Artifact of the Month: Hebrew Book of Psalms, 1914

Katie McNally, Former CSJ Archivist

Fr. Marius Nepper, SJ, a French Jesuit priest who lived from 1889-1983, is known to the Sisters of Saint Joseph as one of their most influential historians. The Sisters of Saint Joseph, particularly in the United States and Canada, relied on Fr. Nepper’s expertise to guide their exploration of the CSJ charism in the decades following the Second Vatican Council. This process of renewal was a broader movement of Catholic religious orders to reclaim their heritage stories in order to move forward with a revitalized commitment to their own mission and charism.

But before Fr. Nepper was writing books and giving talks on CSJ history and heritage, he was a young priest in a troubled Europe at the onset of the twentieth century. An artifact donated to the Boston CSJ Archives this past summer opens a small window into the young life of Fr. Marius Nepper.

Left to right: Fr. Nepper’s signature and notes by a French CSJ sister & Nepper’s 1914 Hebrew edition of the Book of Psalms…

 

Fr. Marius Nepper, Prisoner of War 

Marius Nepper was born in Paris in 1889. In the early 1900s, he joined the Society of Jesus in Toulouse. Shortly thereafter, the Great War broke out and Marius spent its entirety as a POW in a German war camp – delaying his ordination to the priesthood. It was apparently during his captivity that he bought the small prayer book pictured above. 

The book, which opens on the righthand side since its text is Hebrew, is entitled Liber Psalmorum, or the Book of Psalms. Its print date is listed both in the Gregorian year 1914 and the Hebrew year 5674. 

The back of the book tells an interesting story behind the artifact’s provenance. In pen is handwritten “M. Neppe-“. It is evident that the rest of Marius Nepper’s name was erased. A French CSJ sister who traveled with Nepper to the United States and to whom Nepper gave the book wrote an explanation on the same page:

Book bought in 1915 during the captivity of Father
The mention of SJ has been erased, as well the end of the word Nepper to avoid control
At the time when there was question of expulsion of the Jesuits
 

Interred in a German camp for the entirety of the war, it is uncertain whether the erasure of Marius’ Jesuit abbreviation was a reaction towards French anticlericalism or to German policies on Jesuits. There’s good reason to believe either explanation. Throughout most of modern French history, the Catholic Church and the French state have had a complicated relationship – even three revolutions (1789, 1830, 1848) had not solved it. At the turn of the century, the 1901 Law of Associations had essentially banned religious orders from teaching in France, and the general political atmosphere was anti-clerical. A priest, wearing his religion quite visibly – was subject to such anticlerical sentiments. 

Yet, in France priests were included in the draft like every other man,¹ and so the battlefield brought priests and laymen together. It may be that even so, Marius Nepper did not wish his brothers in arms to know his status as a priest-in-training. 

Marius did not become fully ordained until 1921, his studies put on pause until after the Armistice, which occurred on November 11, 1918. But we can imagine that this little Book of Psalms may have aided in keeping his mind sharp and his motivation strong.

This book was donated to the Archives along with a photograph of Fr. Nepper with Sr. Julie Harkins, CSJ. Sr. Julie was a Boston CSJ sister who served on the Research Team sent to France by the US CSSJ Federation to work with Fr. Nepper in 1969.² 

Thank you to Sr. Simone Sauges, CSJ, of France for sending the book to the Boston CSJ Archives and for offering her knowledge of its provenance! 

¹ Healy, R. (2016). Purging the Empire: Mass Expulsions in Germany, 1871–1914, written by Matthew P. Fitzpatrick. Journal of Jesuit Studies, 3(2), 347-349. https://doi.org/10.1163/22141332-00302006-22 

² Information on Nepper’s life and the Research Team comes from the Introduction written in 1984 to: Nepper, Marius, SJ. Insights: The Daughters of St. Joseph, Their Spirit & Spirituality, Part 1. Martha Smith Archives and Research Center, Hooley-Bundschu Library, Avila University, Kansas City, Missouri. https://marthasmitharchives.omeka.net/items/show/460. 

Fr. Nepper’s signature and notes by a French CSJ sister. 

Martha Smith Archives and Research Center, Hooley-Bundschu Library, Avila University, Kansas City, Missouri. https://marthasmitharchives.omeka.net/items/show/460.