Sometimes the Rev. Francis McGarrigle would just buy up an entire store. He'd walk right into an old bookshop in Germany or Austria and ask the owner how much he wanted for all of it, every title, every page. Other times he'd seek out particular volumes, such as the "Missale Romanum" prayer book that dates to 1484, just a few decades after printing itself was invented.

It was the early 1930s, and the $10,000 with which McGarrigle had been entrusted carried both tremendous buying power and the dreams of his religious order back in Spokane. He understood; he was one of them, one of the Jesuits, for whom the embrace of learning was the embrace of God.

And when McGarrigle's work was done, when all the Jesuits' money was gone, he had assembled a collection of thousands of titles. He sent back books on theology and philosophy and language, books in Latin and Greek and French, books that must have seemed as permanent, as inviolable, as the Jesuits themselves. In the end, neither of those suppositions would prove true.

Like many religious orders, the Jesuits have watched their numbers and their influence diminish. And the books McGarrigle lovingly bought -- the 1608 commentary on Virgil by Juan de la Cerda; the 1555 edition of the works of Martin Luther; the 1862 volume of poems on modern love; the books with leather covers, with sturdy spines, with bindings bulging horizontally like vertebrae -- have been locked up, unread, uncatalogued and sagging for years. In fact, as Jesuit scholars have aged and died, the vast majority of the collection, shoved away in a vault on the third floor of the Gonzaga University library, has fallen into virtual obscurity.

"I'm perhaps one of the last ones who knows the collection," said the Rev. Fredric Schlatter, a professor emeritus of classical languages at Gonzaga and the collection's unofficial keeper for decades. "I've been very distressed that it hasn't been catalogued. It's pathetic. It's a disgrace."

The books McGarrigle sent back stocked the library at Mount St. Michael's, a Jesuit training school in Spokane. The noted scholar Etienne Gilson visited the school in the 1940s and was stunned by the philosophy collection. Were he to again study medieval literature, he is said to have remarked, he would have chosen Mount St. Michael's over any school in the world.

The books were a testament to the academic heritage of the Jesuits' Oregon Province, which includes Washington, Oregon, Alaska, Montana and Idaho. But by 1970, the order had begun to dwindle, so the Jesuits moved the collection to the Crosby Library at Gonzaga, a Jesuit institution that was already housing books from another of the order's schools. The two collections were combined into a single set of 2,500 titles and 3,700 volumes -- which sat for the next 20 years, uncatalogued and used less and less. Only the older priests knew where to find a book in the collection.

But even that limited access proved enviable when the university, which bought the collection in the mid-'80s, moved it to the new Foley Center Library in 1992.

Without regard to subject, author or title, the books were loaded onto metal shelves in the locked vault. Large volumes were placed next to small, causing many of the centuries-old books to sag and warp. Even the longtime priests at the Jesuit university no longer knew what books could be found where, never mind academics across the world who could have used them for research, as they can easily do with rare books at many other universities.

Gonzaga special-collections librarian Stephanie Plowman recalls the time a priest asked her to locate a book he regularly used when it was kept at the previous library. No one had any idea where to find it. "He knew what it looked like," Plowman says, "so we were searching all over for this one red book."

To this day almost nothing has changed. The books were finally put in order this year, after Plowman secured a grant, so the library at least knows where to find specific volumes. And she dreams of getting the collection catalogued and listed on the Online Computer Library Center, which links 41,000 libraries in 82 countries and territories. That would allow researchers anywhere in the world to know exactly what books are available in the collection. "What's important to a librarian is access," Plowman said. "Why have the books if people can't use them? I don't want to be the only one that can enjoy them."

But because of a confluence of circumstances as unique as the collection itself, the library still doesn't know exactly what books it has, nor has there been any movement toward getting the collection catalogued, leaving it essentially invisible to the rest of the world.

Schlatter, the Jesuit professor, remembers when 20 young men would begin their priesthood training each year in Sheridan, Ore., and when 120 students filled Mount St. Michael's at any given time, doing their advanced work in philosophy and science. Both of those schools are closed now, and the Oregon Province found reason to rejoice this fall when just four scholastics began training in Portland. Schlatter also remembers the 1970s, when the majority of Gonzaga's instructors were Jesuits. Today, the university has 282 lay professors and 34 Jesuit instructors.

Getting the collection catalogued would take a Latin-trained librarian an entire year, Plowman said. And that would cost at least $40,000 -- probably more because of the language skills the project would require. She would also like to get money to rebind and repair some of the damaged books. She has already installed 250 bookends to better support the volumes on the shelves.

But it's unlikely Gonzaga is going to invest in the books in the near future. The school just doesn't have the money, said dean of libraries Eileen Bell-Garrison. "Our staff has been streamlined," she says. "It just really has not risen to the radar screen." Not only that, she adds, the library doesn't even have the resources to apply for grants from agencies like the National Endowment for the Humanities that might fund an effort to get the collection catalogued. Books in active circulation have to take priority, she said

Schlatter knows that. He knows there's not much use for the old books anymore, not when most people can't even read them. But he knows something else: that Gonzaga was founded by a Jesuit, is named for a Jesuit and is owned by the Jesuits.

The order's training and emphasis may have changed, he said, but the university owes its existence to the type of people who believed that great books, erudition itself, were worth $10,000 even during the Great Depression. He said Gonzaga must honor that legacy.

"I'm 76 now," he said. "There is a certain pathos in which you ask yourself, 'Is there going to be anyone else to carry this on?' I'm the only one left who knows what's there. But when I'm gone, unless they get them catalogued . . ."