Seghers Collection

What is the Seghers Collection?

The Seghers Collection, consisting of approximately 4,000 volumes, has been on permanent loan to the University of Victoria Library from the Catholic Diocese of Victoria since 1976. The Library catalogued the materials, affixed a bookplate to each volume, and housed the collection as a distinct entity. The collection has been of interest to a number of academic departments, notably Medieval Studies, History, English, History in Art, and Classics, and a number of community borrowers engaged in research.

Who was Bishop Seghers?

The collection is essentially Seghers' personal library complemented by collateral works purchased by the Diocese. Seghers (1839-1886), born in Ghent, underwent a Jesuit education which, besides theology, emphasized philosophy and the liberal arts. He learned English at the American College of Louvain, was ordained on May 30, 1863, and was immediately recruited by Bishop Demers, the first Bishop of Victoria, where Seghers arrived on November 17 of the same year.

Seghers became a diocesan administrator, pastor, missionary and counsellor, these functions filling the years from 1865-1873. After Demers' death and after Seghers had recovered from a near fatal tuberculosis attack, he was appointed Bishop. From 1873 until his murder in Alaska in 1886 he was Bishop of the Victoria Diocese, which then included the territory of Alaska.

He was a voracious writer and always carried books with him when he traveled. Bishop Seghers had a insatiable appetite for knowledge and scholarship, spending a large part of each day in reading and meditation. He had an ability with languages and bought books in Latin, Flemish, French, German, Dutch, Russian, Italian, Spanish, and English. He mastered all the Indian dialects of the West Coast, though, strangely, there are no books in these dialects in his library. His letters reveal that he asked for and was sent a large number of books by an uncle in Belgium: "Answering a friend who had asked him what he did with the numberless books which were constantly being sent to him from Europe, he replied 'a bishop without books is a soldier without arms' (letter to M.J.D.M., Dec. 10, 1872.) And at his last departure for the polar regions, the journey from which he was never to return, one of his most pressing entreaties was, 'Take care of the library' - a library which he had collected himself, on which he had spent a large part of his patrimony, and which he would bequeath to his diocese.*

Of what does the collection consist?

After his death, the Diocese of Victoria added to Seghers library which was rich in continental imprints from the 16th to the 19th centuries, not only in Latin, but also in French, Dutch, German, Italian, Spanish and English. The collection, besides his vocation, reflects Seghers' broad interests: philosophy, ethics, psychology, science, Roman history and drama, and music. One's first thought is that this must have been a seminary library, but the consistent provenance and the lack of an institutional bookplate belies this. Certainly it must be one of the best collections in North America of early books on Catholic theology and church history, canon law, liturgy and ritual, canonization and monasticism.

Devotional literature is a large component. Present in the collection are all the major works of the Church fathers, some in very early editions: the complete Patrologiae in both Greek and Latin (166 and 121 volumes respectively); the Acta Sanctorum (66 volumes); a large collection of Bibles dating from (1699 to 1855); a smaller collection of prayer books and hymnals; treatises on Catholic theology and doctrine; sermons, disputations, church councils (including three pre-Confederation councils in Quebec); papal documents; commentaries on the Old and New Testaments, Latin, Dutch, German and French, dating from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries; a large number of histories of the Catholic church; lives of Christ and of the Virgin Mary; theological dictionaries, biblical geographies, concordances and thesaurae; expositions of canon law; histories of missions; and the Vedas (1870).

Aristotle's works in 10 volumes (1574), and 16th and 17th century editions of works by Valerius, Maximus, Justinus, Tacitus, and other classical authors represent the Bishop's scholarly pursuits. The Seghers books are of interest not only for their content, but also for the light that they throw on book production, printing, illustration, and binding, especially on the European continent from 1550 through to the end of the hand-printing era.

A full account of how Seghers and others assembled the collection might reveal further areas of study. The collection will offer many opportunities for research in medieval studies, history of Christianity, church and state, Christian theology, hermeneutics, the Bible as literature, religious education, Greek and Roman literatures and civilizations, Roman and canon law, art history, and others.

*Maurice de Baets. The Apostle of Alaska : Life of the Most Reverend Charles John Seghers. Translation of the French original. Peterson, N.J. : St. Anthony Guild Press, 1943. p.8).

Prepared by Chris Petter and June Thomson, 1996

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