How the Francis Skaryna Belarusian Library was established

Francis Skaryna Belarusian Library in London was founded in 1971 and has developed the largest collection of Belarus-related publications in Western Europe. Nowadays, it is the only library outside Belarus to collect exclusively in the field of Belarusian studies and its collection is the most comprehensive in this field in Western Europe. This extract from the book “Ceslaus Sipovich: the first Belarusian Catholic Bishop in the 20th century (1914-1981)” by Alexander Nadson tells its story.


On Saturday 15 May 1971 the Francis Skaryna Belarusian Library and Museum was officially opened by Prof. Robert Auty, Professor of Comparative Slavonic Philology at the University of Oxford. The Apostolic Delegate to Great Britain, Archbishop Domenico Enrici, assisted by Bishop Sipovich, blessed the library in the presence of the Exarch of Ukrainian Catholics, Bishop Augustine Horniak, Father John Ababurka of the Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, and the Deputy Mayor of Barnet. The many guests included several English academics working in the field of Slavonic studies, representatives of Ukrainian, Polish, Slovak etc. communities, and, of course, a great number of Belarusians from England, France, Germany and America.

Bishop Ceslaus Sipovich in the Belarusian library. June 1970

Bishop Ceslaus Sipovich in the Belarusian library. June 1970

The opening of the Francis Skaryna Library was an impressive feast of Belarusian culture and a personal triumph for Bishop Sipovich. But it was only the beginning of the real work.

The Library had a twofold purpose: to be a depository of all material, both in printed and manuscript forms, relating to Belarus, and thus preserve them from being lost or destroyed; and to act as a «window of Belarusian culture in the West», by making this material accessible to all those interested in any aspect of Belarusian studies.

The holdings of the library at the time of its opening might have looked impressive at the first sight, but those closely connected with it were aware of the fact how many important works were still missing. It had become their task, especially that of Bishop Sipovich and Fr Nadson, to fill those gaps. The easiest thing was to make sure of obtaining all new publications. EmigrÈ publications presented no difficulty. But publishing in the Soviet Belarus was state controlled, and practically the only way to obtain certain books was to buy from the official Soviet book agency. This was expensive and there was no certainty that one would receive what was ordered. There was not much love lost between the Communist-controlled Soviet Belarus and the Belarusian emigration. It was therefore without much hope that Fr Nadson wrote to the Belarusian National Library and the Library of the Belarusian Academy of Sciences in Minsk, proposing a book exchange agreement. To everyoneís surprise they agreed. It was in particular the Academy of Sciences which was interested in emigrÈ publications. A contact was thus established with mutual profit: The F. Skaryna Library received practically all new publications from Soviet Belarus, while at least some privileged readers in Belarus had access to forbidden «nationalist» literature! It was a small «chink in the Iron Curtain». The Academy of Sciences also kindly helped the Library obtain some earlier and out-of-print publications. Another «supplier» was Fr Uladyslau Charniauski, who sent a number of books, usually posting them in the capital of Lithuania, Vilna (Vilnius) where the controls were not so strict.

For pre-war and 19th century publications the F. Skaryna Library was in touch with various antiquarian booksellers in Germany, Holland, France, Sweden and the United States, which specialised in Slavonic books. Belarusian was not very well known, and it was possible to get some valuable publications at bargain prices. Thus Fr Nadson bought a copy of «Historyia Bielarusi» by v. Lastouski of 1910, the first history of Belarus in Belarusian, with pages still uncut, for 5 German Marks (about 3 dollars). Another source of pre-war books were Belarusian emigrÈs in different countries. Many of them when leaving Belarus had taken some books with them. As they were getting older, they were willing to donate those books to the Library. Bishop Sipovich and Fr Nadson kept it always in mind during their travels. In this way the Libraryís holdings had been enriched by hundreds of publications, most of which were not found in any other libraries in the West.

Early printed books were the most difficult to find. Bishop Sipovich and Fr Nadson began to watch out for book auctions. In February 1972 they were lucky to purchase at an auction at Sothebyís Novyi Zavet i Psalmy (New Testament and Psalms), published in 1652 in the Kutseina Monastery in Orsha in Eastern Belarus. The importance of this publication lies in the fact that while the main text is in Church Slavonic, short summaries of each chapter or psalm, as well as the commentaries on the margins, are in Belarusian. Another valuable acquisition at an auction on 27 June 1972 was the manuscript of 1652 of the Pontifical Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom in Church Slavonic with parallel Latin translation. Bishop Sipovich made this manuscript a subject of his special study. In 1978 he published its facsimile edition, together with the life of Theodore Skuminovich and copious liturgical notes.

The Library named in honour of the first Belarusian printer Francis Skaryna did not possess even a single original copy of his editions. It was therefore not surprising that the news about the impending sale by auction on 28 November to 1 December 1975 at Monte Carlo of a fragment of Skarynaís Book of Kings (Prague 1518) caused great excitement among Belarusians in London. Bishop Sipovich appealed for funds, and Fr Nadson was despatched to Monte Carlo with strict orders not to come back without Skaryna… He came back late at night on Monday 1 December carrying the precious fragment of Skarynaís Bible, which he acquired after successful bidding against a representative of the Soviet Academy of Sciences from Moscow. The fragment consisted of two sheets (8 pages) which were printed but never bound in the book, which makes them still more interesting. Fr Nadson brought with him also a dozen other valuable books from the 17th and 18th centuries, including two editions of the Suprasl Greek-Catholic Basilian monastery: Litourgicon of 1695 and Sobranie pripadkov of 1722, which may be considered the first book of moral and pastoral theology in Belarusian for Greek Catholic priests. The first of these books, which had belonged to the Basilian monastery of Bytsen in Western Belarus, is of considerable interest because in its structure it reminds one very much of the Roman Missal and thus is one of the early examples of Latin influence of the Greek Catholic Church in Belarus. The second book bears the autograph of Theodore Vislotski who in 1800–1801 was the first and only bishop of the short-lived Suprasl diocese, established by Pope Pius VI when Suprasl fell under Prussian rule. Thus the books were not only bibliographical rarities, but also fragments of Belarusian church history. Another important acquisition was a copy of the «Statute of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania» of 1588. The Statute was the code of civil and criminal law for the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. It was written in Belarusian, the official language of that country. After Skaryna it is considered to be the most important monument of early Belarusian printing. The book was given to the Library on 22 November 1973 by Mr and Mrs L. Halak who during the war, at the risk of their own lives, had saved it from being confiscated by Germans. After the war they emigrated to the United States and took the book with them. They had never considered it to be their personal property but a part of the Belarusian national heritage. After hearing about the Francis Skaryna Library, and having made the necessary inquiries, they decided that this was the place where the «Statute» should be.

The autographs of works of the greatest Belarusian poets, Ianka Kupala, including his famous poem «Kurhan» (The Burial Mound), written in 1910, and Iakub Kolas occupy pride of the place in the Libraryís manuscript collection which contains documents going back to the 15th century.

Bishop Sipovich understood the value of original documents and encouraged individuals and organisations to deposit their archives in the Francis Skaryna Library. He was also tireless in searching for old manuscripts and documents. Thanks to his efforts the Libraryís archives contain much hitherto unknown material which still awaits its historian. Documents relating to the Greek Catholic Church in Belarus go back to the 18th century. Of particular interest are numerous 20th century documents from the period before the Second World War. The private archives of Belarusian priests deserve a special mention. The letters of Fathers Talochka, Kulak, Shutovich and others shed much light on the religious situation in Western Belarus before 1939. So too do the archives of Fathers Haroshka, Tatarynovich and Hermanovich which in addition cover much of the post-war period in emigration, as do those of Fathers Salaviej, Francis Charniauski and Thomas Padziava. Bishop Sipovich deposited his own extensive archives in the library during his lifetime, thus indicating that he wanted them to be part of the Belarusian national heritage.

Bishop Sipovich often repeated that the Francis Skaryna Library belonged to the Belarusian people and not to any organisation or institution. To secure its independence, in 1979 it became a Charitable Trust, governed by a board of trustees, consisting of representatives of Belarusian community and English scholars specialising in Belarusian studies. Bishop Sipovich insisted that Father John Piekarski of the Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox Church should also be made a trustee, thus underlining the national character of the library.

The day after the opening of the Library, on Sunday 16 May, Bishop Sipovich wrote in his diary: «God in his goodness helped us to achieve a great things: the founding of our own library and museum. This is most necessary, if we want others to know and appreciate us, and also that we ourselves may know better our history, language, art etc. The Belarusian tree, if it wants to bear fruit, must have deep roots. All sorts of small manifestations, cheap publications, ultra-patriotic noise will pass away with the first breath of wind and will be forgotten by all. That is why, despite many difficulties, we must build a lasting all-national home. God, do not cease to help us!».

During the last ten years of his life, with his health failing, Bishop Sipovich saw many of his earlier hopes unfulfilled, the passing away of many priests with no one to take their place, the failure to establish Apostolic administration in Belarus, and his vanishing dream of the «New Druia» in London. In these circumstances the Francis Skaryna Library was particularly dear to him: no effort was too great where it was concerned. Bishop Sipovich chose one of the rooms in the library as his study, and spent there every moment free from his other duties. It was his greatest pleasure to show proudly to visitors the treasures of Belarusian culture held by the library.

Of all the Bishop Sipovichís projects the Francis Skaryna Library has proved to be the most enduring. It stands today as a monument of one man’s love for his country and people, which years of separation could not weaken.


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