In the fall of 2023, the Archives received a request for information about Chinese Characters painted on Jackson Hall, the main building of Clarks Summit University. The building used to belong to Maryknoll, and was originally known as the Venard Junior Seminary. Since the characters were no longer visible, the next place to look for records was the Maryknoll Archives. What started out as a simple request evolved into a journey of discovery, filled with frustrating dead ends, exciting Eureka moments, and the unraveling of some fascinating history. Join me as I retrace the twists and turns of this journey!

It is important to note this whole process was not a solo effort. This story is being shared with the explicit permission of all researchers involved. Without our combined efforts, this piece of history could have been lost to the ravages of time.

The initial request came from one of the staff at Clarks Summit University, Chenxi Xu, Mentor for Student Development and Assistant Director of Information Services. Chenxi had heard rumors about the Chinese characters on Jackson Hall from students at the University. These rumors were later validated by Dr. Jim Lytle, President of Clarks Summit University, and Ray Voith, a former student of the Venard. However, no recorded evidence existed at Clarks Summit University, so Chenxi turned to the Maryknoll Archives for answers.

Seminarian Music Class, Venard Junior Seminary
Venard Junior Seminary (now Clarks Summit University), 1943

Before we start, let’s set some background for The Venard Junior Seminary and Clarks Summit University. The Venard was Maryknoll’s first Junior Seminary for prospective priests and was established in 1916. It moved to Clarks Summit, Pennsylvania in 1917, a new school building was built in 1919, and the school further expanded in 1929. The Venard operated as a Maryknoll Junior Seminary until 1968, when it was sold to Baptist Bible Seminary. It was renamed Clarks Summit University and the main building was renamed to Jackson Hall. 

Searching For Clues

Let’s start our Journey with Chenxi’s initial request. Rumors in hand, she reached out to the Maryknoll Archives looking for answers. Starting out, we had very little information to work off. All we knew was that the Chinese Characters were on the building at some point, and there were two phrases. Initially I found nothing about the characters, but I was looking for a needle in a haystack. After some back-and forth with Chenxi, we established that the phrases were painted on the building’s North Face (see photo) on both sides of the porch (the grey painted section). We had a starting point, but there was still a long way to go.

After some more digging, we found out that the Chinese Characters were painted in gold on a maroon background. According to Dr. Lytle, the characters had faded significantly over the years and were eventually painted over. We then learned that the Chinese Characters were also on a set of panels. This came from a picture (shown below) shared by Ray Voith, a student of The Venard in the 1960’s. The picture originated from the Chi Rho yearbook from 1964, and shows the panels hung in the Main Rotunda of the building. 
North Face of the Modern Day Jackson Hall, Photographer: Chenxi Xu, 2023
Photo of Juniors in front of the Chinese Character Panels, Chi Rho Yearbook, 1964
The problem we faced was a lack of information. We knew the characters existed, but not when they were painted, why, or by whom. Maryknoll’s Archive had plenty of photos, correspondence, diaries, and meeting minutes, but I had little to go off of. The time investment would have been incredible to go through it all, so I started with the photos. My hope was to find a photo with the characters that I could then date. This was when I happened upon our first Eureka moment.

A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Words

When going through the photos, the primary problem I faced was that hardly any of them showed the North face. With the few I had, the quality was poor enough I could not make out any details. Stumped on the issue, I went to my colleagues in the Archives and they suggested looking at the Glass Negative collection. You can learn more about Glass Negatives in this article, but essentially they offer a sharper, more detailed image than film negatives. 

It was in this collection I found a hidden gem (right), taken around 1929 or 1930 while the South Wing was finishing construction. This was one of the only images I had with a good view of the North Face and the porch. While it is not as apparent in the scan, I could clearly see some white spots where the Chinese characters should have been. I excitedly showed my find to my colleagues, and we put it in on our scanner to get a better look.

Venard Building, C. 1929

Unlike the movies, we cannot just “enhance” an image to see the finer details. The image can only ever be as sharp as its native resolution, but luckily we were working with a glass negative. Since the image is naturally sharper, we were able to scan a select area of the photo at a very high resolution. You can see our scans on the right, and the results are amazing. Not only could we confirm that there was indeed Chinese Characters on the building, we could even make out the shape of the characters!

Zoomed in portion of Glass Negative, North Face
Zoomed in portion of Glass Negative, Chinese Characters
Chinese Characters Panel in the Interior of the Venard Building, Seminarian giving Altar Boys a tour, 1950
This discovery was incredible, but what made it a true Eureka moment was another find. While browsing our print photo collection, I found a photograph (left) showing one of the panels in full. Serendipitously, this panel showed the same sentence that we could see in the glass negative. Between this and Ray Voith’s photo, we had most of the characters we needed for a full translation.

In the moment, this breakthrough was so exciting. We went from virtually no information to definitive proof of the Chinese Characters. I sent along my findings and continued to search through our records for more information. After a few hours of research I found… nothing. Frustration! With so much left to go through and no more leads, we had to reevaluate the time investment of the research. After speaking with Chenxi, we decided that the University’s Library Team should pay a visit to Maryknoll.

Visit To Maryknoll

With so much territory to cover, I needed help with continuing the research. Luckily Chenxi and her colleagues at Clarks Summit University were willing to help. With the photos in the last section, we knew that the characters were on the building by 1929. The North Wing was completed in 1920, so the time span for our search was between 1920 and 1929. We had about a decade worth of diary entries, magazine articles, correspondence, and photos to look through. Alone, it would have been quite the challenge, but with help it was doable.

The Clarks Summit Team made their trip in early November. The team split up to cover different types of records. Within a few hours we had our next Eureka moment, with a single diary entry from April 16th, 1928. You can read the full entry on the right, but the most interesting detail is that the panels came first. Now our goal was to find more information about the panels and when the characters were painted.

Low Sunday, April 16th. Temperature down to 20 degrees tonight – Peter Leung Hingkee’s Chinese panels arrived Yesterday “T’in Man Sin Kok; Chue To Tziat Cheun”. Heaven’s People First Perceive, Lord’s Doctrine Penetrates, Spreads; or “God’s People’s doctrine; First Acquired; Understood, Propagated”. It all depends upon the degree of poetry in the translator and whether you read across or first one and then the other. They are handsome and impressive, and we are grateful to Peter for his gift and to Fathers Downs and Borer for their good offices. One of the panels top molding was broken in transit. After mending, we shall hang them in the chapel, as they are too precious for outdoors. The inscriptions will be copied in paint on the North Wall of the college.

The Venard Diaries, April 1928

Photo of the Venard Chapel featuring both Chinese Panels in full, 1943
As the research visit continued, one of the Clarks Summit Team found a few photos of both panels hung in the chapel. I had missed the photos in my initial search, but luckily with an extra set of hands we had found them. The team selected the best one to be scanned (left), and with it Chenxi could do a full translation of the couplet. Unfortunately despite our amazing findings, some details still eluded us. While we had the benefactor’s name, we did not know where the panels came from, or when the characters were painted. With the visit coming to a close, I promised to renew my research and look for the final few details. 

The Last Few Details

With the research visit over, both teams split to finish our respective tasks. Chenxi began working on a translation and cultural analysis of the couplet. I started the final stretch of research into the origin of the panels and its transfer onto the building. For my part, I began to dive into the administrative records with a clear date in mind. Yet again I came up empty handed, and it was quite confusing. The panels came from somewhere, but there were no records discussing them.

I returned to the diary entry found during the visit and studied it for clues. In the entry I noticed the names of two fathers: Fr. Downs and Fr. Borer. After looking into the names, I figured out they were Fr. William J. Downs and Fr. Wilbur J. Borer. Both of these Fathers were working as the Hong Kong Procure in the late 1920’s, when the panels would have been made. The Procure was in charge of getting goods in and out of a region, which means the panels most likely came from Hong Kong.

Portrait of Fr. William J. Downs
Portrait of Fr. Wilbur J. Borer, 1934
Looking into the Hong Kong Regional Records, I found several pieces of correspondence referring to a set of Chinese panels for the Venard. Another Eureka! It seems the initial panels were the idea of Fr. James A. Walsh, co-founder of Maryknoll and Superior General. He intended the panels to be hung on the North Face Porch as a reminder of Maryknoll’s mission to China. The initial drawings came from a Nicholas Tsu from Shanghai, which were sent to Fr. Downs in Hong Kong. 

Originally Br. Albert Staubli (builder of many structures at Maryknoll and abroad) was going to create the panels, but then Peter Leung Hing-kee offered to sponsor their construction. Mr. Leung Hing-kee was a native of Hong Kong, owner of several hotels, and a devout Catholic. He arranged for the creation and shipping of the panels as a way to thank Maryknoll for its service to Hong Kong. Construction of the panels finished in November 1927, with Fr. Borer noting they “were a fine piece of work.” The panels shipped in late 1927 and arrived at the Venard on April 15th, 1928. Their construction was so well done that the panels were deemed for inside use only, with replicas being painted on its intended home.

This is sadly the end of the panel’s history. I could not find any information about when the painting was done or where the panels currently reside. While incomplete, our findings had far exceeded our initial expectations. When the request first came in, I only expected to find a quick mention in a random letter. Instead we uncovered an amazing story going all the way back to Hong Kong.

Translating the Panels

With my end of the research finished, the last remaining piece was Chenxi’s translation of the Chinese Characters. Luckily I did not have to wait long for a full write up on the panels, their meaning, and how they work as a couplet. Chenxi’s write-up was incredibly informative and I cannot better describe her work. With her permission I am going to reproduce the write-up below. I hope you enjoy her insights.
Kongmoon Pro-Cathedral Side Altar featuring Chinese couplet

The sentences on the panels are a couplet. In China, a couplet consists of two poetic sentences of four to seven characters each. The first sentence of the couplet is the one on the right, and the second is on the left. The two sentences relate to each other in meaning, grammar, and tones. Sometimes the two lines of poetry rhyme. The content of the poetry is usually Chinese proverbs and positive thoughts. Each character in the same position in each sentence usually matches grammatically.

In China, a couplet is usually written in black ink with Chinese brush on red paper. Common places to hang a couplet include on both sides of an outside door and in the main hall of a house. The Field Afar has documented some photos of couplets at Maryknoll missions in China. For example, the Wuchow mission had a couplet on the two sides of its front door[1]. The altar in Bishop Walsh’s Kongmoon pro-cathedral had a couplet is on its two sides[2].

On the Venard panels, each of the two sentences of the couplet has four Chinese characters. Each Chinese character in its position along with translations and romanizations are below. The Maryknoll romanization is based on Cantonese and the Pinyin romanization is based on Mandarin.

[1] October 1929, Volume 23 Issue 11, p. 276.
[2] March 1931, Volume 25 Issue 3, p. 79.

Chenxi Xu
Mentor for Student Development and Assistant Director of Information Services, Clarks Summit University

Chenxi Xu's translation of both Panels

Two details stand out. First, when putting together the first character in each sentence, the words become 天主, the Chinese Catholic term for the Lord.

Second, the first sentence, 天民先觉, is exceptional because it is a pun. It originates from writings by Mencius (391-308 B.C.E.) and is being applied to a Christian setting. In Mencius: Wan Zhang I, Mencius explains that Heaven plans for people who first comprehend the principles of Yao and Shun to teach others the same principles. In ancient China, Heaven is commonly understood as a deity. Yao and Shun are two legendary emperors of great virtues. Mencius records that an honorable farmer, Yi Yin claims: “Heaven’s plan in the production of mankind is this: that they who are first informed should instruct those who are later in being informed, and they who first apprehend principles should instruct those who are slower to do so. I am one of Heaven’s people who have first apprehended; I will take these principles and instruct this people in them. If I do not instruct them, who will do so?”[1] Though Mencius is not referring to Christianity, the passage reminds Christians of Rom 10:14-15, “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’ ”[2]

[1] Translated by James Legge, retrieved from
[2] English Standard Version

Chenxi Xu
Mentor for Student Development and Assistant Director of Information Services, Clarks Summit University

The Power of Collaboration

This brings us to the end of the story. Thank you for joining me in one of the most fascinating requests I have dealt with as an archivist. It is incredible how a single question about a rumor can spiral into a deep dive of shared history. I would like to once again thank Chenxi Xu, Mentor for Student Development and Assistant Director of Information Services, for starting off this journey with your initial request. I would also like to thank the rest of the Clarks Summit University Team that assisted in this research. Our efforts show how powerful collaboration can be in uncovering stories hidden in the archives.
Chenxi Xu, Mentor for Student Development and Assistant Director of Information Services, her husband Ning Zhang, Trevor Polasek, Archivist, Sharon Gardoski, Library Director, and her husband Dr. Ken Gardoski, Photograph courtesy of Chenxi Xu