Columba Stewart OSB
Columba Stewart (ΦBK, Harvard College) is Professor of Theology at Saint John’s University and executive director of the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library, both in Collegeville, MN. In 2019, Father Stewart was named the Jefferson Lecturer by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the highest honor the federal government bestows for distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities.
As a child, what profession did you envision for yourself when you grew up?
I kept changing my mind. Always interested in history, politics, theology, nature.
What was the most transformative course from your undergraduate education?
Intro Astronomy, Early Christianity, 19th
Century French literature.
What does your role as the Executive Director of the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library (HMML) at Saint John’s University entail? What is your favorite part about what you do?
I coordinate a global effort to digitize, catalog, and share endangered manuscripts. I work with Christian, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist communities in many countries to ensure that their manuscript heritage has been preserved. (NB: Hebrew manuscripts have already been done by a project in Israel). I also lead the effort to get all of these digitized manuscripts online at www.vhmml.org
. I love immersing myself in the various cultures and establishing personal connections with our colleagues around the world.
You previously participated in the Phi Beta Kappa Visiting Scholars program. What was most rewarding about that experience?
I enjoy visiting other colleges/universities since each one is unique. It’s always fun to share the work of HMML as well as speakabout my own research in early Christian monasticism; I was able to do both as a Visiting Scholar.
Do you think Phi Beta Kappa and a well-rounded, liberal arts and sciences education are important in today’s society? How has your liberal arts education benefitted you?
Many jobs today, including mine, require a broad educational background and basic familiarity with many areas of study. This helps me keep up with change since I’m not locked into a highly specific area of expertise that can become dated or even obsolete.
What advice do you have for young Phi Beta Kappa members?
Follow your passions since anything you learn or do will help you in your next gig.
What book are you reading right now? Are you listening to any podcasts or watching any shows? Anything you'd recommend?
I read widely. On my table now are Stephen Harrington’s Big Wonderful Thing
, a recent history of my home state of Texas; Ariel Sabar’s Veritas
, about the Jesus’ wife papyrus controversy; Roger Moorhouse’s Poland 1939
on the outbreak of World War II. When I was working on my NEH Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities I went back to Eric Foner’s work on Reconstruction to understand how we got to Jim Crow and are still stuck on racial progress—this was before George Floyd’s murder here in Minnesota. I’ve gone on to David Blight’s Frederick Douglass
for inspiration. I’m an avid reader of the London Review of Books
. And, of course, as a monk I do lectio divina
every day with the Bible and pray a lot of psalms in church! For shows, recent escapes have been Endeavour
: mysteries and political thrillers are my usuals. I don’t listen to a lot of podcasts but do enjoy listening to Reply All
2019 Jefferson Lecture