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Minnesota monk to deliver prestigious lecture in Washington

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Examining a Bible
Fr. Columba Stewart (left), Fr. Nageeb Michael and Walid Mourad exam a printed Bible at the Dominican Priory in Qaraqosh, Iraq, in 2014. Stewart will give the 2019 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities.
Courtesy Hill Museum & Manuscript Library

A Benedictine monk and scholar at Minnesota’s St. John’s University will deliver a lecture Monday evening in Washington — a prestigious national honor for his work preserving historical religious texts.

Father Columba Stewart said he was "blown away" when he received the news in July that he had been selected to deliver the 2019 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities.

Stewart is executive director of the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library at St. John’s in Collegeville, Minn. He's the first Minnesotan to be awarded the honor by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The NEH calls the Jefferson Lecture "the highest honor the federal government bestows for distinguished intellectual achievement."

"It means a privileged opportunity to talk about the work we do at the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library," he said. "To make a plea for mutual understanding, for taking the time to learn about people who seem to be different than us in religion and ways of thinking and politics. I think that's a message we need to hear."

Past Jefferson Lecturers include Toni Morrison, Arthur Miller, Ken Burns and Henry Louis Gates Jr.

Examining manuscripts
When manuscripts arrive for digitization, preliminary examinations are made to assess the condition of the items and their ability to withstand digitization.
Courtesy Hill Museum & Manuscript Library

The Hill Museum's preservation projects began in the 1960s with Benedictine manuscripts, but expanded to include other religious texts. Since becoming its executive director in 2003, Stewart has traveled all over the world to document texts from medieval to early modern periods.

"Many of the texts that are in these handwritten books have never been printed, never been put online," Stewart said. "We’re discovering new texts, we’re discovering new authors [and] we’re discovering new insights into how communities interacted."

Going forward, Stewart said he hopes to continue his work and locate previously undocumented manuscripts in areas such as the Middle East and Africa. But to gain access to those communities, Stewart said, he and his colleagues must cultivate relationships to avoid exploiting cultures for their resources.

“Very often these people have seen foreigners come and go [and] take their things,” Stewart said. “Sometimes it does take time so we’re patient, we keep talking and we hope that at some point we can actually find an open door.”

Stewart will give the lecture, titled “Cultural Heritage Present and Future: A Benedictine Monk’s Long View,” at the Warner Theatre in Washington D.C. at 6:30 p.m. Central time. The lecture is free and will be streamed on the NEH’s website.