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Summer Travel

By Kayla Harris, Librarian/Archivist

It is officially summer and a time when many are finalizing their upcoming vacation and travel plans. For those staying home this season, it is still possible to visit historic architecture and museums throughout Europe in the diary of Ms. Mary Elizabeth Williams. The diary, now part of the Marian Library archives, covers two years of travel from 1930-1932 with musings and commentary on the locations Williams visited while traveling alone.

Although not much is known about her background, some details do emerge within her writing and she includes several photographs of herself posing at various sites along her travels. She began her journey while only 22 years old, and when she departs on August 24th 1930, she writes, “I left London at 11:15, and said goodbye to Mummie, also to Elsbeth who had come to the station. Well, the blue train which I took at Calais [France] is splendid. I waked to see a vision of mountains and a broad expanse of clear water shimmering in the early sun.”

She spends a considerable amount of her time in Germany, and visits several sites where she reflects upon the beauty of Marian artwork. Ms. Williams was fluent in German, often seamlessly switching from English in her diary to write “auf Deutsch.”

Berlin, Germany

While in Berlin, Williams writes, “today I went to see the German and Netherlandish parts of the Kaiser Friedrich Museum. I felt foolishly dispirited on my arrival at the Museum, and gazed on the carved figures of our Lady and her Saints at first with lackluster eye. Gradually I forgot myself as I looked into the wondrous pictures of Van Eyck, Memlinc, Durer and Baldung. I saw only the poignant expressions of the faces, the soft ripples of our Lady’s hair and the rich depths of coloring, and piece [sic] came upon me, and joy most exquisite.”

Her description of this museum visit is made even more interesting by knowing the fate of that location. Only a few years later during World War II, museums throughout Germany evacuated some of the nation’s most valuable and precious artwork to antiaircraft towers, known as Flaktürme, in an effort to protect them from bombing and destruction. However, on May 6, 1945, fire broke out in the Friedrichshain tower that held items from the Kaiser Friedrich Museum (later renamed the Bode Museum in 1956). The Flakturm Friendrichshain fire is considered one of the worst art disasters in history with more than 400 paintings, and 300 sculptures lost from the flames or looting in the aftermath.

Lübeck, Germany

Later in 1931, Ms. Williams spends some time in Lübeck, Germany, including a postcard of the Darssow Madonna sculpture in St. Mary’s Church (Marienkirche) in her diary. Lübeck was one of the first German cities to be heavily bombed by the Royal Air Force, and St. Mary’s Church was hit along with other historic structures. According to a description at the Harvard Art Museum for a replica of the Darssow Madonna statue, the original was destroyed in World War II. Although the church and town of Lübeck has been restored, the bells that fell from the towers of the Marienkirche were left in their exact location, partially melted into the floor from fire, as a memorial and reminder.

Williams also visited and wrote about the Holy Spirit Hospital (Heiligen Geist Hospital) in Lübeck. She writes that in the hospital are “three beautiful altars, carved out of one block of wood are Madonna and virgins with curling hair gilded, saints and kings in robes of wonderful colors.”

The Heiligen Geist Hospital is one of the oldest social institutions in the world, providing care for the elderly and the infirm since it’s creation in the 13th century. Today visitors can tour the historic location and part of the building is still a dedicated retirement and nursing home. At Christmas the hospital attracts visitors to the Christmas market (Weihnachtsmarkt) featuring artisans and vendors from around the world.

Learn More

There is still a lot more to explore in the diary of Ms. Mary Elizabeth Williams and researchers are welcome to travel through these pages this summer. Contact to set up an appointment to view this exciting new addition the Marian Library collection.


Frommer’s. “Holy Spirit Hospital.”

Harvard Art Museum. “Replica of the Darssow Madonna, Lübeck (1420).”

National Gallery of Art. “Beauty, Fire & Memory: Lost Art of the Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum.”

Visit Berlin. “Marienkirche.”

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