BY DAVID V BARRETT
THE TRUSTEES of the Catholic Central Library are hunting for a new London home for one of the finest collections of Catholic books in the country.
They were forced to take the step after the library was asked to leave its home of the last six years at St Pancras Church House, an Anglican Church Hall opposite Euston Station in London. When its second three-year lease ended recently, the library learned that the vicar had other plans for the hall, and that it would have to move.
Plans to relocate to a property in Bloomsbury fell through, and the entire library had to be put into storage.
Most of the library’s 65,000 books are currently boxed up in a lock-up storage unit in Norwood, South London, completely inaccessible to the organisation’s 800-plus members.
For months the search has been on to find a permanent resting place for the library, which has led an unsettled existence since 1997.
Although its future remains uncertain, its one full-time member of staff has said she is determined that it will survive.
“The library is not going to disappear,” said Joan Bond, who has been the librarian for 25 years. “I’m over the top for retirement, but I’ll get it sorted first. It won’t go under.” This week plans were announced which would save the library, with its relocation to St Michael’s Abbey, Farnborough, though it still does not have a London home.
“The trustees have considered a number of possibilities since the termination of the lease of the library’s premises in Euston,” Antony Tyler, chairman of the trustees of the Catholic Central Library, told The Catholic Herald this week. “Some of the books are already in store at St Michael’s Abbey, Farnborough, with a view to the library becoming operational there in due course. Negotiations are continuing to establish a central London presence as well. Details will be communicated to members as soon as these can be finalised.” St Michael’s Abbey, a contemplative house of Benedictine monks, seems a particularly suitable new home for the library. Founded in 1896, it was quickly nicknamed “the book factory” for its scholarly output under its first Abbot, Dom Fernand Cabrol.
Dom Cuthbert Brogan, Conventual Prior of the Abbey, said: “The community is delighted to be playing a role in what promises to be an exciting period in the history and resurgence of the Catholic Central library and looks forward to welcoming all who will come to it when it opens at the Abbey.
“The daily round of the monastic liturgy sung in Latin in Gregorian Chant in a rural setting, with a magnificent grade one listed French Gothic church built by the Empress Eugenie in the 1880s, will make an ideal setting for those coming to use the library,” the Prior added.
The Catholic Central Library originated from the large private collection of books of William Reed Lewis, a wealthy American living in Box Hill, early in the last century. He lent Catholic books to US soldiers during the First World War. He later sold his collection to the Catholic Truth Society. In 1959, the library was established in its present form, and was funded by an American Franciscan Order, the Friars of the Atonement, until 1997, when financial problems caused them to pull out. After a period of uncertainty, when it looked as though the collection might have to be broken up, the library, with support from the Catholic Writers’ Guild, found its most recent home at St Pancras.
“What we’re committed to is public access, and being a resource for people like MPs and the BBC,” said Mr Tyler. “If you want to know what an 18th century nun in a particular order in France looked like, or what form a service should take for a costume drama, we have the reference works.” MPs use the library to check what the Catholic position is on a topic, from papal documents on contemporary issues. It also provides a research service to the dioceses and Catholic churches.
“With over 20 years’ experience, Joan Bond has a huge personal handle on both the collection and on what’s going on,” said Mr Tyler.
Many people in country areas do not have ready access to Catholic books, said Mrs Bond, and are able to borrow them from the library by post. Some members, who pay £25 a year, stay for many years, others, such as degree students, for a shorter period.
“It’s my haven in London,” one member of 20 years told the Herald. “It’s the Catholic Church’s best-kept secret.” The importance of the library can be gauged by its trustees, who include John Gummer MP, Lord Alton, Fr Ian Ker and Lord Nicholas Windsor, son of the Duke and Duchess of Kent.
The library’s extensive collection includes works on theology, spirituality and related subjects, biography, history, including Catholic family history, and Catholic fiction. Some are particularly rare, including “a priceless early Lingard translation of the gospels which is clearly written and highly accurate,” said Mr Tyler. John Lingard was an early 19th century Catholic priest and historian, author of a 10-volume history of Britain, which the library also holds.
“Some very important collections have been given or loaned to us, including the very fine Thomas More collection, a lot of his rarer works, and books about him. The Thomas Merton Society lodges its books at the library,” said Mr Tyler.
The library is a contributing library of the Association of British Theological and Philosophical Libraries; its periodicals include complete runs of many 19th century Catholic journals, including the Catholic Miscellany and Monthly Repository of Information (1822-1830) and the London and Dublin Orthodox Journal of Useful Knowledge (1835-1845).
It also holds typescripts and some books on loan from the Catholic Family History Society, including mission registers from many parts of England and Wales listing baptisms, confirmations, marriages and deaths, some dating back as early as 1694.
The library also operates a scheme called Continuing Formation, primarily intended for priests and religious, though any library member may use it. This makes use of the resources of the library to foster spiritual and intellectual growth, suggesting books on liturgy, theology, faith, the sacraments and other topics.