Earlier this year, Father Columba Stewart—Executive Director of the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library (HMML) at Saint John’s University—was named the 2019 Jefferson Lecturer in the Humanities, the highest honor bestowed by the federal government for intellectual achievement in the humanities. Stewart, a Benedictine monk, was recognized for his extensive, global efforts to archive and digitize centuries’ worth of sacred manuscripts that record vital aspects of history and culture, many of which are at risk due to war, strife, or economic uncertainty.
Under his leadership, and supported by a grant from the Theology Program, the HMML launched an online reading room in 2015 to make the library’s immense digital collection of handwritten books and pages accessible to people around the world.
In an interview with Humanities Magazine, Stewart discusses “his life as a monk, his beliefs, favorite books, and the mission of cultural preservation." He describes HMML's unique practice of working with local communities to digitize their own heritage, as opposed to acquiring it for collections abroad, and reflects on current efforts to convey the importance of what they're doing and the lessons that society can learn from the work and words of our predecessors.
Stewart delivered his lecture, “Cultural Heritage Present and Future: A Benedictine Monk’s Long View,” at the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH)’s signature annual public event on October 7, 2019 in Washington, D.C.
Father Columba Stewart, OSB, Benedictine monk, scholar of early religions, and executive director of the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library (HMML) at Saint John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota, will deliver the 2019 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities.
The lecture is the highest honor the federal government bestows for distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities.
The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), a federal agency created in 1965, selects the lecturer through a formal review process that includes nominations from the general public. NEH awards more than $125 million annually in grants that support understanding and appreciation of cultural topics including art, ethics, history, languages, literature, law, music, philosophy, religion, and others. The Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities is the agency’s signature annual public event.
“A ‘Monument Man’ of our time, Father Columba Stewart has dauntlessly rescued centuries’ worth of irreplaceable cultural heritage under threat from around the world,” said NEH Chairman Jon Parrish Peede. “In doing so, he and his colleagues have helped preserve the records of the religion, art, literature, culture, and knowledge of distant eras of human history so that we may celebrate and learn from those that came before us.”
Stating that he was “deeply humbled” by his selection, Stewart replied, “It is an extraordinary moment in our nation’s intellectual life, and one in which a keener sense of the wisdom and experience of the past, critically interpreted, has much to offer.”
Dubbed “the monk who saves manuscripts from ISIS,” by Atlantic magazine, Stewart has spent 15 years working with international religious leaders, government authorities, and archivists to photograph and digitize ancient to early-modern religious manuscripts, especially those at risk due to war, strife, or economic uncertainty.