It may seem odd that the world’s largest collection of rosaries is housed in a public museum in one of the nation’s least-churched regions.
A closer look, however, shows that the Don Brown Rosary Collection is at the heart of what has made Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center Museum in Stevenson, Wash., what it is today.
Designated by Ripley’s Believe It or Not in August of 1973 as the world’s largest collection of its kind, the Brown exhibit represents the life’s work of the late Donald Brown of North Bonneville, Wash., a founder of the Skamania County Historical Society.
Amidst an impressive display of archeological and cultural artifacts spanning 15,000 years of history, the collection of nearly 4,000 rosaries from around the world is displayed in glass panels along with other religious artifacts identified with the Pacific Northwest.
"Visitors of many faiths have called it ‘a priceless jewel box,’" museum director Sharon Tiffany said. What gives the collection its jewel-like charm is the fact that the rosary beads are made of a variety of materials, including glass, ivory, wood, bone and precious metals.
Brown was born on April 27, 1895, in Tualatin, Ore., and died in a traffic accident in Eugene, Ore., on Dec. 14, 1975, at the age of 80. He is known for his dedication to preserving the history of Skamania County. In 1926, he and his father were instrumental in founding the Skamania County Historical Society. He wanted the area’s history to be preserved in a museum.
Brown’s goal was achieved in 1973, when he donated his rosary collection to Skamania County — with the requirement that it be displayed for the public, creating the need and justification for a museum. The rosary collection thus served as a catalyst for a county museum and, ultimately, the Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center.
During the process of deeding Brown’s collection to the people of Skamania County, the issue of church-state separation was discussed. It was resolved, in that the collection is not used as a place of worship, but as an art display with universal appeal; noted was the fact that similar prayer beads are employed as an aid to pious meditation by nearly three-quarters of the human race, including Buddhists, Muslims and other religious groups. Plus, this collection represents the life of one of the historical society’s founders.
In an article in The Skamania County Pioneer prior to his death, Brown wrote: "Perhaps the common question asked by visitors to my rosary chapel in North Bonneville is how I ever happened to originate such an unusual collection.
"Its beginning was in 1917, when I was living in The Dalles, Ore., but my interest in this beautiful devotion came about years before during a confinement in the Mercy Hospital in North Bend, Ore., with a severe attack of pneumonia.
"It was here that I saw the rosary being worn on the habits of the Sisters of Mercy. While my love for sacred art seems to have been born with me, the rosary has always held a special fascination for me. I consider my former years of illness a special blessing, since the rosary was the beginning of the faith of my adoption."
Brown became Catholic in 1929. He was baptized at St. Thomas Catholic Church in Camas, Wash. He became a third-order Dominican and chose the name Dominic, after his patron saint. "I began my collection out of curiosity, which grew into a deep devotion," he said.
While building his collection, Brown corresponded with rosary enthusiasts throughout the world. He overcame the language barriers by seeking the assistance of friends who could translate his letters.
As his collection became widely known, many rare and beautiful rosaries arrived at his home. He established a numbering system and meticulously maintained a catalogue. He noted the donor, place of origin, type of material used and the description of the church, shrine or historical incident with which each rosary was identified.
Although the rosaries in his collection are from all over the world, Brown did very little traveling. He spent a great deal of time at The Grotto in Portland, Ore., and made a pilgrimage to Mexico City once in 1961, returning with new rosaries.
Brown built the rosary collection over more than six decades, on top of managing a family-owned property and writing a column for the local weekly newspaper about the history of the area. He never married.
Ordinary people donated most of the rosaries. He called these "friendship tokens."
There are a few with historical significance, such as those blessed by St. Pio of Pietrelcina and Blessed John Paul II and one made out of bone by Sister Lucia of Fatima.
There’s also one from Father Edward Flanagan of Boys Town. Father Flanagan’s signature is inscribed on the back of the crucifix. There are also rosaries from Lawrence Welk, of early TV fame, and Al Smith, the first Catholic to run for president in 1928. There’s also one donated in memory of Robert Kennedy, who had left it in a small church in Bavaria. And a wooden-bead rosary was donated by Sen. John F. Kennedy’s campaign in 1960 per Brown’s written request — it was the only one he requested. Al Bugg, Kennedy’s campaign manager, said the future president had used it for prayer during World War II. In 1995, the museum received one from Lou Holtz, the former football coach at the University of Notre Dame.
Brown’s personal favorite is also the largest in the collection — 16-feet long, it’s made of out Styrofoam balls. Students in Malden, Mass., made it for a school play. Brown always cherished it because it was made by children.
The collection continued to grow, at Brown’s request, following his death. The exhibit cases are now full, and the museum can no longer accept rosaries or other religious artifacts due to lack of space. Donated funds, however, are encouraged for the maintenance of the collection and the museum. The collection certainly needs more space. Some of the glass cases are too cramped, which makes it difficult to more fully appreciate the beauty and uniqueness of each rosary. I hope that the museum will find a way to make a bit more space for the collection, considering that it’s very much at the heart of how the museum came to be.
I was touched by Brown’s faith and devotion, as well as the devotion of all those who contributed to the collection. People have remarked that the collection represents to them a seemingly infinite collection of prayers.
Jo Garcia-Cobb writes from Mount Angel, Oregon.