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St. Bonaventure University alumna Kathy Petersen Cecala has authored a new book about the university’s first library director, whose scholarship and service at the university spanned four decades.
“Called to Serve: The Untold Story of Father Irenaeus Herscher OFM” was published by Franciscan Institute Publications. A 1978 graduate of St. Bonaventure, Cecala worked with Fr. Irenaeus as a student aide at the university’s Friedsam Memorial Library.
The historian, librarian and archivist Irenaeus Herscher, O.F.M., was a devoted follower of St. Francis, but very much a man of his time — which included most of the 20th century. Yet his story contains meaning and resonance even in modern times. His story begins as a poor refugee immigrant arriving in the United States as a child. As a teenaged shipyard laborer and high school dropout, he one day finds himself “called to serve” in a deeper and more spiritual sense.
His academic training begins with getting that high school diploma, and ends with numerous advanced degrees, including one in library science from Columbia University. It is a story of inspiration to strivers and dreamers, as well as a chronicle of both 20th century life and American Catholic culture.
Fr. Irenaeus, much like the fictional Forrest Gump, had an uncanny way of connecting with major historical events and famous people, even as he remained committed to his work as local hospital chaplain and university librarian at St. Bonaventure. But perhaps most remarkable was his unfailing cheerfulness and boundless generosity, as evidenced by one of the most famous Catholic writers of the century, Thomas Merton, who describes their first meeting in his ground-breaking spiritual memoir “The Seven Storey Mountain”:
The librarian was Father Irenaeus, who looked up at us through his glasses and recognized Lax with ingenuous surprise. He always seemed surprised and glad to see everybody. Lax introduced us to him.
“This is Ed Rice, this is Thomas Merton.”
“Ah! Mr. Rice … Mr. Myrtle.” Father Irenaeus took us both in, with the eyes of a rather bookish child, and shook hands without embarrassment.
“Merton,” said Lax. “Tom Merton.”
“Yes, glad to know you, Mr. Myrtle,” said Father Irenaeus.
Father would remain friends with “Mr. Myrtle” until Merton’s death in 1968 — 50 years ago this December — but moreover, he created Merton’s first academic archive, preserving many early manuscripts, letters and journals that show Merton’s spiritual growth and development as a writer. In addition, Father also maintained a lifelong friendship and correspondence with the poet Robert Lax, who had introduced him to Merton; and with Merton’s literary agent, Naomi Burton Stone, as well.
If this was all Father Irenaeus would be remembered for, it might be enough. Yet there was much, much more to his story. Not long after arriving at St. Bonaventure as a young friar, he became director of a college library that did not yet physically exist. And in the decades following, until his death in 1981, he nurtured and guided that institution into a world-class academic library used by scholars and researchers worldwide.
He was one of his order’s foremost historians, compiling some 40-plus volumes of Franciscan bibliography, from Francis’ own day until the present time. He worked hard to bring books even to his hospital patients, projecting art prints and pages of text onto the walls and ceilings of their rooms, rising early to say Mass and minister to the sick and elderly before arriving at his library office for the day.
He cheerfully entertained a constant stream of visitors, both famous and unknown, intrigued by mention of him in Merton’s best-selling book. He was beloved by students and members of the nearby communities, serving as an unofficial local art appraiser (in the days before “Antiques Roadshow”), always making time for a local resident who wanted an old book or painting identified. He took joy and delight in his books, but also in equal measure, in people, as Merton’s “happy little Franciscan.”
His story ends with a note of poignancy, with the secularizing changes that came to the university in the 1970s and ’80s upon his retirement. Yet he, stubbornly, continued to come to his office every day, working on his Franciscan bibliography and still-voluminous correspondence, right up until his death. The very last letter he wrote, on the morning of his death, characteristically expressed uncontained delight at the Bonnie’s basketball victory over Jim Boeheim’s Syracuse University.
“Called to Serve” not only chronicles the life and work of a very unusual priest and scholar, it provides a look at America Catholicism and its evolution through the mid-to-late 20th century, as well as a glimpse at popular secular culture of the time. It contains telling and previously unpublished excerpts from Father’s own correspondences with Merton, Lax, and others. This book celebrates a life of service and Christian charity to all, a life almost forgotten, but truly well lived.
For more information, contact Franciscan Institute Publications at franciscanpublications.com or the author’s website, kpcecala.net.
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