Benedictine monk honored for digitally preserving ancient manuscripts

| Susan Klemond | November 11, 2019 | 0 Comments

In his work of digitally preserving historic manuscripts that are sometimes found in dangerous places, Father Columba Stewart may serve as diplomat, detective or historian — but he is always a Benedictine monk.

With the thousands of manuscripts that the member of St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville has helped digitize and photograph in Africa, the Middle East, India and other sites since 2003, he is carrying on a Benedictine tradition as he brings information from another time to modern scholars.

Benedictine Father Columba Stewart of St. John’s Abbey and University in Collegeville, Minn., is pictured in a Sept. 3, 2019, photo. CNS photo/Vincent Ricardel, courtesy NEH

“We’re trying to put the pieces together from all of those sources to make sense of our own lives now,” said Father Stewart, 62,executive director of the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library (HMML) at St. John’s University in Collegeville. “It’s not to lock them in a data vault somewhere or hide them in the cloud. It’s precisely to get them out there and make (them) accessible to their communities of origin and then to those around the world who are interested in learning more about these cultures.”

Father Stewart was celebrated in St. Paul Nov. 6 for having received the U.S. government’s highest honor in the humanities: to give the annual National Endowment for the Humanities’ Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities. The NEH is a federal agency that awards more than $125 million annually in grants supporting cultural topics. The Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, established in 1972, is conferred for intellectual achievement in the humanities.

Gov. Tim Walz, along with the Minnesota Historical Society and Minnesota Humanities Center, officially recognized Father Stewart Nov. 6 as the first Minnesotan to be named a Jefferson Lecturer. Father Stewart delivered the lecture, titled “Cultural Heritage Present and Future: A Benedictine Monk’s Long View,” Oct. 7 in Washington, D.C. The lectureship carries a $10,000 honorarium, set by statute.

“Father Columba Stewart of the order of St. Benedict, executive director of the HMML, works dauntlessly to rescue centuries worth of irreplaceable cultural heritage under threat around the world,” Walz said before an audience at the Minnesota History Center, proclaiming Nov. 6, 2019, “Father Columba Stewart Day.”

Following the tribute from state leaders, Father Stewart discussed his work and the global and local importance of cultural heritage in a conversation with journalist Fred de Sam Lazaro.

Father Stewart received the annual award for rescuing centuries’ worth of irreplaceable cultural heritage in countries which are under threat because of weather, war and civil unrest,” said Jon Parrish Peede, National Endowment for the Humanities chairman. As a result, he said, the monk has helped to preserve records of religion, art, literature, culture and knowledge in human history.

A native of Houston, Father Stewart professed monastic vows at St. John’s Abbey in 1982. He was ordained a priest in 1990. Along with his work at HMML, Father Stewart teaches in areas of monastic studies and early Christianity at St. John’s School of Theology and Seminary. He has published numerous books in his field of Christian monasticism.

The mission of HMML is preserving collections of persecuted or endangered minorities. It has digital images of 250,000 handwritten texts from more than 550 partner libraries. Some of the actual manuscripts have been lost since they were digitized, and only the digital images remain. The library permanently archives the images and makes some of them available in its reading room and online.

In his work with HMML, Father has helped digitize manuscripts of Armenian and Syriac Christian communities that survived the 1915-1922 massacres in Turkey. He also continues to work with Iraqi church leaders to digitize documents displaced by war and unrest.

Starting in 2013, Father Stewart helped digitize more than 250,000 Islamic manuscripts and books rescued from the ancient city of Timbuktu in Mali, Africa.

In the various projects Father Stewart and those he works with seek to create “a connected web of things which can tell us some kind of story,” he said at the event. He hopes it also can foster more tolerance between faith groups.

Sometimes manuscripts in volatile locations affect his ability to work. “You never know when things may go south,” he said, citing revolutions, invasions and other conflicts. “We seize the opportunity when we have it to do as much as can.”

Gerald Schlabach, 62, a theology professor at the University of St. Thomas, attended the event because he has an interest in Father Stewart’s work and has introduced some of his theology students to it, he said.  Schlabach, a St. Peter Claver parishioner and Benedictine Oblate of St. John’s Abbey, said that Father Stewart’s honor reflects a respect of texts and dialogue between faiths, even where there are tensions. “We want to see one another’s texts read well and understood,” he said.

University of Minnesota art history student Brielle Pizzala, 22, came to the event because she’s interested in cultural heritage, she said. She sees preservation as a way to bring manuscripts to larger audiences and to document real life.

“I like the overall point of using artifacts to connect people across faiths and ideas … so that everyone is interconnected and able to empathize and understand each other,” she said.

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