As extremists destroy ancient churches and cultural sites across the Middle East, a Minnesota monk has emerged as a global defender of the sacred documents often hidden inside. The Rev. Columba Stewart offers a safety net to religious leaders across the globe who are struggling frantically to safeguard their heritage, often hiding their fragile, yellowed books behind secret walls of churches, monasteries and family homes. Against the odds, Stewart’s team brings digital photography stations to these fragile lands. The photos of manuscripts taken by local crews are sent electronically 6,000 miles away — to the safety of St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, where they are permanently preserved for the world to see.
Benedictine monk preserves historic sacred and secular texts from the destruction of ISIS and the war against it in Iraq. His tools are different and the task is sometimes dangerous, but Fr. Columba Stewart's mission saving historic texts from the destruction of ISIS and the war against it follows a tradition practiced by his Benedictine order for more than a thousand years. Lesley Stahl accompanies Fr. Columba on his modern-day mission in a Middle East war zone for a 60 Minutes report to be broadcast Sunday, Dec. 24 at 7:00 p.m., ET/PT.
From Here to Timbuktu: A globe-trotting monk with the Benedictine “survival gene” seeks out treasured manuscripts
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.
Last Thursday was a very special day at Saint John’s, because on that day we dedicated the gallery that now houses The Saint John’s Bible. The day was singular for many reasons, and not least because it fulfilled calligrapher Donald Jackson’s promise to “give us exactly what we asked for and more than we ever imagined.” He delivered on both counts, though some of the deliverables were not entirely what we had expected. or one thing, we didn’t have a clue how complicated this project would become. It was also a good thing that we didn’t know how much it would end up costing. And last but not least, it took a lot longer than the seven years we had all anticipated. But the good news is that — twenty-one years and eleven months after Donald Jackson and I first discussed this — the Bible that he promised now sits securely in its own gallery at Saint John’s University.