Between the Pages, a Rare Treasure

Between the Pages, a Rare Treasure

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer

Burns Library Jesuitana Cataloger Ross Shanley-Roberts was inspecting a 340-year-old religious daybook last fall when he made an unexpected discovery: a rare holy card of St. Louis that had been serving as a bookmark, in all likelihood, for more than three centuries.


Jesuitana Cataloger Ross Shanley-Roberts with the holy card of St. Louis he found in the Burns Library archives. "I feel like I'm digging the sources of Jesuit history out of the ground and restoring them to the light of day." (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)
"I got to the page and went, 'Oh, my,'" Shanley-Roberts said, recalling his reaction to finding the prayer card. Inscribed in Flemish, the card was tucked between pages 162 and 163 of Quotidiana Christiani Militis Tessera, a daily Christian treasury by English Jesuit William Stanyhurst that was published in Antwerp in 1661.

The card marked a homily by St. Augustine on the April 5th page of the daybook. The emblem bears a woodcut of St. Louis and a quote from St. John Chrysostom, and likely originated in the same area of Flanders as the book, according to Assoc. Prof. Kenneth Craig (Fine Arts).

Boston College Libraries Director Jerome Yavarkovsky said, "Certainly it's the only one of its kind left in the world, and it likely hasn't been out of that book in 300 years."

Since that discovery, Shanley-Roberts has come across two additional centuries-old holy cards in the course of his cataloging the more than 1,500 early Jesuit books shelved in the Trustees Room at Burns Library.

One is a prayer card with a picture of the crucified St. Simeon Martyr that was printed in France in 1755 and found inside La Cour Saincte (The Holy Court), by the Jesuit preacher Nicolas Caussin, published in Lyon in 1656. The other is a hand-painted image of the Madonna and Child found pressed in Ambrosii Calepini Dictionarium, an eight-language dictionary published in Lyon in 1681.

The prayer card discoveries add color to a larger story, the cataloging of one of America's largest collections of early Jesuit books published prior to the suppression of the Jesuit order in 1773.

"While it is exciting to find a rare treasure, more gratifying to me is increasing access to all the items in the collection through the catalog," said Shanley-Roberts.

Unexpected treasures regularly surface at Burns Library, home to Boston College's rare books and special collections. Among the notable finds:

-A previously undiscovered seven-page play in Irish that was found in the Flann O'Brien archive and will premiere in a rehearsed reading in Galway on Easter Sunday. The 1943 play, "An Scian," satirizes rifts in the Irish language movement. Flann O'Brien was a pen name used on the acclaimed novels and plays of writer Brian O'Nolan (1911-66), who also wrote a popular column in the Irish Times under the nom de plume Myles na Gopaleen. The play, written under the latter pseudonym, was uncovered in the archive by poet Louis de Paor while doing research for a book.

-An 1860 photographic print of Charles Dickens that was among a recent consignment of papers to the library's Jane Jacobs Collection. Jacobs, a pioneer in the urban preservation movement, had been given the print as a gift after writing a foreword to an edition of Dickens' Hard Times.

-A 1953 letter from the Vatican Holy Office condemning Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory that was issued 14 years after the novel's publication. Asst. Prof. Stephen Schloesser, SJ (History), discovered the letter two years ago in the Graham Greene archive at Burns and described the find in an article in the Jesuit magazine America. The news made the BBC.

-A notebook in which Samuel Beckett (1906-89) first writes in French, the language used by the Nobel Prize-winning Irish dramatist in "Waiting for Godot" and other great works.

-An undated Christmas card with a print of the Four Courts Building in Dublin and a holiday greeting in Irish, signed by Eamon de Valera (1882-1975), the Irish patriot, prime minister and president.

-Six lines of a poem handwritten by Robert Frost in a book inscription.

-Mark Sullivan

Many volumes in the Jesuitana Collection at Burns were published between the founding of the order in 1540 and 1773, when European political intrigues led the Society of Jesus to be suppressed. Other items date to the 41-year suppression period that ended in the reinstitution of the order in 1815.

Thousands of the antiquarian books were acquired in recent years from the Bibliotheque des Fontaines, a large Jesuit library in Chantilly, France, and from the Weston School of Theology.

"However, as cataloging is time- and labor-intensive, especially with books printed before 1800, only a few hundred volumes of the Jesuitana Collection have been cataloged to date," said Shanley-Roberts. "I estimate it will take three to five years for me to be able to fully catalog the more than 5,000 volumes."

The sooner the job of cataloging gets done, he said, the sooner the centuries-old Jesuit books will be returned to scholarly use.

"I feel like I'm digging the sources of Jesuit history out of the ground and restoring them to the light of day," he said.

Shanley-Roberts, who is on leave from the library at Miami University of Ohio, began cataloging the Burns Jesuitana Collection in late October. The job requires him to do a painstaking page-by-page inspection of each volume to insure all the leaves and pagination match. He said he averages between eight and 10 volumes a day, though small ones he can do "a lot faster."

He said he has long enjoyed poring over old books, though for someone in his field, "old" is relative.

"I'm a medievalist," he said. "This stuff is so recent, it's like last week's news to me."

With between 4,000 and 6,000 Jesuit books published before 1773 waiting to be cataloged in the basement of the Burns, Shanley-Roberts predicts he will find more cards.

"I expect to be turning up quite a few," said the librarian, adding that provisions are being made to store ephemera found during cataloging. "After a couple years, it might be nice to put up an exhibit."

 

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