In February of 2020, author Rick Geffken visited MCHA’s research library. In exploring a collection that had been donated in 1933 by the descendant of Mexican-American War soldier James Wall Schureman, Geffken came across an unusual book. The book was from 1715, beautifully handwritten in Spanish and illustrated in vibrant colors, looking as though it had been applied only recently. The first page began, "En El Nombre de Dios..." (in the name of God).
Rick questioned the provenance of the book, as the interior leaf said it was from “the family of James Wall Schureman Campbell / nephew of James Wall Schureman, First Lieutenant, U.S. Army, serving with General Winfield S. Scott in the war against Mexico / This book taken from a palace in the city of Mexico.”
“This book was stolen from Mexico,” Rick said. "It doesn’t belong here. We should return it.”
As the research librarian and archivist, and unfortunately having a shameful illiteracy in Spanish despite three years of Spanish classes in high school, I brought the book next door to Freehold High School to have their more proficient Spanish teachers take a look. Lydia Valero and Camila Fernandez-Cohen graciously took time to review the 400-year old book, which was unexpectedly difficult to read due to the form of old Spanish in which it had been written. They were able to decipher enough to give me a starting point to research - the Marques de la Villapuente and his dedication to education - which opened many doors.
Jose de la Puente, who would come to be known as the Marques de la Villapuente, was born in Spain in the mid-17th century. He crossed the Atlantic to Mexico at age 15 where he eventually entered into the Mexican army. He rose up through the ranks due to his great tactical aptitude against the Dutch and English naval advances on Spanish territories, and was particularly noted for his defense of Mexico City, which endeared him to the Spanish king, Carlos II. As a result, he was knighted in 1696, and became ordinary Mayor of Mexico City in 1700. Already quite wealthy, the Marques funded a water tank for the city with 2,000 pesos of his own money. A true soldier at heart and innately dedicated to his country, Villapuente refused the growing political power offered to him by the king; instead, wealth was lavishly bestowed upon him in gratitude for his contributions to the protection of Spanish interests. Villapuente, a devout Catholic and supporter of the Society of Jesus, used this vast wealth to create Jesuit colleges all over the world, on every continent.
The book in MCHA’s possession was an early set of guidelines for the dedication of one such college in Spain. It spelled out the precise usage of 10,000 pesos - a great sum - and who would be eligible for the opportunity to be educated in the resulting college. It also detailed the courses to be taught, including math, science, and of course, religion.
Geffken brought the repatriation request to Director of Collections, Bernadette Rogoff, and Executive Director, Meg Sharp Walton, who agreed instantly that it should be returned to Mexico. It was March by the time the research had been done and the proposal made, just before the onset of the pandemic. Many attempts were made to contact someone who could connect us with the right person, but the world had already shut down, unconcerned with anything other than the looming Coronavirus. Fast forward nearly two years later, a local charity event brought Geffken into the company of the executive director of the Mexican Cultural Institute in New York, Miguel Gleason. Geffken explained the story of the book, and Gleason was thrilled to make the trip to Freehold to collect the item.
A delightful surprise came a couple of months later in the form of an invitation to lunch at the Mexican Residence with Consul General of Mexico in New York, Jorge Islas Lopez, and Miguel Gleason. We were met with true warmth, and made to feel instantly welcome and comfortable. The residence was magnificent, full of light and beautifully decorated with colorful artwork, and we were treated to a tour of the Consul General’s personal library. He was particularly proud of the celebratory edition he published for the 500th anniversary of his favorite novel, Machiavelli’s The Prince, and explained the depth and importance of the work. After listening to his analysis and personal admiration for the book, it immediately moved to the top of my “must read” list. At the conclusion of a delicious meal and wonderful conversation, Rick and I left knowing we had just had the experience of a lifetime.
Villapuente’s 18th century book is not only an incredible piece of Mexican history, but world history as well. Though its particular interest to the Protestant Schureman will likely remain a mystery, MCHA was proud to have been its steward for 90 years, though more proud to have been a part of its incredible story and safe return back to its home in the highest archives of Mexico. Many grateful thanks to Rick Geffken, Miguel Gleason, and Consul General Jorge Islas Lopez for their help in this process.