Hidden Gems

Important Jesuit volumes finally made accessible to the world

By John W. Gearan '65

Beautifully crafted tomes standing solemnly, shoulder to shoulder, on their shelves captivate one's imagination with their ancient artistry. Categorized as "Jesuitana," many are wearing leather covers embossed in regal gold. These rare and valuable volumes, so august and dignified, seemingly prefer not to be disturbed in their climate-controlled penthouse known as the Archives and Special Collections of Holy Cross. ''To the contrary," remarks head archivist Mark Savolis '77, who avers that they eagerly await some serious scholar to examine them with care. Indeed they would love to be read carefully and have some long-kept secret pried from them.

To that end, Savolis and Nancy Singleton (above), the special collections cataloger, have been working to make this 3,700-book collection, written by and/or about Jesuits, accessible to researchers worldwide.

During the 1980s, Dinand Library began "the great conversion," making the information from the former card catalog available in electronic form. Because the focus was on the circulating collection, the Jesuitana and other special collections were not included at the time. "About six years ago we began converting these cards to electronic form," explains Savolis. "The Holy Cross Jesuit community earmarks a modest amount of money for the project in its annual donation to the College," he adds. "It is fitting that these rare books about the Jesuit tradition are residing here in a special place of honor."

Singleton, formerly Dinand's head of acquisitions and cataloging, has been working part time on the project for the last three years. She inherited the task from Lisa Villa '90, who started the work.            

Fastidiously Singleton searches Worldcat, an international database, for a bibliographic record to match each book. The records are checked for accuracy and include information such as the author, title, publication information and physical description of each volume. Subject headings and special notations are added as needed to aid in discovery. This precise and painstaking labor of love is invaluable to those trying to locate a particular book in this collection.

"It's working," Singleton says, wearing a cardigan to ward off the vault's chill during our tour. "Recently I cataloged a book on a Thursday, and someone found it online and came to the library the next day."

While being afforded special security, these tomes are accessible not only to faculty and curious Crusader students, but to inquisitive researchers from around the globe. "Anyone with a computer or a smart phone can search for a rare book in an instant. If we have a copy, a researcher can visit and exam it here,'' notes Savolis. Remarks assistant archivist Sarah Campbell, "A hidden collection is now becoming visible."

There are many books dating back to the early 1600s, written in many languages and some graced with gloriously engraved illuminations. They include fascinating accounts written by Jesuit missionaries who traveled the world to spread their Catholic faith and educational enlightenment. The early members of the Society of Jesus, founded in 1540 by Ignatius of Loyola, were adventurous scholars, steeped in the classics and with an intense interest in the arts and language. Later called  "God's Marines," they ventured forth bravely into remote areas of the Far East, the New World and elsewhere, leaving a profound imprint.

"The interest in Jesuit history has grown rapidly during the last 20 years,'' says Rev. Thomas Worcester, S.J., history professor and renowned scholar of Jesuit history. Fr. Worcester is the editor of and a contributor to the upcoming The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Jesuit History, a five-year project with publisher Cambridge University Press. "With globalization, many historians who are researching their own cultures bump into the major influence that the Jesuits had on their country's development," Fr. Worcester notes.

Fr. Worcester-who also wrote The Cambridge Companion to the Jesuits, published in 2008 in print and digital form-acknowledges that while e-books and other digital media are important educational developments, "it is still preferable to hold a book from the 17th century and experience the awe. We don't ever want to lose track of that."

"More Jesuitana will be sought out as the 200th anniversary of the restoration of the Society of Jesus in 1814 approaches," says Rev. Anthony Kuzniewski, S.J., professor of history and author of Thy Honored Name, a history of the College. (Pope Clement XIV suppressed the Jesuits in 1773; Pope Pius VII restored the Society in 1814.)

"The cataloging project will open up doors to future research," adds Rev. Vincent Lapomarda, S.J., associate professor of history and a contributor to current Jesuitana in his own right, having written Jesuits and the Third Reich and the just published The Catholic Bishops of Europe and the Nazi Persecutions of Catholics and Jews.

"The detailed work of accurately cataloging this collection of Jesuitana is an example of the important scholarly work being done in the Archives and Special Collections," explains Savolis. "To make these volumes more accessible to researchers and academics is a living exercise that supports the College's mission." 

Click here to see more of images of Holy Cross' Jesuitana collection.