The mystery of the missing 1745 Bible and other rare books at Moravian University – The Morning Call
Mary Jean Hrbacek recently traveled to Bethlehem from her home in Lacey, Washington, for a matter of unusual importance. She came to pick up a collection of rare and heritage books that her family donated to Moravian University four decades ago.
From the outside, the collection appears humble and undistinguished: eight small leather-bound volumes without any eye-catching marks or features. However, as the old adage predicts, their covers do not reflect the rare and valuable texts they contain.
The collection contains centuries-old religious texts from the fallen Moravian Empire – consisting of the present-day territories of the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Austria, Germany, Poland, Romania, Serbia and Ukraine – where the Hrbaceks are from.
Four of the texts are Protestant hymns, devotional and prayer books. Two are sermonic comments. The seventh book is a rare Czech Bible from 1745, printed by Czech exiles in Poland. And the final volume, the eighth, which appraiser Henry L. Williams called “the jewel of this collection,” is a Czech hymn of the Moravian Church, printed in the town of Kralice in 1618.
“It was one of the last books printed on the Kralice press before the suppression of the Moravian Church in 1621,” Williams wrote in an appraisal of the collection. “The Kralice press is of primary importance in Czech cultural history as well as in Moravian history. It’s a great value…a great price.
The book collection is a legacy that has spanned several generations of the Hrbacek family, traveling across empires, continents and seas. In 1980 it was in the possession of Billy Hrbacek, the husband of Mary Jean, who died in 2018. Mary Jean Hrbacek saw that the 300-400 year old books were extremely fragile and feared they would deteriorate without proper care . She encouraged her husband to donate the collection to an institution equipped to store such texts, one with antiquities facilities, such as a temperature- and humidity-controlled rare book room.
The University of Moravia fit the bill, and the Hrbaceks thought it appropriate to donate the collection to a school that bears the namesake of its provenance.
In 1982, Billy donated his legacy to the university, comforted that it would be properly preserved for posterity, said Mary Jean Hrbacek.
That year, the university’s then president, Herman E. Collier Jr., had the collection appraised by Williams. Williams gave the collection a “modest” appraisal of $1,250 in February 1982.
The family returned to Moravia to view its collection in 1984, only to find that the university would not tell them its display or storage location.
“They insisted it was there at school, in a warehouse somewhere else, but they didn’t show it to us,” Hrbacek said.
This interaction repeated itself every time the Hrbaceks visited Pennsylvania for the next 40 years. The couple made about 10 visits in an attempt to view the collection during Billy’s lifetime, and each time the school failed to produce the heirloom. However, the administration was adamant that the collection was stored somewhere on campus.
When the Hrbaceks inquired about the details of the collection’s storage, administrators brushed them off, Hrbacek said.
“The librarians admitted they had never seen a collection of books that matched our description, but said they just had to be in a different place,” Hrbacek said. “I was once told by the development director that teachers could use them to decorate their desks, which alarmed me because 400-year-old books are not supposed to be desk decorations.”
The Hrbaceks’ daughter, Geneviève Christensen, who was 2 when her father donated the collection and has never seen it, has also made several trips to try and view her family heirloom, to no avail.
Today, on the fourth anniversary of the donation, Hrbacek is stepping up its efforts to find the legacy. She wants to try every means to locate him while she is still healthy, she said.
Billy died in 2018 and never saw the legacy again after 1982. Hrbacek regrets encouraging him to donate the books, although he never blamed her for the situation, she said. She also wants to find the books for her daughter’s sake.
“[Christensen] never saw the books, she doesn’t remember them at all, even though it’s part of her heritage,” Hrbacek said. “I’m also doing this for my husband, and for my own guilt, to be honest.”
After Billy’s death, Hrbacek hired a private investigator to find the collection. But Bruce Williams, director of executive protection at Echelon Protection and Surveillance and a retired state trooper, found no leads on the collection.
“I called many now retired law enforcement officers associated with the college, asking them to dig up records on this,” Williams said. “They all came back and determined that the school did not keep such records. So there was really no lead to follow. Those books might be there, I tend not to think so. They could have been stolen, transferred or lost. … I think there was just no accountability on the school side.
Hrbacek reached out to The Morning Call for help last month.
Moravia University’s assistant vice president for marketing and communications, Michael Corr, said the university’s Reeves Library employs a full-time archivist and cataloguer.
But neither Hrbacek nor Corr could find the name of the archivist who collected donations in the 1980s, and Hrbacek believes the individual is deceased.
Cory Dieterly, the current archivist of the Reeves Library, searched the library’s rare book room and found neither the books nor any information about them.
Three Moravian employees either refused to provide or could not obtain the name of the Reeves Library cataloguer. The Moravian Collection Policy web page makes no mention of cataloging practices.
Janet Ohles, director of the Reeves Library, said she collected library materials for Corr’s internal investigation, but Corr refused to share them.
Corr said he contacted faculties in “relevant departments,” including history and religion, and no one knew about the collection. He also said a current employee was present for a search of the books in 2005, but declined to provide her name. Corr said he spoke to her and “she vaguely remembers someone asking her to look around, but doesn’t know anything more than that.”
Eventually, Corr admitted to The Morning Call what Hrbacek had feared: the school lost the collection.
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“It’s really hard to speculate what went wrong,” Corr said in an email. “I have learned that many campus departments, faculty and staff have been contacted over the past week, in addition to the Moravian Archives, to inquire about the books. Unfortunately, we haven’t found anyone who knows where the book is today.
He said the library now has policies in place that would prevent another such loss.
“Today, any donation to the University and/or special collections that we wanted to include in our archives would be immediately cataloged and then stored in our rare book room,” Corr said in an email. “If the University receives a rare book collection today, we will contract with an external appraiser before cataloging and then storing the books on campus.”
However, a Moravian Collection Development Policy document, which Corr sent to The Morning Call, states that “The Reeves Library does not have the staff to accept book donations for the general collection from persons outside the Moravian University”.
Hrbacek said she was appalled by the college admission.
“[Moravian] betrayed the trust our family placed in them,” she said. “I’m seriously disappointed, and more than that, I’m upset that it took them 40 years to admit it. We’ve been asking about this for 40 years straight, 40 years of nothing. They admit it only now because an organization with more influence than my family asked for. The sad thing is that other people have most certainly lost things they also donated and just don’t know about it. not.
Hrbacek is always looking for his collection. Email him at [email protected] with potential leads.