HOW Father Columba Stewart ’79, a Benedictine monk from Minnesota, came to be hiding in a Timbuktu hotel during a jihadist attack last summer is a story that begins in the fifth century.
But the short answer is: he had flown to the medieval center of learning (and site of a United Nations peacekeeping mission since 2013), to start a new archival project—digitizing tens of thousands of documents in the Imam Ben Essayouti Library. The collection holds “everything from commentaries on the Qur’an to letters, scraps of poetry, land deeds, just the whole written culture,” says Stewart, executive director of the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library (HMML) at Saint John’s University, about 80 miles northwest of the Twin Cities.
Christian monks have helped safeguard cultural patrimony for more than a millennium. As followers of Benedict of Nursia (c. 480-540), Stewart says, Benedictines ultimately became “leaders in the copying and transmission of texts.” In the last 15 years, he has taken that tradition to some of the world’s most volatile regions—Syria, Iraq, Israel, and parts of the Balkans—as well as India, Ukraine, and Russia, to help conserve documents threatened not only by religious wars and geopolitics, but also by poverty, natural disasters, and climate change.
“We’ve already done a lot of the Christian material,” says Stewart, who holds an Oxford doctorate in theology. “If we want to grow…and we think the preservation of general culture is valuable, then the growing edge of that for us are Islamic materials, not to mention East Asian stuff. Heritage is heritage. And the intellectual argument is, ‘Why not get all the material, of all the sides?’”
HMML is currently digitizing more than 250,000 ancient Islamic manuscripts, books, and literary treasures smuggled out of Timbuktu, in central Mali, in 2012 and 2013. That effort, the library’s largest project to date, is centered at a 12-camera studio in Mali’s capital, Bamako.
Catalogued materials are accessible through HMML’s “virtual reading room,” developed and launched during Stewart’s tenure, where more than 25,000 complete manuscripts from libraries across Europe, the Middle East, South India, and parts of the Balkans are already online. HMML also holds thousands of rare books and Bibles, maps, and artwork reflecting Christian culture and theology. More recently, the library has been collecting early printed books (physical counterparts to the virtual, digitized manuscripts online) in Arabic, Armenian, Ethiopic, and Syriac, including important Qur’ans.
For his August trip to Mali, Stewart had lined up Swedish and British support and seats on a UN plane to Timbuktu. Within hours of landing, while eating lunch in the hotel courtyard, he heard gunfire. Ushered into an interior room, he and two colleagues learned by way of phone texts that terrorists had raided the UN headquarters, but that help would arrive.
Hours of waiting wore on. “We heard helicopters overhead, then sporadic shooting”—some of which seemed to come from the hotel garden—“then eerie quiet,” Stewart recalls. “I don’t like just sitting there, not knowing what’s happening, not being able to control anything. We did pray, since all of us are Catholic…and, good news, there was a bottle of scotch in the room, and the hotel people brought us food.” Around 9 p.m. Swedish soldiers arrived and took the group to a command post, where Stewart spent two days getting the digitizing project under way before returning to the bucolic campus on Lake Sagatagan and Saint John’s Abbey, where he’s lived for 37 years.
The fall after graduation, having spent the summer taking a Harvard Latin course, where he met his “first Benedictine,” Stewart began a doctoral degree in religious studies at Yale. There, he became friends with second Benedictine, on leave from Saint John’s Abbey to study medieval history. Intrigued by the place, Stewart stayed there the following summer, learned some German, and joined the luminaries and theologians then on campus to celebrate the sesquimillenial of Saint Benedict’s birth..
“I loved the community,” he says. “I liked all these really smart guys, hanging out together and doing serious things, but also having fun, and their being willing to accept me. I think for men the sort of team/group thing is important…there was something about being embraced by the group that was very meaningful at that point in my human development.” The rich academic setting enabled Stewart to pursue scholarship and teach, and not worry about being re-assigned elsewhere. Benedictines’ vows are to their monasteries, not to the order, and each community, relative to parishes, operates with autonomy, setting its own liturgical and other practices in line with the Rule.
Stewart returned to finish a third semester at Yale, earning a “consolation-prize master’s degree,” and moved to the abbey in early 1981. By July, he’d entered the novitiate (he was ordained in 1990), received his robe, and taken the name Columba. Latin for “dove”—evoking peace and the Holy Spirit, he says—it honors his ancestry: Saint Columba, the evangelist from Northern Scotland, not only left “the first recorded sighting of the Loch Ness Monster,” he’s also known as a man who loved books.