Father Columba Stewart presents his Phi Beta Kappa Visiting Scholar Lecture

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September 11, 2019

Father Columba Stewart presents his lecture as Phi Beta Kappa's 2019 Visiting Scholar to the Saint Ben's/Saint John's community

Fr Columba Stewart at podium

Saint John’s University’s very own Fr. Columba Stewart, OSB kicked off his series of lectures as Phi Beta Kappa’s 2019-2020 Visiting Scholar on Wednesday, September 11th in Saint John’s Alcuin library.

Students, faculty, staff, and members of the monastic community crowded into the auditorium in Alcuin library to hear Stewart relay tales of his work with the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library (HMML). HMML aims to preserve and share handwritten texts and manuscripts from all over the world, including Christian and Islamic manuscripts, and has preserved over 250,000 texts since its founding in 1965 (and 150,000 of those have been under Stewarts leadership as Executive Director since 2003). The texts vary greatly in content; some texts are religious, some are grammar books, others are ancient tax receipts from Rome, some are ancient books on astronomy or geography, and many more disciplines. While working with HMML., Stewart has traveled to geopolitically sensitive cities in Western Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia and more to photograph and digitize these rare documents that are in danger of being destroyed, damaged, or lost.

Sometimes affectionately and reverently referred to as the “Indian Jones of manuscripts” by students, Stewart welcomed the audience with a picture from his youth in Houston, Texas, sporting a cowboy hat and holster. Stewart joked it “takes a Texan” to do this job. Throughout Stewarts lecture, the audience collectively gasped as Stewart relayed one particularly harrowing journey in Timbuktu when he and a colleague were attempting to digitize documents in the Imam Ben Essayouti Library when they evacuated by a UN convoy during an attack on the nearby US embassy. As Stewart showed pictures of libraries, monasteries, and churches bombed and burned beyond recognition, the audience saw the importance of Stewart’s work. Because of HMML, and Stewart in particular, many of the documents in these locations had already been preserved, some can be restored, but many are still lost. In the ruins of one library, the team found a HMML project form; the people had been working on preserving the works in their library up until it was bombed.

While on these expeditions to some of the most dangerous, volatile, and inaccessible places, Stewart and his colleagues train local citizens to continue HMML’s work of preserving these documents so that these people can preserve their own culture and heritage. As Stewart says, “heritage is heritage,” be it Christian or Islamic, European, or Asian, and through the preservation of these materials, heritage lives. The audience heard about how one monastery, Mar Behnam, in Northern Iraq, was defaced by ISIS who destroyed statues and any evidence of Christianity. A false wall, however, secured the irreplaceable and valuable texts, keeping them safe from the destruction, until it was safe for the resident monks trained by HMML to remove the manuscripts and preserve their heritage. These texts survived through the community’s effort.

Also named the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) 2019 Jefferson Lecturer in the Humanities, Stewart will be talking about the incredible work he and his team do in his series of lectures across the country. Check if Stewart will lecture near you at https://www.pbk.org/VisitingScholars/2019-2020/Columba-Stewart.