Monday, November 28, 2011

Whom to believe

THE NEWLY UNEARTHED trove of historic miscellany includes a carbon of a 9-page, double-spaced typewritten document titled simply, "Mount St. Mary's College."

In pencil at the top are three notes:
  • 1954?
  • Sr. Dolorosa Mannix
  • Contains many inaccuracies
It's a short history of the first few years of the College, 1925-1931, from the first idea to moving into the Chalon Campus, and it was written by someone who was here throughout -- Mother Dolorosa Mannix, CSJ, a founding faculty member who served as president and provincial from 1937 to 1943.

Some of the "inaccuracies" seem to be corrected in additional pencil by the same hand, although I counted only a few and they're quite minor -- misspellings, an added date, an amended roster.

I wonder who edited Mother Dolorosa -- was it Sister Germaine McNeil, one of my predecessors in the Archives and author of the "official" history of the College? Sister Germaine's book, Mount St. Mary's College in Los Angeles, 1925-1975, has also been described to me as "full of inaccuracies." And yet she relied heavily on Mother Dolorosa's journals from the early years (and both sisters taught in the same department, Classics). Did another Mount founder take exception to written history?

This should give all bloggers pause. I rely heavily on Sister Germaine. Like Mother Dolorosa, she's the authoritative source.

Let me close with my sincere apologies in advance for any inaccuracies I may be introducing in my poor attempts to recreate a little Mount history. I can well imagine the comments: "Oh, that blog. It contained many inaccuracies."


SISTER IGNATIA CORDIS, CSJ, served as chairman of the Art Department for more than three decades, from the founding of the Mount in 1925 until 1961. She passed away in 1986 at the age of 100.

A few of Sister Ignatia's works grace the college walls, including a watercolor hanging in Hannon Parlor that depicts the ruins of Rossiter Hall after the Bel Air Fire. Many of her works, sad to say, were lost in that same fire, which destroyed her rooms in Rossiter as well as the studios in the Marian Hall of Fine Arts.

The image above is "The Annunciation," an oil painting done in 1946 and probably Sister's best-known and most unusual work. Her surviving works are all landscapes, but this modernistic treatment of a classic theme is unique. The original is hanging in the Chalon office of President Ann McElaney-Johnson and makes a nice welcome to the Advent season.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Uniforms aloft!

FOUND SOME OLD BINDERS in the back of a drawer -- about which more in a minute -- and among the contents of #2 were a couple of clippings from the Los Angeles Times and Santa Monica Evening Outlook. There are no dates to be seen, but it was easy enough to figure out that it's shortly before graduation in 1954.

The Times photo shows four ASB officers, left, hoisting their discarded uniform skirts up the flagpole in the center of the Circle. The Outlook picture, taken from further away, shows more skirts pinned to a "halyard" running the length of the flagpole. A big crowd is gathered around. The captions explain that the College was observing the annual "hoisting" of the skirts to celebrate the seniors' freedom from their navy-blue uniforms.

Uniforms, part of life at the Mount from the beginning, finally went away in the mid-1950s, not long after these photos would have been taken.
It's always fun to discover a long-lost tradition (did they want "hoisting the skirts" to sound a little naughty?) that I can pass along to Betty Jiminez for next year's "Did You Know?" posters for Homecoming.

These binders are fascinating. They're a mishmash of documents spanning five decades starting in the 1930s. There's everything from handwritten notes to old mimeographed questionnaires. They document some pretty significant histories, though, like a rundown of college costs in the 1930s to a typed draft seeking permanent accreditation for the secondary teaching credential in 1946. There are handwritten highlights of 1953 or 1954, as if for a speech or report.

Some of the papers may have originated with a Sister pretty high up in administration, because there is CSJ memorabilia in #3. They accumulated in folders and at some point, probably about 1975, they ended up in the binders, where they've lain forgotten for almost another 40 years. It's my turn to take the next step -- acid-free folders and Mylar sleeves -- and hope to give them another 40.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Is that Mary Chapel?

LOOKING FOR BEL AIR FIRE IMAGES to add to our online photo archive, I came across a photocopy of a remarkable newspaper article describing a painting. In the fuzzy photo is Mary Chapel in flames.

The clipping, headlined "Bel Air Flames Again in Massive 'Firescape,'" with the "kicker" headline, "Chief Relives Battle." It describes a massive, 16-foot painting providing an eyewitness remembrance of the firefight at the Mount.

The photocopy and this scan are poor quality, but there's no mistaking the contours of the chapel and the steps leading to the arched door. A silhouetted figure aims a thin stream of water into the raging flames. In the foreground a firefighter renders aid to one of his teammates stretched out on the pavement.

I've read numerous accounts of the disaster, but never one that mentions Mary Chapel fully engulfed. Apparently the fire did start burning through the big wooden front doors and may have melted some of the leading in the stained glass before it was stopped. But unlike Rossiter Hall and the fine arts building, the chapel was saved.

The archives photocopy identifies neither the newspaper nor the date, unfortunately. Publication was definitely some years after the 1961 fire, because it mentions that the painter, Charles W. Bahme, took two years to finish the work, and that he had retired in 1967. Perhaps it was 1971, on the 10th anniversary .

Bahme wasn't just any eyewitness. He was deputy chief of the LAFD and the field commander for the fire. He was at the Mount on November 6, 1961, as cinders ignited buildings on all sides of the College, as the wind was gusting close to 100 miles an hour, and as the water supply started to fail.

The huge painting is a composite of his recollections of the entire disaster, which blazed through Bel Air and Brentwood for three days and at one point had a 154-mile fireline. "I tried to condense into this [work] the whole scope of the fire," Bahme said, adding that doing it was a way to "get it out of my system." The battle to save the Mount is clearly front and center in his memories.

Maddeningly, the clipping is cut off in the middle of his description of saving a college building that had caught fire. Ack! Which one? And then what happened?

Another day, another set of archival mysteries. The article is an great find, but not as great as the questions it raises: Where's the rest of it? Where was it published? Most of all, what became of that 16-foot painting? Will we ever find out?

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Bible binding

NINETEENTH-CENTURY BIBLES are neither rare nor worth a fortune, but some of them are certainly beautiful. This is a close-up of the restored cover of our 1884 Douai Bible that was wrecked in the rain leak and brought back to life by Kater-Crafts, the bindery in Pico Rivera. My colleague Samantha Silver took care of entering it in the college online catalogue.

The tooled-leather covers look almost new. This detail shows the Eye of God and the Christogram "IHS" (traditionally standing for Iesus Hominum Salvator, Jesus Savior of Men). Both of the book's metal clasps are intact, and have proved really helpful in compressing the cockled text block back to its original size.

Deciding whether books warrant the cost of repair is as much art as it is science. This one looked so horrible that I considered writing it off as a total loss. But then I happened to visit the St. Bernardine of Siena Library at St. Thomas Aquinas College in Ojai (ironically, to look at their mold outbreak), and noticed that a similar Bible was treated to museum display in the vestibule.

This repair job was worth the expense. It's a beautiful exemplar of Bible publishing of the era, it's good to last another couple hundred years at least, and it's part of the legacy of the college. It may be time for a display here in our own library.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Friends in high places

YESTERDAY BEING ALL SAINTS, I found myself wondering how many books on saints we hold in the two Mount libraries. The answer: Lots.

I did a quick search in the libraries' online catalog and found 233 titles under the subject "Christian Saints." Of those, only 15 are for children ("Juvenile Literature"), which leaves 318 college-level volumes on some of Christianity's all-time greats.

Of these, about half are straight biography. These aren't all pious, 19th Century hagiographies, either. There's a 2007 book on the contemporary saints and martyrs of Africa and a 2005 biography of St. Mary Magdalene.

You can do your reading in your choice of languages -- Therese of Lisieux in French, Teresa of Avila in Spanish, and if you read German in gothic print, there's Alban Stolz's three-volume Legende, a calendar of saints' days printed between 1859 and 1861.

For pure joy, you can't go wrong with Francis: the Poor Man of Assisi by children's illustrator and author Tomie dePaola (above). His appealing illustration style lends itself beautifully to the story and mysticism of the great saint, and our copy in Special Collections is signed by dePaola to his "friends at the Mount with love," 1982.

I thought I'd find a CSJ saint in there somewhere, but no -- there aren't any. It's not that the Sisters of St. Joseph have lacked candidates among the generations of heroic women. It's just that the Order has always been way too busy to go to the trouble of a cause for sainthood. For living saints, there is always more important work to be done.

POSTSCRIPT: Campus Ministry held a "Vote for Your Favorite Saint" event after the All Saints mass yesterday and the results are in. Claiming first place: St. Francis of Assisi.