By PAUL A. BARRA
CORDESVILLE — Some called it a gift to the church, others a gift to the state. Mariano LaVia, a retired clinical immunologist for whom “books are my passion,” said: “This place and this collection are real gifts to the whole Southeast.”
All those commentators were invitees to the Nov. 13 dedication of the Clare Booth Luce Library on the grounds of Mepkin Abbey, and they were talking about the monastery’s stunning new facility for theological and philosophical research.
Bishop David B. Thompson, 11th bishop of Charleston and the homilist for the prayer service that began the dedication ceremonies, said that the new library and its 50,000 books provides South Carolinians access to great minds.
“Because of the Clare Booth Luce Library, we are ennobled, and we are enriched,” Bishop Thompson said.
One guest who hoped to be enriched by the library’s collection was John Palms, Ph.D., president of the University of South Carolina. Palms has announced his pending retirement, and although his academic training is in physics, he found the books and the modern appurtenances at the CBLL intriguing.
“After my presidency, this will be a great place to do some research and study,” Palms said. “It makes a spiritual and intellectual statement for our state and will draw further scholarship to the area.”
The library rises from a defile in the rolling meadow near the abbey church and is surrounded by live oaks dripping Spanish Moss. A stone footbridge crosses a lower walkway and gives into an elegant entrance hall. The CBLL is 11,000-square-feet on two floors and its collection is particularly strong on Patristic and Medieval theology, philosophy, monastic spirituality and art history. The Mepkin collection includes a 1503 edition of the complete works of St. Bernard.
Luce and her husband, Henry R. Luce, donated the 3,900 acres along the Cooper River known as Mepkin Plantation to the Cistercian order of monks in 1949. It had originally been owned by Henry Laurens, a South Carolinian who was the president of the Continental Congress. The Luce couple and their heirs have made more than 20 contributions in the form of grants since then, including $3.1 million toward the design and construction of the library. Clare B. Luce and Henry Luce are buried on the abbey grounds, a stone’s throw from the new library.
The monks would probably have named their new structure in her memory out of gratitude alone, but the decision came easier because of her intellectual and spiritual accomplishments. Jean Hoefer Toal, chief justice of the Supreme Court of South Carolina, spoke of those in her presentation opening the academic convocation that followed the blessing of the library. She compared the Luce couple to John and Abigail Adams of colonial America and said Mrs. Luce “embodies the best of the 20th century, the American Century.” She was willing, according to the chief justice, “to ride the current at the flood,” when both peril and opportunity are greatest.
“Clare Booth Luce was the quintessential risk-taker,” Judge Toal said.
She was also a convert to her Catholic faith and a feminist in the best sense of the word. Like Toal herself, who was the first woman and the first Catholic on the Supreme Court, Luce was a setter of precedent in many of the things she did. She also made an interfaith marriage one of enduring partnership.
“Her Catholicism was a counterpoint to the devout Presbyterianism of her husband. She became a special inspiration to my generation of American women,” she said.
Clare Booth Luce was a journalist, essayist, playwright, short story writer, editor, congresswoman, ambassador and advisor to presidents. Henry Luce III, chair and chief executive officer of the Henry Luce Foundation, said that her acclaimed play, “The Women,” is currently running on Broadway. She had no footsteps to follow in, Luce said, and was all the more remarkable a person because of it. He was proud that the Mepkin library was being named in her memory.
“I hope this building becomes a treasure and a place of distinguished learning and writing,” he said.
Jesuit Father Ladislas Orsy, a law professor at Georgetown University, gave the second presentation, called “The force that moves the sun and all the stars.” Bishop Robert J. Baker presided over the liturgy and the blessing of the building; Father Ernest F. Kennedy proclaimed the Gospel (without reading it), and Abbot Francis Kline of Mepkin welcomed his guests and thanked people who helped build the CBLL, which included the architectural firm of Bentz, Thompson and Rietow of Minneapolis.