From Contemplative to Conquering: Letters between BC Jesuits and a Best-selling Author

by Margaret Antonio


Continuing through October 25, the Burns Library is displaying a selection of letters between the best-selling author and Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, and three Jesuits of Boston College. The exhibit highlights their correspondence, the acquisition of the transcript of Merton’s 1949 bestseller Seven Storey Mountain, and the development of an important collection at Boston College.


Thomas Merton had always been an admirer of the Jesuits, according to Barbara Adams Hebard, curator of the exhibit. Merton’s first encounter with the Jesuits was in reading the biography of Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J., an English poet and Jesuit priest.

“It was the defining moment that led him to convert,” says Hebard, “he had already been interested in the Catholic Church, but it was reading that biography that made him ‘get up and do something.’” Merton converted while attending Columbia University and, in 1941, entered the Order of the Cistercians of the Strict Observance, more commonly known as the Trappists.


Several years later, Merton began corresponding with Fr. Francis Sweeney, S.J. a Jesuit at Boston College. “They had never met, but they knew each other because they were both poets and some of their poetry appeared in the same publications,” says Ms. Hebard. They frequently exchanged poetry for each other to critique and also engaged in discussions on the Jesuit spirituality and their vocation to sanctity. In his letters, Merton “talked about becoming a saint… that being a poet should be secondary to being a priest and should be tertiary to being a saint,” says Hebard.


Following the publication of his 1949 best-seller and autobiography, Seven Storey Mountain, Merton gave the original typescript of the book to Sweeney and a first edition copy of the book to the Jesuits. This was the beginning of the Thomas Merton Collection and an ongoing collaboration between Merton and the Boston College librarians, Terence L. Connolly, S.J. and Brendan C. Connolly, S.J.


Fr. Terence Connolly was the head of the Boston College library, which was only Bapst at the time. Following his death in 1961, Fr. Brendan Connolly headed the library and continued the development of the Merton collection.


“[Merton] would not have been able to publish the books that he published because he lacked the resources. Boston College was very generous in lending him the books he needed, without which he wouldn’t have been able to write a number of the books he wrote,” says Hebard.

A letter from the Merton Collection
A letter from the Merton Collection

The letters from the Merton Collection, however, not only reveal the exchange of material resources, but even more so, the friendship and camaraderie amongst the four priests. In one of the letters displayed at the exhibit, Merton writes to Sweeney: “It seems I am working for the Jesuits these days. How do I get considered an honorary member of the Society? Or would that wreck you?” He then goes on to express his admiration of the Jesuit, Fr. Alfred Delp, who was tortured and executed by the Nazis during WWII. In addition to giving Boston College signed copies of his own books, Fr. Thomas Merton also worked on translating the writings of Fr. Delp.


Unfortunately, the Jesuits of Boston College and Thomas Merton never met due to their geographical separation and their obligations as priests. In one of the letters, Fr. Sweeney writes to Merton, “I have never given up the hope of seeing you. I have often thought of you and wish that geography did not cheat me of the opportunity of talking with you.”


Nevertheless, the correspondence between the Jesuits and Fr. Thomas Merton, preserved in the Thomas Merton Collection, is a testament not only to the collaboration that supported Merton in his literary endeavors, but also to the friendship that developed between Merton and the Jesuits, a relationship encompassing their contemplative spiritual lives and their conquering intellectual pursuits.


The Burns Library will keep the exhibit on display until October 25th. However, the library keeps the full Thomas Merton Collection available to library patrons year round.


For more information about the Burns Library and its collections go to:


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