Benedictine Fr. Columba Stewart of St. John’s Abbey and University in Collegeville, Minn., delivers the 2019 National Endowment for the Humanities Jefferson Lecture in Washington Oct. 7. CNS photo/Steve Barrett, courtesy NEH

Cold War inspired manuscript collection

By  Mark Pattison, Catholic News Service
  • October 19, 2019

WASHINGTON -- It was the global political tension of the Cold War that prompted the collection and copying of millions of pages of sacred manuscripts, a project now being led by Benedictine Fr. Columba Stewart at St. John’s Abbey and University in Collegeville, Minn.

The Benedictine priest who started the effort in 1964, Fr. Oliver Kapsner, “feared that European Benedictine heritage would be vaporized if there were a World War III,” said Stewart in delivering the 2019 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities Oct. 7 at a packed theatre in downtown Washington.

“Monte Cassino in Italy, the mother abbey of Benedictines, had been totally destroyed in 1944. A nuclear war would be far more devastating,” Stewart said in his address.

“There was not anything we monks in Minnesota could do to protect the churches and cloisters,” he said, “but we could microfilm their manuscripts and keep a backup copy in the United States.”

Kapsner met with resistance from nearly all of Europe’s Benedictines — until he arrived in Austria. “Austria was one of the few countries in Europe where monastic libraries had not been seized during the Reformation or the French Revolution and its aftermath,” Stewart said.

The work was modelled after a Vatican effort in the 1950s in which many of its prized manuscripts were microfilmed and stored in the United States at St. Louis University.

“The scope of the work soon widened to libraries of other religious orders, then to universities and national libraries. The pace was swift, and the result by the end of the 20th century was a film archive of almost 85,000 Western manuscripts,” Stewart said.

However, as the Cold War fizzled out, hot wars sprang up — often in countries where the Benedictines’ efforts had spread. One country, Ethiopia, didn’t bother to wait for an end to the Cold War in 1991. Communist-affiliated rebels deposed Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974, plunging the nation into a decade and a half of fighting and a nationwide famine.

“What had begun as a kind of archaeological expedition to discover ancient texts became a rescue project to preserve manuscripts in a nation convulsed by political upheaval and then a civil war,” Stewart said. “The cameras kept going, working throughout the 1970s, 1980s and into the early 1990s. In the end, 9,000 manuscripts were microfilmed,” funded in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

At the request of Orthodox Christians in Lebanon, who were trying to find anew their manuscripts — which had been scattered after decades of civil war — “we launched a project in northern Lebanon in April 2003, at the very same moment that American ground forces were approaching Baghdad” in nearby Iraq, Stewart said. 

As the work of the Benedictines’ Hill Museum and Manuscript Library expanded in Lebanon, “we extended the project to Syria, forming partnerships with several church leaders in Aleppo, as well as in Homs and Damascus,” Stewart noted.

“But then in 2011, Syria began to unravel as the spirit of the Arab Spring spread across the region. Three years later came the conquest by ISIS of much of Northern Iraq, driving tens of thousands of Christians and Yazidis from Mosul and the villages of the Ninevah plain.”

He added, “Through it all, our local partners kept photographing manuscripts as best they could, while collections were moved, hidden and in some cases destroyed. For too many of those manuscripts, all that remains are the digital images and perhaps a few charred pages.

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