e-mail us
Mary collected, read and paid homage in this Ohio library

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Dayton, Ohio

She is black, she is white, she is Latino. She is "our lady of tenderness," "the mother of sorrows," and "the woman of freedom."

Designers of Byzantine icons portrayed her as downright homely. Renaissance artist Raphael imagined her as a stunning beauty. One modern printmaker even portrayed her as a young mother wearing headphones and holding a toddler on her hip. Although images of "Mary, the mother of God and of all faithful" vary throughout countries and centuries, she is undeniably an integral cultural element around the world, especially during the Christmas season.

The University of Dayton has the distinction of serving as caretaker to the world's largest collection of books, videos and even some fascinating wine labels related to the life of "the mother of the whole Christ."

The library includes the office of Marianist Fr. Johann Roten, a native of Switzerland and one of the world's leading experts on the life of Mary and her cultural influences these past 2,000 years. Housed at the top of the university's Roesch Library, the Marian Library includes 100,000 books and pamphlets dating from the 15th century and representing more than 50 languages, including Sanskrit, Arabic and Syriac.

But Marian scholarship is not library bound. Roten's team created one of the first home pages on the Internet dedicated to Marian studies. Launched 18 months ago, the page now receives an average of 1,000 hits per week.

Materials also include 6,000 slides of 20th century art, 10,000 postcards, about 500 statues, 80,000 magazine and newspaper articles, 22,000 postage stamps, as well as paintings, icons and audio cassettes.

The materials are in strong demand these days as apparitions fuel Marian enthusiasm. Around the globe, some 275 widely discussed apparitions of Mary have been reported in the last 15 years, prompting library administrators to create a separate bibliography and religious education resources on the topic of Marian sightings.

In its resource material, the library outlines five components it recommends that individuals and religious educators consider about apparitions. These include:

  • Understanding that the church has recognized only a few of the nearly 1,000 major claims dating back to 270 AD.
  • Defining an apparition and exploring the difference between an apparition and other religious experiences, such as visions or parapsychological events.
  • Exploring how an apparition contributes to an individual's understanding of Christianity.
  • Examining the methods used to recognize apparitions, including examples of how the church has dealt with alleged apparitions.

More broadly, enthusiasts today are beneficiaries of the work of Marianist Fr. John Elbert, who began the collection 50 years ago while serving as UD's president.

His efforts were a gesture to honor the Society of Mary's late founder William Joseph Chaminade and to acknowledge the university's centennial celebration held in 1950.

He also donated the first book -- his own -- Devotion to Mary in the Twentieth Century.

"Rather than erect an inert monument, he wished to establish something living and active, a contribution to the mission both of the University of Dayton and the Society of Mary," according to the library's director, Fr. Thomas Thompson.

The original mission of the library was not necessarily collecting materials but rather identifying their locations throughout the U.S. by corresponding with librarians of more than 250 Catholic colleges, Thompson said.

In 1953, however, the library received the remarkable 6,000-volume Leon Clugnet collection, originating in Europe and dating back to 1860. The library's development into a top-level international research library began in earnest.

More than 50 books date back to the 1480s (mostly written in German and French). The library holds an original text of Martin Luther, who revered the mother of Christ. Several books in the library are handwritten -- produced in the 16th and 17th centuries before widespread use of the printing press. Some of these books are highlighted with ornate drawings called illuminations.

Br. Bill Fackovec, who works at the library, said these books typically were produced in rooms without any heating because writers didn't want to risk having the manuscripts near fire. "So there in the text, they might complain about how cold they were, about how stiff their hands were and how difficult it was to write," he said.

In addition to its collection of books and items directly related to the life of Mary, the library also has many items addressing liturgy, general theology, church history and religious art.

By far most of the library's art collection portrays Mary as one who encircles and protects the Christ child or stands alone in prayer. One series of watercolors distinguishes Mary's tragedy during her son's crucifixion.

A signed Salvador Dali portrayal of Christ's death hangs in the library.

Roten, who directs an academic program of Marian studies, has been associated with the library for the past eight years. He said that although some modern artists still work with traditional images of Mary, "others are very original, very free and nonconventional interpretations of Mary, and that's fine. They are not so much interested in the whole tradition of making Marian art, not even interested in what scripture said about her, but they look at her from a purely symbolical standpoint."

The library's stamp collection, valued at more than $35,000, is so complete, it is believed to be missing only one stamp, an extremely rare 1943 Hungarian misprint that literally has Mary doing a handstand. Experts believe only four exist in the world, and they are valued at $20,000 each.

Dating back to 1920, the stamps originate in countries ranging from Argentina to Zimbabwe and represent the life of Mary from the Annunciation to the Assumption. Styles range from Liechtenstein's colorful 1981 modern Holy Family in the desert to the elaborate renderings of baroque paintings from the former Yugoslavia.

The collection has 3,000 stamps from 350 famous painters, including a series of paintings and sketches of the Madonna by German master Albrecht Durer, 500 first-day commemorative postcards, an eight-stamp Spanish series and a 1932 Hungarian stamp titled "Patrona Hungariae" valued at $900.

Also found under the library's umbrella is the International Marian Research Institute, an academic department that grants graduate degrees in Marian studies. The Mariological Society of America, an association of about 700 Marianists who gather annually addressing research and academic projects, also is headquartered here.

National Catholic Reporter, November 22, 1996