Of Manuscripts and Things: The Thomas Merton Archives at St. Bonaventure University

By Spaeth, Paul J. | Cithara, November 2008 | Go to article overview

Of Manuscripts and Things: The Thomas Merton Archives at St. Bonaventure University


Spaeth, Paul J., Cithara


The Thomas Merton Archives at St. Bonaventure University are housed in the Library. But in another sense the Library itself is part of the Archives. There are a number of buildings that still stand on campus today that have remained remarkably unchanged from live time when Merton visited and lived in the area. He first came to Olean, NY, the town adjacent to St. Bonaventure, in the summer of 1938. He came on campus for the first time during the summer of 1939. Then finally Merton ended up teaching at what was then the College for three semesters in the fall of 1940, the spring of 1941, and the fall of 1941. When Merton boarded a train in nearby Olean in December of 1941 to head towards the Abbey of Gethsemani, St. Bonaventure College became his last stop in the secular world before entering into monastic life.

The Library had just been completed when Merton first came to the area in 1938. At present the building's original structure is still well in evidence. The main reading room has the original tables and chairs from that time, the office overlooking the reading room had been for the College president Father Thomas Plassmann (1879-1959), the basement corridor held various subject collections (philosophy, theology, classics), and the stack area behind the original circulation desk is basically the same as it was then. Merton spent many hours either in the subject rooms in the basement corridor, or going up to see Father Tom in his office.

Butler Gym is still standing next door to the Library where in the summer of 1940 Merton first came to stay on campus in order to live with the novices and partake in the daily series of prayers. Then there is Devereux Hall where he lived in a room on the second floor on the south side during the 1940-41 school year. The next fall he stayed on the north side in a room above the center archway. The first floor of Devereux held the friary and was the place where he met and talked with various friars. De La Roche Hall was then the main classroom building and Hickey Dining Hall serves the same function today as it did then. All these buildings still stand, looking much the same now as they did then. The only building that Merton mentions prominently in his writings that has since been torn down is Alumni Hall.

The most important site still standing is certainly the Shrine of St. Teresa of Lisieux and the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes which sits behind it. It was at the shrine that Merton stopped to pray when trying to obtain guidance for his life. It was here that he received the spiritual confirmation that he should enter into monastic life. The housing of the shrine itself is the same, although the statue of St. Teresa was replaced in 1972. The Shrine sits off to the side of a classroom building now named for Father Thomas Plassmann, but there used to be a gravel path lined with trees that lead the way to the site.

All in all the campus of St. Bonaventure University, and its surrounding hills provide the largest concentrated collection of undisturbed buildings and grounds that have a direct tie to Merton during his life outside the monastery. The campus is a lived in archive about Merton on a rather grand scale.

The origins of the collection of writings and publications that go to make up the Merton Archives themselves lay with Father Irenaeus Herscher (1902-1981). Father Irenaeus had become the Director of the Library in the summer of 1937 and held that position until his retirement as Librarian Emeritus in 1970. Mention should also be made of Robert Lax (1915-2000) who had become friends with Merton at Columbia University, brought him home to Olean and eventually onto the campus of what was then St. Bonaventure College. Lax provided the local connection and Father Irenaeus provided the interest and accommodations for the material.

Father Irenaeus always had an interest in rare materials and the development of special collections. Whatever came Father Irenaeus' way he usually kept. …

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