When President-Elect Joseph R. Biden prepared to take his oath of office, he rested his hand on a gigantic, much-repaired old Bible, described by newscasters as a Biden family heirloom and a Douay-Rheims “Catholic Bible.”
Visitors to the Mount’s rare books in the Charles Willard Coe Memorial Library can view several big Bibles just like Biden’s and every bit as distinguished. Weighing upwards of four pounds, bound in leather with nickel clasps, embossed in gold and richly illustrated, Bibles like the Bidens’ were popular with Americans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries because they were relatively affordable and honored a family’s Catholic faith as well as its middle class status.
In its 96 years, the Mount has received many gifts of these family heirlooms from faculty, alumnae and CSJ sisters, helping to build a fascinating Bible collection. MSMU Special Collections holds editions of all sizes and in more than a dozen languages, from the ancient scripts of the Middle East to the Native American language Ojibwa. Several have traveled to other universities for exhibits on Bible history.
Among the most treasured of the Mount Bibles is the London Polyglot, given to the college library in 1952 by Estelle Doheny. The six-volume Polyglot (“many tongues”) was printed starting in 1657 and eventually comprised some or all of the Old and New Testaments in Latin, Arabic, Aramaic, Ethiopian, Hebrew, Persian and Syriac. It is still considered a remarkable achievement in publishing and was used for centuries by Scripture scholars to compare ancient translations.
Heavier by far than the Bidens’ Bible is the bulky 1532 Biblia Sacra published in Paris by Robertus Stephanus, one of the early printers of the Protestant Reformation. Controversially, his Bible incorporated commentary in the margins. One of the Bible’s earlier owners evidently took issue with Stephanus and added his own tiny, handwritten cursive comments to the pages.
But by far the gem of the Mount’s Bible collection is a single page from the Book of the Prophet Hosea. It is known as a Noble Fragment, the name assigned to any leaf from the first printed book in the West, the Gutenberg Bible (1450-1455). It too was a gift from Estelle Doheny.
In the first decades of Mount Saint Mary’s College, it was donations of treasures such as these Bibles that gave stature to the young school and its library.