“Bare ruin’d choirs where late the sweet birds sang”:
The dissolution of Catholic libraries during the period 1967 to 1996 -
a personal and anecdotal account
[An informal talk given at the 1997 National Conference of
the Catholic Library Association of
Thomas Michael Loome
Some day there will have to be written a detailed and scrupulously forthright account of the vicissitudes of the institutional church in the last third of the twentieth century. No doubt there will be many truly positive achievements to be recorded. And yet there will be a dark side of the history also: the sad and disheartening, even shameful history of the dissolution of Catholic institutions, especially in
Europe and in North America, from
the Second Vatican Council to the beginning of the Third Millennium.
The title of my talk this morning is “ ‘Bare ruin’d choirs where late the sweet birds sang’: The dissolution of Catholic libraries during the period 1967 to 1996.” The question of the destruction of Catholic libraries in our lifetime is but one part of the larger history about which I have just spoken. Similar accounts will have to deal, for example, with the demise of Catholic publishing houses in the English-speaking world, with the dismantling of the Catholic hospital system in so many dioceses, with the closing of thousands of Catholic elementary and high schools, with the virtual extinction of countless religious congregations of both men and women.
Many Catholics will of course know well the history to which I advert. Many will know it painfully well: members of religious congregations, former librarians whose libraries no longer exist, former teachers in the Catholic educational system whose schools have long since closed, former owners and employees of Catholic publishing houses whose businesses have gone bankrupt. In this talk, however, I am concerned only with Catholic libraries and librarians, both in
Western Europe and in the United States
The subtitle of my remarks today is “a personal and anecdotal account”, and with these words I want to make it clear that this does not purport to be a scholarly history of these past 30 years of Catholic library history. To make clear the limitations, but perhaps the strengths also of my remarks, permit me to recount briefly my own personal history of the years in question: the last third of the twentieth century.
Born in 1935, I am now 62 years old. The first half of my life was shaped by the pre-Vatican II church and by those heady years of the Council itself (the fourth and last session of the Council, as you will recall, ended in December 1965). The second half of my life embraces that period in the history of the Church that concerns me today, the period from 1967 to 1996.
The years from 1966 to 1973 I spent as a doctoral student in Catholic theology at the
in University of
Tübingen Germany, where
I was studied under such teachers as Joseph Ratzinger, Hans Küng, and the
present Bishop of Rottenburg, Walter Kasper.
During this seven-year period I spent about half of my time in Germany, the
other half in Great Britain. In Britain I was engaged in archival research
for a study of the modernist controversy in Catholic thought at the turn of the
century (a study which was published by Grünewald-Verlag in Mainz in 1979) and,
during all the time I could spare from that research, in learning the
antiquarian book trade as an employee of one of the great booksellers in the
U.K., Richard Booth Booksellers in Hay-on-Wye, on the English-Welsh border. During these student years I was always
fairly destitute, and I was fortunate in managing to secure employment in
antiquarian books at a time when the money was useful and when those books
which interested me personally were readily available on the secondhand market. The handling of these books professionally provided
me with a splendid apprenticeship in the antiquarian book business.
I had been working as a cataloguer of antiquarian books with Richard Booth for a year or two when I had an extraordinary experience, in 1969 or 1970 as I recall.
One of my regular research stops in the
U.K. (in addition to the , the Bodleian at British Museum Oxford, the university libraries at Cambridge and at St.
Andrew’s) was the English theologate of the Society of Jesus, located at the
time in Heythrop, on a lovely estate some 20 minutes north of Oxford.
This was the most important Jesuit house in the British
Isles and, as the Jesuit theologate, housed a splendid library of,
I would guess, 150 thousand volumes, many of which dated back to early Recusant
times and to Jesuit foundations on the continent from the late 16th
century up to Catholic emancipation in the 1820’s.
On one occasion when I turned up at Heythrop to do research I discovered that the property was for sale, that the library was being prepared for shipment to Cavendish Square in London, and that Heythrop College was to become a constituent college of the University of London. I discovered, however, that a large portion of the library was being left behind and was for sale: 30,000 volumes deemed unnecessary for the new
in Heythrop College London.
After a cursory look at the books I immediately got in contact with
Richard Booth, told him of the books that were being disposed of, and we
quickly negotiated a price for the lot.
Then, for the next months, between semesters at the ,
I had the wonderful experience of going through these books one by one and
pricing them for sale. University of Tübingen
What the English Jesuits disposed of so casually shocks me even now. Included in the 30,000 or so volumes were, for example, well over 500 titles representing publications on Jesuit missionary activity in the
Far East. These included incredibly rare 16th
century imprints as well as later monographs into the late 19th century. It was one of the most extraordinary and
valuable collections I have myself ever handled. This collection was immediately sold to the
National Library of Australia in Canberra,
at a price I know now to have been far too modest.
Another category of books included in this collection were some 150 Recusant books dating from the early 16th century to the late 17th century. These are perhaps the rarest of all English-language books, published and disseminated as they were under threat of the death penalty. At least two of those Recusant titles, I was soon to discover, were unique copies, never recorded bibliographically. These, and the scores of other Recusant books, had apparently been deemed unworthy of the new
library in Heythrop College London.
One further example of the dissolution of Catholic libraries will suffice for now. Some time around 1972 I received an urgent call from Richard Booth to meet him in
to examine another large Catholic library.
This time it turned out to be the library of the Franciscan house of
studies in French Canada, a collection housed just as it had been when still in
use, perhaps 100,000 volumes. The whole
library was for sale, as is. It was the
finest fully intact theological collection I have ever seen offered for
sale. There were certainly tens of
thousands of antiquarian volumes (and by “antiquarian” I mean publications
prior to the year 1800), in elegant bindings stunning just to behold. “Vellum city!” gasped Richard Booth. And so it was: “Vellum city” available for purchase – make
us an offer. Québec City
Why was this library in Québec for sale? For that matter, why had the English Jesuits so blithely disposed of so much of their patrimony? Contrary to what one might now imagine, it was not because of a shortage of vocations. It was rather a shortage of courage and common sense, of elemental responsibility for the church’s patrimony. What possessed the religious superiors in question, both in Oxfordshire and in Québec, was a theory or an ideology, muddled and somewhat incoherent, in retrospect bordering on sheer foolishness.
The theory, as far as I have ever been able to understand it, went something like this. The way in which the Church had educated its priests for centuries was altogether out-of-date. It had to be abandoned. The Jesuits, for their part, set an example by rejecting their ratio studiorum; the Franciscans followed by repudiating their own unique tradition of theological education.
But if the old ways were to be abandoned, how then to start afresh? One driving force was to imitate, or best to enter directly into, existing (usually secular) universities. The English Jesuits gave up their independent theologate in Oxfordshire and betook themselves to the
. The Jesuits in University of London North
America did something similar.
One by one, within a matter of only a few years, their existing houses
of study were closed:
at Alma College Los Gatos in
California, Woodstock in Maryland, St. Mary’s in Kansas, Weston outside
What caused all this? Lack of financial resources? Certainly not. Dearth of vocations? Again, no. The entire project of dissolution was driven by a theory, in the words of one senior Jesuit who lived through this period, “Mr. Loome, it’s ‘the green grass / asphalt theory.’ You can’t do theology nowadays out in the country surrounded by green grass and silence; oh no, you’ve got to do theology in a large urban area, with as much asphalt and as little green grass as possible.” So this older (and rather embittered) Jesuit. And what the Jesuits did, freely and under no external compulsion, was aped by other congregations and orders throughout the land.
One after another, therefore, most of the houses of theological studies in North America closed their doors; and how forgetful we now are of the hundreds of such houses that had existed up to the end of Vatican II: the Claretians, the Passionists, The Pallotine Fathers, the Divine Word Fathers, Stigmatines, Trinitarians, Carmelites, Franciscans (Regular, Capuchin, Conventual), Servites, La Salette Fathers, Oblates of Mary Immaculate, Marists and Marianists, Redemptorists and Resurrectionists, Maryknollers and Mill Hill Fathers. Now, in 1997, as I write these lines, there is left hardly a physical trace of this vast educational system dedicated to the education of priests and religious. Most of the properties have been sold and their libraries dispersed. Where the original properties still exist they have become old age homes pretending to be retreat houses.
It is quite impossible, within the confines of this brief paper, to do justice to this theory or ideology, not least because it was a confused concatenation of many often mutually contradictory impulses and ideas. It was a theory about the modern world, about the Church, about the relation of the one to the other. It was a theory about institutional life, about the priesthood and the religious life, about the formation of future priests and religious, about the very nature and end of both the ordained priesthood and the consecrated life.
And yet, however muddled the theory, it was abruptly and unhesitatingly acted upon. The results we live with even now. Somehow life itself, the life of the institutional Church, was perceived as being in a state of acute crisis, a crisis to be addressed, a crisis to be met by fundamental changes in the institutional Church, from the ground up. In this context I might mention a now long forgotten volume published in 1965, while the Council was still in session, and entitled The Seminary in Crisis. Written by a young Vincentian priest, then perhaps 30 years old and only recently ordained, it stands now as a symptom of the problem, the real problem, facing the Church thirty years ago. The seminary was not in a crisis, but it was perceived as being so. The crisis was not in the seminary, but in the heads of those responsible for seminary life. And a crisis in the head, even if it has little existence in external reality, is nonetheless a major crisis.
And in the light of this perceived crisis, or of a whole series of crises touching upon every conceivable aspect of the Church’s institutional life, changes were set in motion. It was not just the Jesuits in
and the Franciscans in Québec who were on the move; it was all the Catholic
What proved decisive for my own personal life, however, what tipped the scales and led me to abandon the teaching of theology and commit myself to the Catholic secondhand book trade, was an experience I had in 1981. My wife and I were traveling by car from
Minnesota to Massachusetts, and,
since I had heard that the diocesan seminary in
was closing, we stopped off in Rochester, New York Rochester
to visit St. Bernard’s Seminary, a magnificent property with a stunning library
collection. The present Bishop of
Rochester, Matthew Clark, had been installed in 1979, and one of his first
decisions was to close St. Bernard’s Seminary and to move the seminarians to a
residence near the . It was the usual story: the faculty was
dispersed, the property and buildings put on the market, the library offered
for sale. And once again it was a
marvelous library. I remember still my astonishment
at seeing heaped up on the floor of the library what I had never seen before
and have never seen since: a complete
set, in 127 folio volumes, of the critical Colgate-Rochester
Divinity School Weimar edition of the works of Luther.
The sight of it led me to become a full-time antiquarian bookseller. It was all too clear that seminaries and other Catholic institutions were being closed down fast and furious, and that this was the chance of a lifetime: books and yet more books, more books dumped on the market than at any time since the French Revolution and the wars of the Napoleonic era. It was not just the English Jesuits or the French Canadian Franciscans. It was not just one diocesan bishop in up-state
New York. There was an ecclesiastical revolution going
on, a revolution with one consequence that concerned me: books.
Do I exaggerate? Were Catholic institutions being closed down fast and furious? Let me give you some statistics. In 1966 there were 309 Catholic colleges and universities in the
United States. There are now only 237, and several of these,
small liberal arts colleges, have been founded during the past 30 years. You can do the mathematics as well as I:
something between 70 and 75 Catholic colleges have been closed down in the last
I was myself involved in the sale of many of these Catholic college libraries. In some cases I purchased them outright. In several cases I acted on behalf of a religious congregation or a diocese in conducting a formal auction of the library. In many cases I was able to purchase, if not the entire library, large portions of it, as often as not the best and most significant books. How many books have been dispersed from this closing of 70 or more colleges? I can only hazard a guess, but I would think the total something like million volumes.
And then there are the high school libraries. In 1966 there were 2,388 Catholic high schools in the
diocesan, parochial and private. Of
these high schools over 1,000 have been closed.
Only 1,359 still exist. Here
again there has been the dispersal of an astonishing number of books, certainly
well over a million volumes, perhaps many more than that. And here I can speak again from personal
experience: many of these Catholic high schools had extraordinarily good
And then there were the convent libraries, thousands of them, as well as the libraries of the Motherhouses of congregations of sisters and nuns. There were also the parish libraries, painstakingly created over generations, and even the extraordinary libraries in the “Catholic Information Centers” in major cities, usually under the care of the Paulists. I remember still two of these libraries and my sense of dismay at their dispersal (as well as my keen satisfaction at being able to purchase them intact): the Paulist centers on Boston Commons and at Old St. Mary’s in
both with superb Catholic Information libraries available to the laity and to
Finally, however, and here the great tragedy to the Church: diocesan seminaries and the seminaries, theologates, and scholasticates of religious orders and congregations. In 1966 there were 607 such institutions in the
alone. Only a third of these still
exist: more precisely, only 198 of the original 607. 409 such institutions have therefore been
closed down, and with them went their libraries; 54 of these were diocesan (or
archdiocesan) institutions, 355 belonged to orders and congregations.
If I used the term “tragedy” a moment ago, it is because with the demise of these 409 institutions of serious ecclesiastical learning and scholarship an incalculable loss has been experienced by the Church in America: the loss of as many as another 15 million books, a great many of them rare and scholarly and, needless to say, most of them forever irreplaceable.
And what happened to these millions of books? Where in the world did they go? Many of course ended up at one or another of those then fashionable “theological unions” - the GTU in
the CTU in Chicago,
the WTU in .
The theory here must have seemed attractive at the time: let the various orders and congregations
abandon their independent houses of study and instead amalgamate – one
property, one faculty, one library.
Whatever was distinctive in the theological training of any one
congregation, however, was lost forever.
Where a wonderful diversity had existed there was now uniformity – and,
needless to say, in an urban setting, with asphalt on all sides. Washington, DC
It was in this way that many great libraries were destroyed. In
for example, up to about the year 1966, there were three great theological
collections: the Dominicans’ at St. Albert’s Priory in Oakland; the Franciscans’
in Santa Barbara;
the Jesuits’ in Los Gatos.
In the creation of the GTU in Berkeley all three libraries
were savaged. What was left was a
miserable reminder of what had once been.
How have all these millions upon millions of books been disposed of? My experience dictates a blunt answer: by and large irresponsibly, by and large carelessly. Here, let it be said, I can claim some authority. I am without doubt the person now alive who knows best, from personal experience, of the disposal of these libraries and these millions of books. It all makes for a sad and lamentable history.
And so here we are in 1997. The one loss is clear: countless, once marvelous Catholic institutions gone forever, and with them their often superb library collections. If there is any other loss it is this, and I say this with all due respect to you, my auditors. The second loss, as I see it, is the marked decline in the quality and competence of Catholic librarians. No doubt there are many exceptions to this admittedly bald generalization, but I think it’s nonetheless true. How few today are the great learned and scholarly librarians of the recent past: those who may not have had a degree in library science (or, perish the thought, in information services), but who knew books, specifically Catholic books, books of all ages and in all languages. By and large such great Catholic librarians are no longer to be found. I have known many of them. Only a few are still active, with their libraries intact. They have been replaced by a new breed of librarian, no doubt armed with library credentials, but usually lacking in much knowledge of (or even interest in) the Catholic literary and theological traditions. They are now in charge. They maintain in some fashion the libraries entrusted to them, but as to library development, they don’t know a good book from a bad one. And of course this new breed of librarian is devoted to “weeding” the books that remain, keeping the collection up-to-date, culling any defenseless book that has not been checked out recently or (often the unforgivable sin) is not in English If this is too harsh, forgive me. It is certainly the conviction I have acquired over the past decades when dealing personally with scores of such librarians, most of them, I suppose, members of your Catholic Library Association of America.
What finally are the lessons to be learned from what seems to me a sad and often shameful history? It was Thomas Hobbes who memorably wrote that human existence is “nasty, brutish and short”. The same, it would appear, applies to Catholic libraries, certainly when viewed from the perspective of the long history of the Catholic Church.
The only other lesson that occurs to me is this: as believing Catholics we have a responsibility to preserve the patrimony of the Church, certainly in so far as it has been entrusted to us as librarians and as professionally interested parties. Much has been destroyed forever. Those who wreaked the damage have mostly passed from the scene (although one would like to think that in the end they acknowledged their wrongdoings and perhaps clothed themselves in sackcloth and ashes). And so only we, presiding over the wreckage, are left to tell the tale.
What is the lesson for us? To start afresh. Slowly to recreate, in some small measure, what is gone forever. We shall do this, however, only if we are both Catholic and bookish: committed to the Church, passionately devoted to books, and, as a consequence, deeply rooted in the Church’s literary and theological tradition. This is the indispensable condition for an even tolerable future for Catholic libraries. Absent this profound commitment to Catholicism and to books, I frankly see virtually no hope at all for Catholic libraries.
Postscript (January 2005)
Eight years have passed since I wrote this paper, and I now ask myself, have things improved? The answer, alas, is no, not much has changed; the dissolution of Catholic libraries carries on apace. Here are just a few instances from recent years, almost all in fact falling within the Third Millennium.
Several more diocesan seminaries have closed their doors, including Saint Thomas Seminary in
(diocese of Hannibal, MO Jefferson City) and
(diocese of Wadhams Hall
Seminary- College ), the latter with exceptionally fine
library holdings in philosophy and the humanities. Ogdensburg, NY
At least four more theologate libraries have been dispersed: Friars of the Atonement (
), Society of the Precious Blood (St.
Charles Seminary, Washington, D.C. ), Conventual Franciscans (St.
OH ), Conventual Franciscans (St. Hyacinth
I personally examined all four of these libraries: altogether no more
perhaps than 300-325,000 volumes, but each a truly outstanding library. Granby, MA
Finally there has been the unrelenting dispersal of the remnants of once great theological collections: the Jesuit theologate in Weston, MA (30-35,000 volumes left behind decades ago when the Jesuits moved to Cambridge and merged with Episcopal Divinity School); the Franciscans’ theologate in Edmonton, Alberta (12-15,000 volumes remaining after most of the library was given to Newman Theological College, the seminary of the Archdiocese of Edmonton).
In my younger and more optimistic days I had imagined that I would live to see the renaissance of Catholic institutions of higher learning in North America, and hence of Catholic libraries and librarianship. I am no longer very hopeful. Eventually perhaps, but not in my lifetime.
For now the dissolution of once great Catholic libraries carries on unabated, often fueled, I fear, by the financial straits of so many dioceses and religious congregations, not least because of “the scandals” that have beset the institutional Church.
It was probably too much to hope for that “The Estelle Doheny Collection” (owned by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and housed at St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo) would escape the attention of those desperate to raise funds: for the new cathedral? to settle legal claims against the Archdiocese? Whatever the reason, “The Doheny Library,” the greatest rare book collection ever owned by the Church in America, was sold, book by book (2300 lots), at a series of widely publicized auctions at Christie’s in New York – for a total of $37,800,000. Of this truly extraordinary collection there now remains not a trace, scattered as it is throughout the world. [The Doheny sale, on behalf of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, included a copy of the 1454/5 Gutenberg Bible, one of only 48 known to exist and the only copy ever owned by a Catholic institution in
North America. The Doheny Gutenberg fetched $4,900,000 and
was purchased by a Japanese corporation for investment purposes.]
Writing from the vantage point of 2005, this Catholic, this professional bookseller, knows merely to carry on as best he can: rescuing books from the depredations of an uncultured age.