Ancient work alive and well in Kalamunda

12 Dec 2008

By The Record

Tucked away in the Kalamunda hills, a nun goes about her daily work of praying for the world and practising a craft as old as civilisation itself.         


By Robert Hiini

Mother Mary John sdm of the Sisters of the Dormition of the Blessed Virgin Mary, has been a bookbinder since she learnt the craft as a 17 year old at technical college.
I have come to visit her house, site of Tydewi Bindery, named after ‘Dewi Sant’ or St David of Wales, the only saint from the land of her birth to be listed in the Roman Calendar.
Sitting in her lounge room, she shows me different books she makes for sale and explains the intricacies of repairing the beloved books that people entrust to her, arriving as they do in varying states of decay.
She places two such examples on her coffee table: ‘The Works of Francis Bacon’ published in 1765, – predating the First Fleet by 23 years – and ‘De Medicina’, 1746, written by the first century physician Aulus Cornelius Celsus – the only surviving part of an encyclopaedia on the medical practice of the ancients. The book’s survival is a testimony to the quality and traditional way books were made before the late nineteenth century.
“These books are still perfectly good. The paper is good; even the leather is good but unfortunately deteriorating and the thread has disintegrated,” she remarks. “Once restored, if they have reasonable care, they should have their whole lives over again.”
The gentleman who has entrusted her with the books has asked her to forsake the antique leather, to rebind them so that they might do just that.
She makes her own books using exactly the same binding methods employed in eighteenth century construction.
Giving credence to that old adage, she says the mechanics of a book are far more important than its outer shell; that a book should not be judged by its cover because the object of the binding is to preserve the text.
Although there are modern variations, pages are usually folded into sections, which are then sewn together with linen thread over cords or tape. Ribbons and headbands are added before the book receives its cover.
Mother Mary John says that despite the benefits of convenience and lower cost, modern books have suffered from declining standards in production.
Contrary to what one might expect from a devoted lover of books, her response to the increasing transience of written communication, particularly through the internet, is far from negative.
“The young people are reading books. You can’t complain,” she laughs while noting that the life span of a well-made book is far greater than that of a compact disc or DVD.
Her enthusiasm for bookbinding, however, is secondary to a desire to live for The Word, and unite herself to Christ. “Like St Paul,” she works to fund her religious mission in the face of rising living costs.
Once a Benedictine Oblate with the Sisters of Perpetual Adoration (Maria Rickenbach), she began a journey of discernment before the Blessed Sacrament that led her to the eventual founding of the Sisters of the Dormition of the Blessed Virgin Mary in 2000.
The community is joined in a “koinonia” or communion with 2000 lay “brothers and sisters” worldwide, who make up the Confraternity of the servants of Jesus in Mary.
Within the confraternity exists the Oblates of the Precious Blood in The Chapter of St John the Baptist – a “school of the Lord’s service”, where oblates actively seek formation in the charism and Benedictine spirituality. They make an oblation, or offering of their whole life in union with Christ’s gift of himself on the Cross to our heavenly Father.
Their apostolate is “the restoration of the Precious Blood to Its rightful place on the Altar”.
Mother Mary John says that this is not about promoting a particular devotion. It is about calling all people to a full, integrated and redeemed existence through the life-giving Blood of Christ; to the Incarnation.
“From conception through to his glorious Rising at Easter, Jesus, Son of God, Son of Mary is always man’s eternal life,” she says.
“The Carpenter of Nazareth, so human, is always the only begotten and beloved son who is the very life of man and not just a life-giver. That is to say, that the life present within us, that we live each day is Jesus’ life – incarnate in man. This is what we celebrate at Christmas.”
For the sisters, this means an ascetical life,  “following a well-trodden path that still retains its freshness and vitality today.”
In a life of prayer and contemplation, her book-binding workload remains steady, due in large part to word of mouth recommendations and repeat custom.
Her love for the craft is obvious when she shows me two books she has made with intricate, tooled leather covers.
“We don’t sell too many of these because they’re not very cost effective. It’s the paper that is expensive,” she remarks.
In light of her stated aim of economic subsistence, I ask her why she would bother to construct them.
She replies with a wry smile: “Because they are so much fun to make and ultimately, there is only one reason for doing anything – it is the will of God for me today.”