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The Rev. Andrew Ciferni ’64 (right) with his sucessor as director of the Center for Norbertine Studies, Rosemary Sands.

The Long-Lost Books of Tongerlo

Centuries ago, they helped identify the liturgy of the Norbertine order. Today, some of these ancient volumes are available at St. Norbert College.

To hear the Rev. Andrew Ciferni ’64 tell it, the adventure was nothing like a movie scene.

The attic in Tongerlo Abbey – a Norbertine monastery near Antwerp, Belgium – was unheated, damp and cluttered with books, most of them created centuries ago.

So, you might not cast Tom Hanks (as in “The Da Vinci Code”) as Ciferni, director emeritus of the Center for Norbertine Studies (CNS) and a college trustee. And you wouldn’t get the just-so-perfect lighting, impossibly focused on a page containing the secrets of the foundation of the Norbertine order.

But, in shaping the story, you might still be overwhelmed by the offer from Abbot Jeroen De Cuyper of Tongerlo that came to Ciferni on his 2017 visit to the Belgian abbey.

“I was there for 10 days,” Ciferni recalls, “and the abbot says to me one day, ‘You know, I’m very impressed with what you’re doing at the center. We have a room up in the attic part of the abbey with books, and they’re all doubles, and you can take whatever you want.’ ”

These were not run-of-the-mill religious textbooks. These were special liturgical works, centuries old. So it was fitting – even if not totally predictable – that the CNS, international locus for Norbertine studies, should come into guardianship of these treasures just as the order approaches its 900th anniversary.

“We’re talking about 16th-, 17th-, 18th-century books,” Ciferni says. “We’re always looking for books that we use for singing the liturgy, or books about the history of the order, or books by Norbertine authors.”

Ciferni parceled up dozens of Tongerlo’s duplicate volumes, hoping to find a new and appropriate home for them in De Pere.

“We know Father Andrew quite well, as he visited our abbey many times,” explains the Rev. Michiel Meeusen, librarian at Tongerlo. “He is a loveable confrère, and when he selected the books, I admired his expertise.”

Sarah Titus, SNC’s librarian for archives and special collections, opened boxes of Ciferni’s Tongerlo picks with a combination of wonder and gratefulness.

“They’re just filled to the brim with these beautiful older texts,” Titus says, “… and they’ve lived full lives in their time that the [Tongerlo] Abbey had them. We found artifacts tucked inside: prayer cards, ribbons to mark the place of the people who owned them originally; and those tiny, tiny stories in those pages are fascinating to me. So, I get very, very excited, thinking about all the places the books have been, the people who held them, and the impact that they had in their communities and kind of how they’re tied to broader events.”

That’s not to mention the undeniable faith of those who crafted the books, initially relied on the books, and were served by the books. “Indeed, the books are mainly liturgical in nature, but there are other books which pertain to the spiritual life within the order or books on other subjects written by Premonstratensians,” Meeusen writes. “Very likely, they were books in the hands of confrères living as parish priests outside the abbey. Upon their passing aways, they must have come to the abbey.”

But if anything is certain about faith in a higher power, it is that patience is often tested. In this case, the trials were born in the darkness and dampness of that abbey attic in Belgium. Ciferni says, “The problem that arose is that these books have been … in an unheated attic room and that was, you know, sometimes damp and sometimes humid and not aired very well.”

Titus says three large boxes were shipped overnight from Belgium. One box, upon arrival at the Mulva Library, opened to a waft of mold smell. There were 24 books in that box (just about one-third of the total from Father Andrew), all of which were temporarily moved to a suitable office for segregated storage.

After sending them on for analysis from a vendor, it was realized the books were too delicate for the more standard mold procedures. They were old enough and delicate enough to require the attention of a bookbinder.

All books that have survived for centuries have some damage: holes from burrowing insect larvae (that’s where the term ‘book-worm’ comes from), worn-out or broken spines, warped pages and sometimes mold.

“Mold cannot be killed,” Titus explains, “but can be deactivated, so as long as the infected item is kept cool and dry, the mold won’t reactivate. Bookbinders have several processes that can save books from severe damage or mold, ranging from building clamshell [fitted] boxes to quarantine the item all the way to deconstructing the book and bathing each page in special chemical solution before rebinding and building the book back up, good as new.”

According to Meeusen, while the books are hundreds of years old, the attic-storage solution was likely to be a relatively recent decision. “I am not sure, but it certainly happened after 1980,” he writes. “Where they were before, I do not know, and where they came from is also unknown to me.”

The CNS and the Mulva Library agreed that they couldn’t fund the bookbinding approach to restore 24 significant texts that were identified as needing special care. Ciferni took those texts with him to Daylesford Abbey (Paoli, Pa.), where he was called in 2016 and continues to serve. Other books from Ciferni’s Tongerlo excursion, unaffected and in better shape, have already been placed in the CNS collection. Rosemary Sands, current director of the Center for Norbertine Studies, says: “They can be pulled and put in the reading room for someone to look at. We do avail our collection to any scholars who would want to come in. They would be – because of the age and the condition of the books there – locked down in the Rare Books & Special Collections room, which is temperature-controlled.” Other volumes of this nature remain at Tongerlo, Meeusen says, and they too could have value to others.

Access to venerable printed material in the European abbeys is often problematic, says Sands, who does most of her research in Spain. “There’s one convent of Norbertine cloistered nuns in Spain – the male order disappeared; all of the male houses disappeared in 1835 when the government shut down all monasteries of every religious order – and the sisters have their archives in a room that’s not temperature-controlled,” Sands says. “The books are just sitting on the shelf and you know that they crumble right before your eyes. You touch them and they crumble. And this is common across Europe: There are just so many old books and old documents that to keep up with them is nearly impossible.”

While the Tongerlo books are impressive in their age and their addition to CNS’ support of Norbertine research, Sands notes that they are far from the oldest works in the center’s collection. The oldest dates to 1491 and is known as an “incunable,” identifying it as a printed work created before 1501.

Shhhhh! The librarian is speaking
Sarah Titus, librarian for archives and special collections at the Mulva Library, handles centuries-old books for the college’s collection, including those within the Center for Norbertine Studies. She says:

  • The Rev. Andrew Ciferni ’64 has been able to add 744 books to the CNS collection, in addition to many other books contributed to other Mulva Library collections. The CNS collection of texts from European Norbertine abbeys, though small at this date, has given rise to many opportunities for intersection between the college and the five Norbertine houses in the United States. 
  • All library holdings pass through the collection management department. Metadata specialist Rochelle Van Erem handles each item as it enters the library. Special collections can be a unique challenge, especially if texts are in other languages or if identifying information (and maybe even the title page) is missing or damaged.
  • Cataloging special collections requires searching international databases. If no other record is found, the Mulva creates its own before adding the book to the collection.

Oct. 31, 2019