“A ‘Monument Man’ of our time, Father Columba Stewart has dauntlessly rescued centuries’ worth of irreplaceable cultural heritage under threat from around the world. 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.” — National Endowment for the Humanities Chairman Jon Parrish Peede
The career of Father Columba Stewart, OSB, D.Phil., links the ancient past with current events in some of the world’s most volatile regions. His international work on behalf of the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library (HMML) provides a stark contrast to the steady routine of Benedictine monastic life in central Minnesota.
Since becoming HMML’s executive director in 2003, Fr. Columba has traveled extensively throughout the Middle East, Africa, Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and India, cultivating relationships with communities possessing manuscript collections from the early medieval to early modern periods. Fr. Columba has overseen the expansion of HMML’s manuscript preservation projects in these regions from one project in Lebanon to projects located in more than a dozen countries.
Since that time, HMML has photographed tens of thousands of manuscripts in many of the world’s most dangerous and difficult-to-reach places. HMML has given priority to preserving the manuscript collections of persecuted or endangered minorities, and has conducted quiet but extensive projects to digitize the manuscripts belonging to remnants of the Armenian and Syriac Christian communities that survived the 1915-1922 massacres in Turkey. Since 2009, Fr. Columba has been working with Iraqi church leaders to digitize manuscripts displaced by war and its aftermath. In recent years, HMML has also partnered with libraries of Islamic manuscripts in Harar, Ethiopia, the Old City of Jerusalem, and in northern India. In 2013, Fr. Columba forged a partnership agreement with SAVAMA-DCI, a Malian NGO, to digitize manuscripts rescued from Timbuktu, Mali. This is HMML’s largest project in its five decades of manuscript preservation work, potentially exceeding 250,000 documents. Most recently a new project has begun in Timbuktu itself. HMML makes all of these resources available online.
A graduate of Harvard, Yale, and Oxford universities, Fr. Columba has published extensively in his research field of early Christian monasticism. In 2009-2010, he was the recipient of a year-long research fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and a residential fellowship in Byzantine Studies at the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library in Washington, D.C.
Fr. Columba has made HMML a charter member of the World Digital Library, a collaborative project between the United States Library of Congress, UNESCO, and 30 libraries and archives. He is also a member of the International Joint Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Oriental Orthodox Churches. Under his leadership, HMML was awarded the 2011 National Medal of Honor from the Institute of Museum and Library Services—the highest award a library can receive in the United States. In 2012, HMML received a National Leadership Grant from the IMLS to create vHMML, an online environment for manuscript studies.
With support from the Henry Luce Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, HMML has developed vHMML Reading Room, which allows registered users to browse freely tens of thousands of digitized manuscripts from HMML’s projects. Most of these are otherwise inaccessible, and many have been relocated or even destroyed in recent conflicts. vHMML Reading Room is thus the largest and most comprehensive online collection of manuscripts ever created. In 2017, HMML received a major grant from the NEH to create vHMML 3.0. Fr. Columba has received numerous grants and fellowships for his own scholarship, most recently both a residency at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton in 2016-2017 and a Guggenheim Fellowship for work on his current book, Between Earth and Heaven: Interpreting the Origins of Christian Asceticism and Monasticism.
Fr. Columba and HMML have been featured on many international media outlets, including the CBS News program, “60 Minutes,” BBC World News, in The Economist, Harvard Magazine, on PBS’s Religion and Ethics Newsweekly, as well as in The Wall Street Journal and The Chronicle of Higher Education.