The Importance of a Seminary Library
Sermon of the Rev. Lawrence B. Porter, Ph.D.
Given at Evening Prayer for the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time
28 October 2007
Immaculate Conception Chapel, Seton Hall University
Upon the Dedication of the Msgr. James Turro Library
“Black Robe” is the title of a 1991 feature film by Australian director Bruce Beresford. “Black Robe” is about Jesuit missionaries in colonial Canada. Early on in this film there is a particularly telling scene. It is the autumn of 1634 and a small band of Jesuit priests is being led by native guides into a remote region of Eastern Canada. One of these Algonquin guides, Chomina, observes how one of the Jesuits, Father LaForgue, each day takes time to make marks on what looks like leaves that have been strung together. You and I know this is the Jesuits’ journal. But the native American does not understand, so he asks the priest what is the meaning of his actions. The Jesuit then asks his Indian guide, “Tell me something important that has happened to you recently. Something I do not know.” Chomina says to him, “My mother died last winter in the snow.” Father LaForgue then writes some words in his journal and tells Chomina to take the book and bring it to another Jesuit standing at a distance, several paces away. When Chomina does this, the other Jesuit reads the words on the page, looks at the Indian and says, “Oh, I’m so sorry. I did not know your mother had died.” The Indian is totally startled, amazed as to how this Jesuit could possible know this fact when he was no where near the other Jesuit at the moment the Indian disclosed this event to him. Such is the power and the magic of the written word. It enables us to write down our experiences and then store them for later retrieval and study by us or others.
As Christians, you and I are major benefactors of this distinctly human technique of writing and reading, storing and retrieving, our thoughts and experiences, what has happened to us and what we think. You and I are people of “The Book,” because long ago Israelite scribes began to write down the experiences of their people and the words of their prophets. And the earliest disciples of Christ did the same, writing down what Jesus said and did, saving the letters that Paul, and Peter and James and John wrote. And so to this day we make it a regular practice, as we have just now done, to read passages from the Bible, to read again and again what has been written there in the expectation that we just might find in those written words new meaning and instruction, inspiration and encouragement for the journey that is our lives. But it is not just religious knowledge that is so preserved. Critics of the early Christian mission in North America need to be reminded: that we know anything at all about native American culture is in no small part due to the fact that the same Jesuit missionaries portrayed in Bruce Beresford’s film not only wrote down their own experiences, but invented a way to transcribe into written signs the spoken language of the native Americans they encountered, natives whose culture till Catholic priests came was purely oral.
Every Catholic seminary plays an important role in the culture of the written word by making sure that it has as a tool for its work of educating men for ordination and priestly ministry the resources of a religious library, a collection of books about the Christian faith. Sometimes these collections are small. Sometimes they grow to be great. Sometimes this precious treasure is threatened by fire and storm. Always there is someone who is entrusted with the responsibility of watching over this resource. This is true of our library here at Immaculate Conception Seminary. This library began very small, has grown, and along the way has experienced as much calamity as progress.
In Henry Beck’s Centennial History of the Immaculate Conception Seminary, Darlington, N.J. (1962), he tells of an early calamity: “During Saturday night, Jan. 27, 1866, fire broke out on the third floor of the Seminary edifice. Soon it engulfed the roof and in four hours’ time the whole building had been reduced to ruins. Fortunately, professors, seminarians and collegians escaped unscathed and carried out much that was moveable, including all the books in the library. These latter were not numerous since Dr. Corrigan’s [that is, the rector’s] estimate a few years later valued them at $600.”
This seminary library remained small and modest up until the 1920’s. And during its earliest years, this library’s director was the seminary rector himself. The reasons for our library’s initial and perduring humble estate are readily understandable in that after its beginning this seminary’s enrollment and faculty both remained for many years very small. For example, in 1866, the year of the fire, there were but sixteen seminarians and four faculty members. By 1922, the number of seminarians had risen to fifty-three but there were still only four professors. Moreover, seminary instruction in the late 19th century right on up to the middle of the 20th century was principally from manuals or handbooks of theology with little or no collateral reading. However, with the removal of Immaculate Conception Seminary from Seton Hall’s South Orange Campus and its transfer to the remote wilderness of Mahwah, in barren northwestern New Jersey, with the sudden growth of both the student body and faculty (by 1933 seminarian enrollment had increased to 112 and faculty to eight), and with a growing appreciation for a more complete education of priests, a distinct position was created for one faculty member to oversee and direct the building up of a distinguished theological library with a variety of literary sources, modern as well as ancient.
Monsignor James Turro, whom we honor tonight, has had a paramount role in the history of this seminary library. Among the five priests who in the 150-year history of this library have held the title of director, no one has held that title so long and amid so much trial and turmoil as did Monsignor Turro. James Cyril Turro was director of this library for 45 dramatic years, from 1959 to 2004. In the turmoil and upheaval of the post-Vatican II years, then “Father” Turro not only served as a sure refuge for seminarians buffeted by the revolutionary-like winds blowing through both church and seminary, but he was saddled with the formidable task of moving the seminary library back from the wilds of remote Mahwah to the comparatively and, hopefully, more sophisticated and civilized region of South Orange. As if this challenge were not enough, shortly after his arrival here Father Turro faced not the ravages of a fire but the damages of a flood in the basement of Lewis Hall, a flood that did irreparable damage to many a venerable volume.
But as important a part of a seminary as a library should be, the library is often the least appreciated of a seminary’s resources. A year ago, at the dedication of our DeVoy reading room, a high administrator of this university was heard to remark as he observed so many seminarians in attendance: “This is probably the most time they will ever spend in this library.” Even if that observation were true and not just cynical, the importance of a seminary library remains.
The importance of any library is determined more by the number and quality of its books than by the number and character of its visitors. The strength of a good library, the mark of a truly distinguished library, is the number of rare and obscure books it holds. Every library director knows that a great many of the books he cares for will rarely if ever be looked at. But this is no cause for despair. Rather a librarian takes great satisfaction from the thought that if the need ever arises that a certain obscure text will be sought out, if years from now a curious student or an industrious scholar ventures through our doors in search of an obscure work, we will have it.
And then something magical will happen, something like the magic in the episode I recounted from Bruce Beresford’s film. That is, some day someone will go down to the seminary library, looking to find what indeed did Epiphanius of Salamis, or some other obscure Greek Father, say, or what indeed did some Israelite scribe mean when in the priestly tradition of the Book of Leviticus he penned a particularly obtuse line. And then it will happen. As an old, dusty book is taken down from the shelf, as its pages are slit open perhaps for the very first time, suddenly the words will be there, leaping across the centuries, alive as they once were when first written, and the path to understanding will have been found.