Musty, Dusty & Very Rare

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by Roger Mercurio, C. P.

On Friday, April 21, 1995, the Chicago Tribune ran an article entitled “Priest’s find: Musty, dusty and very rare.” The opening paragraph reads: “When the Rev. Sebastian MacDonald discovered 48 dusty boxes of books in the attic at his monastery, he had no inkling of the treasure he had just found”

In these boxes were over 400 old theological and historical books dating from the sixteenth century to the 1920s. About ten years ago Fr. Sebastian (former provincial and presently superior of the Immaculate Conception Monastery in Chicago) cleaned these books, had them indexed by novice Robert Chucka, and safely boxed. They were then stored in the annex to the monastery’s library.

From time to time the question arose as to what should be done with these volumes. Fr. Sebastian contacted the Newberry Library in Chicago. Mr. Paul Saenger, curator of rare books and collection development librarian, visited the monastery and was most interested in this collection. Fr. Sebastian formally offered the books to the Newberry Library as a gift from our monastery. In February 1994, this gift was accepted and the books were transferred to the Newberry Library in the near north area just west of State Street.

After Mr. Saegner had time to make a serious review of the books, he clearly saw how valuable this collection was. He expressed his intention to acknowledge this gift at a public reception. This was held at the Newberry Library on Wednesday, November 30, 1994. Cardinal Bernardin honored the Newberry Library and the Passionists by attending this reception together with officers of Loyola University and Mundelein College.

At this point we might ask: what is this collection? where did it come from? how did it fmd its way to the attic of the Immaculate Conception Passionist Monastery of Chicago? Please join me as I begin the search to fmd answers to these questions.

What is this collection? This collection consists of 435 old and rare books. There are works of the patristic, medieval and counter-reformation periods; books on dogmatic, sacramental, moral theology, canon law, bibles and commentaries, sermons and liturgy and church history, United States and Chicago history, literature and art, etc.

Among the old books are: The Complete Chronicles ofAncient Times printed in Strausburg, 1490; St. Augustine De Civitate Dei, 1955; three volumes of the Works of Hugh of St. Victor, 1588, in black and red ink; Complete Works of Ephraem of Syria, printed in 1603. There are others printed in the seventeenth century and many in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and a few in this century.

There are bound copies of the Boston Pilot from December 1843 to 1846. There are also fourteen volumes of Brownson ‘s Quarterly Review, 1845 to 1858. Another set is by Laurentio Beyerlinck entitled, Magnum Theatrum Vitae Humanae, (a compendium of poetry, philosophy and theology) in eight volumes printed in 1665. There are 25 volumes by and about John Dewey, our Fr. Joseph Mary O’Leary’s, C.P., personal collection.

Where did it come from? Fortunately Bob Chucka noted in his index that many of the volumes were brought to Chicago from other Passionist monasteries. One hundred and twenty-seven books are marked from the Sacred Heart Monastery in Louisville, seventy from Holy Cross Monastery in Cincinnati, thirteen from the Mother of Good Counsel in St. Louis, twenty-five from St. Paul’s in Detroit. There were also books from our eastern province: twelve from St. Michael’s Monastery in West Hoboken (Union City), NJ, and one from St. Paul’s in Pittsburgh. Quite a few are from Chicago, and some are unmarked.

A news clipping from the Louisville Courier Journal informs us that the library of the new monastery (1906) possessed some valuable volumes. A short quote:

…shelving filled with the works of the early fathers of the church. Some hundred of these are bound in parchment and date back to A.D. 1590… theology and philosophy form the major part of this rare collection… (Louisville Courier-Journal, July 1906.)

As a student in Louisville, I was aware of these volumes. I am not surprised that many of these books were sent to Chicago. What upsets me is that somehow I never asked one of the older fathers (sic.) how these books got to our Louisville library in the first place. I never asked the simple question: where did they come from?

There is some indication that one or two of the Louisville books were donations from a priest or lay-benefactor of the Louisville monastery. Most likely many of the older volumes came from earlier monasteries in the East. There are some marked as coming from West Hoboken, NJ, to Louisville before joining the Chicago collection.

Since they were printed in Europe one must ask the more basic question: who in the first place brought them from Europe? Were they sent by Italian Passionists? During the difficult years of the Papal States, especially in the 1860s and 1870s, Italian Passionists must have been fearful of a repetition of 1810 when all our monasteries were closed in Italy by Napoleon. Did they send these valuable books from their libraries to the brethren in the United States in order to preserve them? Or did they send them to assist the Americans in developing libraries in each new monastery being formed here?

Some final questions and reflections! Do you recall such books in the library in your student days? Did you ever ask someone about them? Do you remember anything about them? If you know their “story,” please let me know!

I wonder at times about some of the papers and photographs in our archival boxes. Have they become “dusty, musty and very rare!” What are their stories? Please help your archivists dust away the webs of forgetfulness, the mistiness of fading memories. With your help we may be able to bring the aged and rare into living stories of Passionist life and heritage!

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