Southwestern Indiana's Catholic Community Newspaper

Sister Rebecca A Guardian Of The Word

By Greg Eckerle
Benedictine Sister Rebecca Abel

Sister Rebecca Abel sometimes thinks of herself as the theology librarian’s version of Sherlock Holmes. With over 40 years’ experience, she’s adept at digging out books and materials that students and professionals are searching for.


“I like helping people find stuff,” says Sister Rebecca, a member of the Sisters of St. Benedict of Ferdinand. She worked for 21 years as a librarian for the Ferdinand, Indiana, school system, then for 17 years as librarian for the Pontifical North American College in Rome, Italy, and the past four years as a library consultant working out of the Ferdinand monastery.


She has a well-deserved reputation for helping religious communities and schools weed out books and materials, allocate space for collections, install electronic catalogs, and then training others in how to catalog and process materials. She doesn’t have to advertise her services, because institutions regularly come looking for her help.


This summer will be the sixth year in a row she works for a month at St. Bede Library for the Liturgical Institute at Ealing Abbey in London, England. She’s helped libraries in Idaho, Kansas, Massachusetts, Illinois, New Jersey, Arkansas, and Canada. She’s also the online librarian for Catholic Distance University, located in West Virginia.


“God sent Sister Rebecca our way and the rest is library history,” wrote Sister Joan Mormul in the newsletter for St. Benedict’s Monastery in Winnipeg, Canada. “We were privileged to hire (her) to help us downsize our library . . . and advise us on our next course of action . . . we have a very competent person to help us!”


Father Michael Calhoun, prior of St. Bede Abbey in Peru, Illinois, remembers their monastery library being so disorganized that it was nearly impossible to find a book before Sister Rebecca came to the rescue.


“Sister Rebecca was able to quickly assess what needed to be done,” Father Michael wrote in an email. “She oversaw the moving of books, thus organizing the library in a sensible manner. Her library expertise has been invaluable to me.” She trained Father Michael and some Oblates how to enter information about library holdings into a database, eliminating the need for the previous card catalogue. 


Sister Rebecca is also technologically savvy enough to be in the forefront of consulting about online digital libraries. This new wave has vast potential, as it offers unlimited storage space, permits users to visit and browse from the comfort of their own home, and the book you need is never missing.


An article in Catholic Distance University’s newsletter last fall about their online digital library stated, “CDU’s librarian, Sister Rebecca Abel, is a resource in herself. Both students and alumni count on Sister’s passion and expertise to direct them to new discoveries.” Sister Rebecca is quoted on how “CDU is in a unique position to build a digital library that can fulfill our mission to ‘teach all nations.’”


She gave a presentation, “Building an Online Digital Library,” at the BETH (European Theological Libraries) Conference in Zagreb, Croatia, last September.


Sister Rebecca particularly loves assisting “all these people that need help.” That could mean taking a day to create one library page that has the links needed for students to find, and absorb, the information their professor assigns. She strives to give students easy access to the material, no more than a click away. “I don’t make the students find it,” she says. “I have it there for them. Because I know it’s hard for them, since most are working, trying to pay to get a degree in theology, and maybe raising a family, too.”


She fields a lot of requests from religious, from students and professors to find material. She is rarely stumped, because she has been researching these areas for an entire career. As Father James Leachman, president, Liturgical Institute, Ealing Abbey in London, England, wrote in an email, “Sister Rebecca has been fantastic. She both created and catalogued our library, which serves our liturgy, Latin, and liberal studies students. She looks after the students and staff. Sister Rebecca is a well-trained professional librarian. She is a star!”


She also has the knack for cleaning up libraries that are a cluttered mess. Her advantage is that she finds it to be fun. She knows she can walk into a room that is jumbled up, and restore it to smooth working order. The hardest part is convincing people to let go of materials they no longer need. Sister Rebecca’s knowledge of books as a theological librarian comes in handy. “I’ve done this so many times. I know the books. I can look at a book’s cover and tell religious communities they don’t need this one. I’ve already seen all the theological reference books plenty of times.”


She will find a new home for the books being weeded out. Because destroying books will raise her ire like nothing else. When terrorists attacked a magazine a few years ago, and pillaged its library, she posted a note on her LinkedIn account that showed her disdain and left no doubt as to the duty she felt as a librarian.


Her plea read, in part: “Librarians of the World, unite! . . . (The terrorists) were attacking freedom of speech everywhere. We librarians are the protectors of those freedoms. We collect information and make it available to all people, not just a select few. We organize the information so that it can be retrieved by all people. We may not be guarding Excalibur but we are guardians of something much more important, we are Guardians of the Word! . . . we must gather and protect the word for the future. Today, we face an even more important challenge in defending freedom of information. Unite as one in defending and protecting the word. Everywhere!”


“I was all fired up,” admits Sister Rebecca, smiling. “I was really passionate about that. You put everything in the library, whether you agree with it or not. You’re keeping the word so it doesn’t get lost. That’s my driving force. That’s why I like to work in archives, too, because that’s protecting history. Some people may not be interested in that stuff today, but a hundred years from now people will look back at the last couple of centuries and think about all the religious communities that were formed. Communities that taught, that helped the poor, that helped lepers. It was a renaissance of religious life.”


And Sister Rebecca has spent her life trying to ensure future generations can easily learn all about how those religious served.