 1979

All of us who have known Estelle, know well her courage, her strong will, and her commitment to carrying out the tasks she set for herself.... (But) that Estelle was an extraordinary person, we do not have to tell you... the Society, her exhibition, her book, and what they will accomplish in bringing people together to recognize and celebrate their shared humanity, will be her memorial." 

- Florenze Z. Wolsky,  June, 1991

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