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Historic Library Paintings Digitally Preserved

Visitors to the Bioethics Research Library will be impressed by the immense collection of materials and the expertise of the librarians; but the library’s oldest and most noteworthy treasure is on the ceiling. In the late 19th century, when the Library was known as the Hirst Reading Room, a Jesuit lay-brother named Francis C. Schroen, S. J., created a series of murals for the room’s ceiling. Brother Schroen had a passion for decorating and painting religious spaces, and other of his works still survive today at Fordham University and Boston College, in the Cathedral of Kingston in Jamaica, and in the Church of the Holy Name in New Orleans. His paintings on the first floor of Healy Hall, though, were definitely made for a library.

“They were meant to tell the tale of the word, and of the book,” says Dean Jim Schaefer of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, who was struck by the murals. The gold-leaf-framed canvases, eleven in all, depict important pieces of writing from around the world and throughout history-from the Book of Kells and runes to Greek scrolls and the Bible.

But though the story they tell is timeless, the paintings themselves are not. After more than a hundred years without attention, the murals have begun to show their age. Many of them suffer from water damage, and all are in need of restoration.

“They were meant to tell the tale of the word, and of the book.”

Motivated by the uniqueness and fragility of Schroen’s oeuvres, Dean Schaefer, an amateur photographer, undertook the project of preserving them all on film. Over the course of several weeks, he worked with his Hasselblad 22 megapixel digital camera, using an elaborate setup of flashes, umbrellas and tripods to capture each image in precise detail. Scale photos of each mural will decorate the main hallway of the Kennedy Institute later this year.

The century-old paintings, and the age-old multi-cultural story they tell, are fitting symbols for the long history of excellence the Institute and the Bioethics Research Library can claim in shaping contemporary bioethics. As Dean Schaefer reflects, “We didn’t start this yesterday. We’ve been at this for a while.” The legacy left to the Institute by Brother Schroen is a testament to this, as the KIE continues its contributions into the 21st century.