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  • Writer's pictureRebecca Somerset

A visit to assess the Jesuit Guyana Archives

Corrugated fence with palm tree and building behind and clear blue sky
View from office in Guyana

Since 1857 Guyana had been part of the British Province of the Society of Jesus, but on 31st August 2023 it joined a newly established Jesuit Caribbean Province. In order to assess the Jesuit Guyana Archives to determine the condition of and to understand what archival material is currently held in Guyana, I, Rebecca Somerset, British Jesuit Archivist, visited Arrupe House in Georgetown to assess their archives from 24th to 31st July 2023.

This was my first visit to Guyana, and indeed South America. It was an unexpected opportunity for international travel, though needing to get several vaccinations prior to the trip was less fun! Luckily 2023 saw the introduction of a biweekly direct flight from Gatwick to Georgetown, so an 11.5 hour flight was all that stood in my way. Once flights had been booked, the next hurdle was knowing what to pack!

Video showing what was packed

Oliver Rafferty, a Jesuit historian, was a visitor to the British Jesuit Archives throughout June, and having conducted research in the Jesuit Guyana Archives was able to provide some advice on what to expect. Given the forewarning of the conditions, I was not hugely surprised by what I discovered. The first impression of the archives was that the storage room was cluttered with a variety of mostly unsuitable packaging and a thick layer of dust on all visible surfaces. Less happily, I also was greeted by a dead cockroach on one of the open shelves. It was very warm and humid in the room, but this was all as expected. There was however more material than first anticipated and thankfully less unsalvageable records than I had steeled myself for.

From left to right: archives storage room on arrival; cleaning insect damage cover; damaged records

Insect traps and an environmental logger were set up on day one. The traps did not catch anything significant during my duration which I was relieved by, though there was certainly plenty of evidence of historic insect damage seen in the collection. I was appreciative of the fact that I was allocated two out of the five rooms in the house with air conditioning! This was a blessing as temperatures were in the high 20°C to low 30°C.

I spent a rather hot and dirty week sorting through the various piles of papers, assessing their archival value and as far as possible repackaged some of the collection into acid free folders and envelopes, wrapping some of the larger volumes in Tyvek [a non-woven material that is inert and PH neutral and is breathable, waterproof and dustproof]. In hindsight, another suitcase filled with archival packaging supplies would have been extremely helpful as I ran out of acid-free folders before the end of my visit. Due to the thick layer of dust, the museum vac (there are no hoovers in Arrupe House!) would have also been useful to pack in.

I attempted to look through as much of the collection as possible, but in the end, there was insufficient time to do so given there was more than expected. There was no pre-existing listing, and I was warned that no order had been maintained. Given this I decided to concentrate on the seemingly more unknown and more at-risk looser bundles and left the more organised filing cabinets to last.

Open shelving with neat stacks of mostly manila coloured folders
Some of the sorted material by end of visit

As far as possible I grouped record series [e.g. personal papers of various individual Jesuits] together as they had been spread out across the storage room. This should make it easier to keep track and identify material and might encourage people to put things back in the right place. However, more work on this would be needed. With the agreement of Paul Martin SJ, the local Superior, duplicate items, items of non-archival value and no longer wanted, and items found to be damaged beyond possible repair were bagged up and disposed of. As there was no shredder, the old financial documents no longer required nor of archival value were burnt.

In my opinion, most of the records seen were the personal papers of British Jesuits who had served on the mission in Guyana. In comparison to personal papers, I came across little to do with individual communities in Guyana or indeed regional administrative documents. It may be that more of this material was retained (still kept or lost) locally or that such information is in the filing cabinets for which I ran out of time to assess, and/or that less priority was given to record keeping by Jesuits already overstretched by their day-to-day work. There were also a significant number of sacramental registers, though it was suggested that ideally these should be transferred to the Georgetown Diocesan Archives.

It was extremely useful for me to be able to discuss what I was discovering in the collections with Paul Martin SJ, as he has been in Guyana for over 30 years and could provide clarifications and context. For example, I noticed that there were a lot of photographs and Paul shared that historically the priests in the interior of Guyana would also be the photographer when performing weddings. It would be usual for him to return, sometimes even up to a year later, with the processed photographs to give to the happy couple as he made his way around the large area to which he was appointed. On some occasions, the priest would also supply the wedding dress and rings. It would be wonderful if such information is documented specifically in a document, but I suspect not as I certainly did not see anything. This is why conversations with, and indeed recording oral histories with, those who experienced the daily life of Jesuits in Guyana, is important. I recorded an oral history interview with Paul Martin SJ and although this focused more on his personal life journey to date, given the length of his service in Guyana it naturally also encompassed discussion on the role of Jesuits in Guyana.

Due to current external research interest in the linguistic material already held in the British Jesuit Archives, mostly among Fr Cuthbert Cary-Elwes SJ’s personal papers it was particularly interesting to see that there are more such linguistic records created by Jesuits stored in the archives in Guyana. It was also surprising to see a copy of Cary-Elwes’ autobiography but with differing annotations to those in the set held in the British Jesuit Archives. It would be fascinating to be able to compare these volumes side by side. At the time, the discovery of these records excited me the most, but as I have learnt more about Jesuit Guyana history I am becoming increasingly interested in the Catholic Standard, a newspaper founded by the Jesuits in 1905 and the only independent newspaper in Guyana during the turbulent period of President Burnham’s rule playing a role in the Guyanese struggle for democracy, as well as in the material contained in the personal papers of both Frs Bernard Darke SJ (1925-1979) and Malcolm Rodrigues SJ (1941-2022). Undoubtedly as the collection is further studied, other records of interest will be discovered.

Castellani House which now houses the National Art Gallery

Although I was mostly preoccupied with sorting the archives, I did manage to see a little of Georgetown too, with a walk around the nearby botanical gardens providing much needed relief from the dust and dirt. In particular it was interesting to see the Maltese Jesuit Castellani's contribution to the local architecture and the cathedral and churches associated with the Jesuits. The former Deputy Editor of the Catholic Standard also kindly invited me to crash her girls day out with her daughter, and they took me to try local pastries of salara (a red coconut roll) and pine tart (pastry filled with pineapple) followed by a tour of some of the sights in Georgetown.

My hope is that with our recommendations the storage conditions of the Jesuit Guyana Archives can be improved so that their long-term preservation is assured and that access to this remarkable collection can be facilitated, whether in person or remotely through the digitisation of the material and put online. Although for personal reasons I'm not in a great rush to travel back out to Guyana, I am itching to get stuck back in and to continue discovering what is held in this rich collection.

Discussions about the Jesuit Guyana Archives are in progress so watch this space for more information of this fascinating historical collection! In the meantime the catalogue description for the Guyana material held in the British Jesuit Archives can be searched online.

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