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Wednesday, November 19, 2014

50 years ago: "The Project has probably been rushed too much already"

Front page of the Minneapolis Star for October 29, 1964.

Things could hardly have looked worse.

Father Oliver Kapsner, OSB, had only been in Europe for about a week and a half, and nearly all of his news for his boss about the nascent Monastic Manuscript Microfilm Project was bad:
"Here is my first report, unfortunately not favorable. My experience at Monte Cassino is very disappointing, since after one week I am getting nowhere with the archivist (Tommaso Leccisotti). The two big obstacles are: no lay technician allowed in the monastery, and a long term (one year) in the archives cannot be allowed. A complete report is being sent to the Abbot. Needless to say, there should be no news release about the microfilm project at present, probably not for some time. The project has probably been rushed too much already." (letter to Father Colman Barry, OSB; October 12, 1964)

Monte Cassino Abbey (author's photograph, June 2010).
Father Oliver had arrived from the United States in the first week of October, 1964, with the high hopes of making photographic copies of Benedictine manuscripts at some of the most famous abbeys in Italy, Switzerland and Austria. As the month of October progressed, however, he enjoyed only smaller victories: arrangements with Benedictine abbeys in Cava, Subiaco, and Montevergine, where the manuscripts would be filmed by staff at each abbey, not through a team led by Father Oliver. Then came his trip to Switzerland, where he had received enthusiastic support from at least one abbot:
"The big disappointment is here at Einsiedeln. At a meeting in September the Swiss Benedictine librarians discussed our proposal and decided not to go along. This decision was not known to Abbot Tschudi of Einsiedeln when I interviewed him in Rome and found him favorably disposed. Ergo stat difficultas. It will probably take a year or two of diplomatic negotiating to iron out this knotty problem. At any rate, there is no chance whatever for me to start microfilming at Einsiedeln now. Outdoors it is snowing." (letter to Father Colman Barry, OSB; November 3, 1964)

Unfortunately for Father Oliver (and unbeknownst to him), back in Collegeville (Minnesota) the publicity department at Saint John's University had already announced the success of the microfilming project! The resulting acclaim pouring into the campus must have shaken him when he learned of it.

Fifty years ago, it appeared that his ambitious project to microfilm medieval manuscripts had ended even before it had begun.

April 1964 prospectus for the new abbey and university library.
(special thanks to Peggy Roske from Saint John's University Archives
for the use of this and other images from the library prospectuses!!

1964 had already been a busy year for the world, so the news from Saint John's seemed rather minor within its context. There was a major presidential election underway (Lyndon Johnson versus Barry Goldwater), U.S. warships had been fired upon in the Gulf of Tonkin, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed after a 75-day filibuster, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., won the Nobel Prize for Peace, and a certain English band had "invaded" the music scene in the United States (with five songs in the top five one week). Modernist architecture was also "invading" Collegeville.

The early 1960's were indeed a time of profound change on the campus at Saint John's University. In 1962 the new Abbey church with its famous bell banner had opened. Its architect, Marcel Breuer, had proposed several additional buildings on the campus, including a science center and--as the heart of the intellectual life--the university library. In late 1963 and early 1964, the focus of the abbot and university president had turned to promoting the construction of this library. No mere repository for books, the library had its own program expressed through four areas of special collections and cultural and intellectual exchange:

1. The Kritzeck Collection of manuscripts from famous rulers, popes and saints;
2. The Monastic Manuscript Microfilm Project (today's "HMML");
3. The Virgil Michel Liturgical Institute;
4. The Ecumenical Study Center (with offices in the new library).
 Prospectus for the new library from April 1964. Saint John's University Archives.

So it is that the new Monastic Microfilm Project had been announced as one part of this program, even before Father Oliver had been approached about leading it. Indeed, the earliest internal document I have been able to find from our early history is a note dated May 1963 from Paulin (Father Michael Blecker, OSB) to Father Colman Barry, OSB. The latter was soon to be named university president, and it is during his tenure that numerous initiatives were launched at Saint John's:  the microfilm project (today's "HMML"), the Ecumenical Institute (today's Collegeville Institute), and one of the first radio stations in Minnesota Public Radio.

A much later picture of Father Michael Blecker, OSB (third from right), visiting the offices of the National Endowment for the Humanities, with Julian G. Plante (HMML director) and Mrs. Joan Mondale (May 16, 1980).

As these brochures and Father Michael's letter show, however, the plan had been in discussion for a while before Father Oliver came on board.

In early 1964, Father Colman approached Oliver to lead the project, to which the latter replied:
"Next comes the question whether I am the right person to direct the project. I would like to think that I am. While it is true that my name is attached to some published works and that I know German, which should be useful for making contacts with the German and Austrian abbeys, it is also true that I am not at all a paleographer. Printed books have been my sole interest for some thirty years in library work. I would have to begin to study paleography in order to do justice to the cause at all, since this project will be concerned mainly, perhaps entirely, with older manuscripts." (Father Oliver to Father Colman, February 15, 1964)
Father Oliver also refers to some of the groundwork that had already been done by Father Colman: contacting a half-dozen abbeys in the autumn of 1963 to enlist their support:
“After all, we are also out to save what these abbeys have, for with the frightful destructive weapons in the hand of amoral man today, they could almost all be wiped out in a matter of minutes.” (ibid.)
Even the Abbot Primate in Rome, Benno Gut, had written a letter of support in December 1963:

“To the Right Reverend Abbots and the Reverend Father Librarians and Archivists.
 I would like to endorse with full approval the project to microfilm and preserve intact in one corpus of documents our monastic manuscripts. This commendable and farseeing undertaking will be of major service to the world of scholarship, and is at the same time in the best tradition of monastic research and joint cooperation of our monastic family. In the same way as the manuscripts of the Vatican Library were collected on microfilm copies some years ago, we now have the opportunity of making filmed copies of our manuscript heritage. ... It is a pleasure to commend and bless this important work which we are about to begin.” (Abbot Primate Benno Gut, Rome; December 1, 1963)
 As one might expect, creating such a large project with no structure in place required a lot of networking, letter writing and interviews.  As we saw above, some of this work already began in 1963, but much of it had to be done over the first several months of 1964. Respected scholars with requisite knowledge of the collections--like George Fowler, Giles Constable, Herbert Bloch, and Stephan Kuttner--were approached both for their suggestions and for their broader support. Charitable groups--in particular, the Knights of Columbus and the Hill Family Foundation--were approached for tentative funding. And, of course, technical support for microfilm cameras, supplies, developing, etc. had to be lined up (especially through University Microfilms, Inc.).

George Fowler giving a lecture at Saint John's University in the late 1960's or early 1970's.

The original conception of the project--as one of a set of programs for the new library--meant that it was rather limited in scope. The earliest discussions focused entirely on collections at Benedictine houses in Italy, Switzerland and Austria. It took time for HMML's open-ended preservation program to develop. Indeed, several suggestions from scholars became working principles for the microfilming project (and continue to guide our work). George Fowler recommended filming entire collections and not just selections, as well as working with other religious orders besides the Benedictines, such as the Franciscans, Dominicans, and Augustinians. Giles Constable urged the new project to include a provision for making copies of the microfilms for scholars, so that they could be used outside of Collegeville.

Library prospectus from 1963 or early 1964: one of the earliest mentions of the proposed
Monastic Microfilm Project (today's HMML). Saint John's University Archives.

Father Oliver arranged for technical support through meetings with staff from University Microfilms, and here he found one of his stronger allies in the task: Mr. Eugene Power. Such support was necessary to prepare for logistical support, as well as for preparing estimates of the cost. The initial impression of UMI was not promising, however:

“It is a commercial firm all right, not too sure whether they can be of help to us, you see--ice-cold American business tactics.” (Father Oliver to Father Colman; March 20, 1964)
But when Father Oliver finally met with Eugene Power, he found a man who fully supported the project and who went to great personal lengths to see that it got started when the time came.

Eugene Power and Father Oliver Kapsner, OSB, in Austria.

Meanwhile, Father Colman worked on the funding for the project. While funding came from numerous sources, the largest by far was a grant of $40,000 from the the Hill Family Foundation (today, the Northwest Area Foundation) of St. Paul, Minnesota. In a letter to the president of the foundation, Father Colman waxed enthusiastic:
“I want to tell you this morning also that Father Oliver Kapsner, who is directing the monastic microfilming project which the Hill Family Foundation has got underway with its wonderful grant, will be leaving for Europe this Friday. He will go directly to Monte Cassino Archabbey to get acquainted and to prepare the way for the arrival of Mr. Power, the director of University Microfilm, Incorporated in Ann Arbor, Michigan, who will then come to help in the microfilming process.” (Father Colman to Al Heckman; September 29, 1964)
Thus it was, that Father Oliver arrived in Italy with great expectations. However, after a month of traveling from abbey to abbey in Italy and Switzerland, his results were slight and his prospects dim. In a letter dated November 7, 1964 (almost exactly 50 years ago), to his fellow librarian, Father Benjamin Stein, OSB, he expressed his mixed feelings of frustration and guarded hope for ultimate success:
"Your letter sent to Monte Cassino was forwarded to Einsiedeln where it was handed to me an hour before I left there two days ago. The next five weeks I will be spending on the road, visiting ten Austrian abbeys in order to sound them out on our microfilm project. Then I will return to Einsiedeln (address over), about the middle of December, uncertain what the next move will be, perhaps back to the States, to resume the approach next year. Things move very slowly in these European monasteries. They have their firm traditions, feel thoroughly justified in their viewpoints and are much attached to them, hard and slow to change, if at all. The personal contacts which I am making had to be made some time before we can think of moving in to microfilm their manuscripts. The matter has to be considered first at a meeting of the monastic librarians and then submitted to a meeting of the abbots. Such red tape will obviously take some time. In the end we may succeed. I gather that the Swiss abbots are favorably inclined, whereas the librarians have expressed opposition to our plans. Videbimus. In Italy I had partial success (Subiaco, Cava, Montevergine), though Monte Cassino has to wait. We must take a long-range view of this vast undertaking." (Father Oliver to Father Benjamin Stein; November 7, 1964)
Saint Cloud Visitor (diocesan newspaper) from 1964

At this point, our record of Father Oliver's correspondence breaks off until December 23, 1964. The HMML files do not appear to harbor any signs of Father Oliver's work during the five weeks he was in Austria. Of course, this also corresponds exactly to the time--fifty years later--that I am reconstructing the "pre-history" of HMML's work.  The Hill Museum & Manuscript Library has traditionally dated its start to April 1965 and the beginning of actual microfilming in Kremsm√ľnster Abbey in Austria. Yet, as we have seen, the actual start of work was preceded by at least two periods of our "pre-history":

  1. the years leading up to September 1964, when members of the Saint John's monastic community--such as Michael Blecker, OSB, Colman Barry, OSB, Benjamin Stein, OSB, Baldwin Dworschak, OSB, Oliver Kapsner, OSB, and many others--developed the contacts and lines of communication with other abbeys, funding sources, scholarly sources, and technical support; and,
  2. the months of October to December 1964 when Father Oliver tried to get the program off the ground in Italy, Switzerland and Austria.

Today's article has focused primarily on the first of these two periods, while wading into the early days of the second period--when the project's outlook seemed somewhat hopeless. Exactly fifty years ago this month, the whole microfilming project stood at a critical juncture:

Would this grand scheme even come into existence?

Or would it die an ignominious (and premature) death? 

It no doubt irked Father Oliver that the publicists back at Saint John's continued to announce the project's success!

The Off-Campus Record (alumni magazine for Saint John's University)
from November 1964. Saint John's University Archives.
 (Read the full article from the Off-Campus Record in Vivarium:

 * * *

In a future post, I will look at what was happening during those critical five weeks, fifty years ago!

Until then, peace!

Matt Heintzelman

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