Good Books

In predominantly Mormon community St. David sits an eclectic, open-to-the-public Catholic library.

Follow Interstate 10 east of Tucson about 45 miles. Just as the freeway begins to descend into the San Pedro Valley, exit into Benson. Proceed down the town's main drag and around the curve to the south, then continue another seven miles as the yucca and mesquite give way to grassy cattle pasture and pecan groves.

You've reached St. David, a small swelling of Mormons along Highway 80.

Mormon pioneers of the late 19th century had a knack for finding garden spots in the most desolate Western landscape, and if the land they settled wasn't initially fertile, they soon made it so. St. David is one of the most verdant strips along the San Pedro River, and it has attracted more than just Latter-day Saints--but not many more. The town's Baptist church is barely big enough for Jesus to park his RV in, and further on lies a full RV park that could accommodate Jesus, his disciples and at least a dozen early-day saints. You'll find it near the huge concrete Celtic cross that marks Holy Trinity Monastery, a Benedictine spiritual renewal center that happens to have one of the largest and most intriguing libraries open to the public in Cochise County.

The monastery was founded in 1974, with its Our Lady of Guadalupe Church dedicated in 1981. Over the years, the complex has spread over much of the 148-acre property without overpowering the rural setting. A pecan grove provides the monastery with income, and there's also a farm with cattle and sheep; chickens and peafowl wander the grounds.

Although much of the monastery's spiritual work revolves around group prayer and long periods of silence, Holy Trinity does not isolate itself from the outside world. Two-day arts and crafts festivals raise money for the monastery every spring and autumn, and the facility hosts concerts through the year.

But the most important--yet subtle--way the monastery integrates itself with the surrounding community is by opening its library to the locals.

IT'S PROBABLY MUCH EASIER for a potential monk to find his calling than it is for a St. David resident to find the Holy Trinity library. It's tucked away toward the middle of the compound, approached through a maze of short, winding dirt roads, many of which dead-end faster than a Medieval heresy. Unlike the monastery's elegant, Southwestern main buildings, the library is a painted cinderblock structure with tarpaper from the roof folded down over the top of the front wall. Two sheds flank the entrance, a windowed, brown double door.

Inside, the library's large main room looks like an unfinished warehouse; plentiful fluorescent lights keep the place well illuminated, but the light fixtures cling to bare ceiling studs above which lie blankets of fiberglass insulation.

If the library seems structurally unfinished, that's fine; it mirrors the holdings, because a library's collection is, almost by definition, never complete. That doesn't mean the catalog of the Holy Trinity Monastery library isn't substantial; it contains about 60,000 volumes.

"It's as big as Benson's public library, and bigger than Tombstone's," says the librarian--factually, not proudly, because pride is especially unseemly when you're a nun. Sister Corinne, O.S.B., is a reassuringly substantial presence in her plain white habit. She has supervised the library's fivefold growth since she arrived at the monastery in 1981; she obtained a master's degree in the University of Arizona's graduate library program in 1989, commuting from St. David to Tucson for classes.

Sister Corinne is happy to discuss the library, but she resists talking much about herself. What gradually becomes apparent from the biographical tidbits she does let drop, though, is that she's the perfect sort of person to head a library that's relevant to both a monastic community and a secular, largely non-Catholic community.

She took her vows rather late in life. "My first career was as a military wife and mother," she says. After raising five children, the widowed Corinne Fair came to Holy Trinity Monastery in 1981, she says, "looking for Christian community. The Lord led me to do the three-week trial period, and then he kept me here."

Sister Corinne happened to arrive about the time the former librarian was leaving, and it didn't take her long to figure out how to make hew own special contribution to the monastery. Her first job, at age 15, had been in a library, and she had minored in library science (with a major in sociology) at the University of Illinois-Champaign/Urbana.

At Holy Trinity Monastery, she found a small but diverse library that had been established by the monastery's founder, Father Louis Hasenfuss. "Father Louis brought a bookcase full of books with him, and the library has just grown like Topsy," says Sister Corinne. "There's no way to organize it; we just keep up with it."

The catalog is computerized, but that computer sits on Sister Corinne's desk; until she manages to get the information transferred to CD-ROMs that can be accessed on the public computer, Sister Corinne has to look everything up for her patrons. At check-out time, borrowers open a notebook and jot down their phone numbers and the titles they're borrowing. Because nobody has a library card, Sister Corinne isn't sure exactly how many people from St. David use the facility. But use it, they do.

"Father Louis was a very expansive person," she says. "He wanted the monastery to provide for anybody who came here, Catholic or not, and he wanted me to open the library to everyone. We're more open to people who just drop in than most monastic libraries are."

Sister Corinne describes the 24-member monastic community as her "privileged customers," and her first priority is assembling books and magazines to meet their needs--not only materials on Bible study and theology, but books that help with the practical details of monastic life, such as maintenance handbooks and guides to cooking for people with special dietary needs.

"But we also try to be a public library for the St. David area," she says. And so there's a shelf of books on Mormon life and beliefs, including the Book of Mormon. There's a rack of publications on bird-watching and other things to do in the region. There are books on arts and crafts (the monastery offers workshops in sculpture, pottery and painting). The health section includes volumes by such natural-healing renegades as Andrew Weil and Jethro Kloss.

And there's an eclectic selection of novels. Several feet of shelves support both the complete novels of Zane Grey and Ellis Peters' Brother Cadfael series, mysteries in which the detective is a Medieval Welsh monk ("He was a Benedictine, you understand," Sister Corinne points out). Shelving in the fiction section is improvisatory, which allows some amusing placement; Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, for example, cozies up against a novel by Danielle Steel. Catcher in the Rye lies on a desk alone and alienated--but at least it's in the library, which is better than you can say for many secular high schools these days.

"For the modern literature," says Sister Corinne, "if it's in the libraries in Benson and Tombstone, I'm less inclined to keep it here, except for local writers and people writing about our area."

Still, isn't some of this material a little more racy than what you'd expect to find in a library where the décor includes a photocopy of a bronze bas relief of Thomas Merton? A library that holds not just National Geographics going back to 1913, but 139 bound volumes of the journal Ecclesiastical Review, periodicals like New Blackfriars and Theology Digest, papal encyclicals filed by pope, and slim paperbacks with titles like The Catholic Viewpoint on Marriage and the Family?

"We do live in a kind of conservative community," says Sister Corinne, referring to St. David. "I don't like things in here that are too sexually blatant. Occasionally, when a donation comes in, there will be a book or two we'll put in the garbage."

Eighty-five percent of the collection has been amassed from donations, including boxes from the likes of retired priests and retired college professors. Duplicates and other unwanted volumes are offered for sale in a kiosk outside.

"You have to think about what people will expect to see when they walk in the door of a monastic library," says Sister Corinne. "When donations come in, what we do is we look at a questionable book and say a prayer and ask, 'Is it a keeper or do we get rid of it?' It's a combination of using good judgment and asking the Lord for direction."

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