By Mary Morrell | Correspondent
Like pieces of a unique historical puzzle, the 140 artifacts currently on display in The Aquinas Institute, Princeton University, reveal the faith story of a country that would become the United States of America.
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Entitled “The Printed Word: Faith Aspirations of a Young Nation,” the exhibit opened with a preview for invited guests Nov. 18. Included among the displays are Bibles, prayer books, religious tracts and sermons, maps, documents, photos and a host of other treasured artifacts dating from as far back as the 1600s.
The varied displays draw a picture of the people from many religions who made the difficult journey to this country hungering for the chance to worship God and share their faith without fear of persecution, encouraged by the new nation’s vision of freedom.
Spread across two floors of the Institute, the exhibit opens with the preface from the journal of Dutch Reformed minister, Rev. W. W. Voorhees, who wrote in 1858: “Soon after my conversion to God, I began to write short notes of my religious experiences in order to mark my progress in divine life. This has grown into a habit, and I now revise what I have before written in order to have a more accurate account of the way over which I have traveled.”
Reflecting on the thoughts of the introspective minister, Franciscan Father Gabriel Zeis, chaplain in Aquinas Institute and creator of the exhibit, invited guests to “travel a spiritual pilgrimage through our nation’s past. It is a faith journey that begins with the hopes and prayers of Rev. W.W. Voorhees, a young idealistic minister and holy man. He had aspirations, and so should we all.”
With a heart for education, Father Zeis has a distinguished background in the field, including past president of St. Francis University, Loretto, Pa In addition to his role at the Aquinas Institute, Father Zeis has served as the Diocese’s vicar of Catholic education since September.
Visitors, who examined the exhibit in about an hour, were intrigued by family Bibles from the 1700s and 1800s, filled with anecdotes, letters, names and notes about what was important to the family. They reflected on the life of a Quaker family unfolding in photographs and in narratives, and learned about the Anabaptists and the Ephrata Cloister in Pennsylvania which was home to the second German printing press in the American colonies, allowing for the printing of books, religious tracts and hymns.
Among the preview guests were Father Vincent Euk, pastor, St. Veronica Parish, Howell, and parishioner Binetta Dolan, who provided one of the artifacts for the exhibit – an 1810 Napoleonic decree suppressing monasteries in Italy. Over time, explained Dolan, members of religious orders made their way to America to worship God and build communities of faith.
Father Euk described the exhibit as “fascinating,” and a wonderful educational tool for young people who are often not familiar with the struggles of early settlers who came looking for religious liberty.
Dolan agreed, noting that many people do not realize that “religion was so very important to them. It was a major part of their lives,” one that often motivated them to take on monumental challenges.
The challenges were not lost on James Smyth, a graduate of Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University, who said the exhibit was a meaningful one for both him and his wife, Jean.
Smyth, who attends Bible studies with Father Zeis, grew up with family stories of his ancestors of German, Scottish and Irish background making their way to America to escape English persecution of Catholics, especially in Northern Ireland.
Jean Smyth, who is from Taiwan, explained that her Catholic roots stemmed from her grandmother who was influenced by Catholic missionaries who came to Taiwan after WWII to bring comfort and charity to the people. “Because of the missionaries she started going to Church,” said Mrs. Smyth.
Terry Ginther, executive director of the Diocese’s Office of Pastoral Life and Mission, noted the value of the artifacts shedding light on the “many faiths that shaped the nation,” adding that she appreciated the efforts of Father Zeis and the Aquinas Institute “to share the Catholic intellectual tradition with the community.”
For Father Zeis, who also serves as exhibit guide, the presentation provides an opportunity to help young people become aware that they have been called by God to life in this country, and encourage them to embrace the vision and values “of those people years ago who wanted to discover and worship their God.”
Referring back to Rev. Voorhees, Father Zeis hoped exhibit guests would “end this journey inspired, and then to aspire to the great opportunity we have to live our faith in freedom, to grow through the profession of faith and take up the challenges it charges us with to never take our freedoms of religion, speech and the press for granted.”
The exhibit is open to the public by appointment through Dec. 4. To schedule a viewing time, call 609-924-1820. Directions to The Aquinas Institute and suggestions for parking are available.
The Aquinas Institute, Princeton University’s Catholic Campus Ministry, is sponsored by the Diocese of Trenton and located at 24 Charlton Street, Princeton. [[In-content Ad]]