(KMSP) - Growing up in Houston, Texas, Fr. Columba Stewart was always interested in history and geography.
Now he's putting his childhood passions to good use as part of his profession.
For 4 months a year, Stewart literally travels from here to Timbuktu, working with monasteries and libraries to digitally photograph hand written books that date back to the Eighth Century.
"This is kind of a dream job," he said. "When I talk to you and tell you about it, I think this is really cool what I do."
Stewart works for the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library, a project started in the 60's to make sure Benedictine culture in Europe wasn't wiped out during the Cold War. It has since been expanded to permanently preserve manuscripts from the Middle East and Africa at risk of being annihilated by jihadist militants like ISIS and other modern threats.
"They specifically target cultural heritage, so for them a library of manuscripts represents a threat to their view of the world, so they destroy it," Fr. Stewart said.
Stewart's travels take him to war-torn areas like Iraq--where monks at a monastery near Mosul had to hide their manuscripts behind a fake wall to keep them away from the Islamic State, and Mali--where a United Nations communications facility was attacked just 100 yards from Stewart's hotel.
Once the manuscripts are photographed, locals save them on hard drives which they send to St. Johns Abbey in Collegeville, where they are backed up and then posted online for all the world to see.
"In a sense we are continuing the work Benedictines have always done--copying manuscripts," Fr. Steward said. "Except we've learned it’s a lot faster to photograph them than to write them out by hand."
With 150,000 handwritten books and 50 million handwritten pages, the Hill library holds the largest digital collection of ancient manuscripts in the world and Stewart doubts the library's race against time will ever cross the finish line.
"We can imagine someday this digital library that we've been able to create spanning the entire globe," he said. "Not bad for a project in Minnesota."
The manuscripts Fr. Stewart's teams have digitized are available online. If you'd like to check them out for yourself, click here.