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 Father Columba Stewart at St. John’s Abbey and University in Collegeville, Minnesota.
The Benedictine priest who started the effort in 1964, Father Oliver Kapsner, “feared that European Benedictine heritage would be vaporized if there were a World War III,” said Father Stewart in delivering the 2019 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities Oct. 7 at a packed theater 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,” Father Stewart said in his address, “Cultural Heritage Present and Future: A Benedictine Monk’s Long View.”
“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.”
Father 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,” Father Stewart said.
The work was modeled 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.