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A Volunteer's Tale

Anne catalogued the papers of Fr Francis Devas

Tuesday 5 December is International Volunteer Day, an international observance designated by the United Nations in 1985 that offers an opportunity for volunteer organisations and individual volunteers to make their contributions visible at local, national and international levels. At the British Jesuit Archives, volunteers have given over 700 hours of their time since 2014, to help us with many important tasks such as cataloguing, calendaring volumes of letters, transcribing the early issues of Chaplains’ Weekly, and even with the re-shelving of our library. People choose to volunteer with us for a variety of reasons, some for work experience to see if a career in archives is for them, some to gain experience before applying to an accredited archive course, some because they are interested in the work of the Jesuits and their fascinating records, and some because they simply want to help. We are incredibly grateful to all our volunteers for their hard work and dedication.

This week’s ‘From the Archives’ blog post has been guest-written by one of our current volunteers, Anne Courtney:

In September, I spent 10 days doing work experience in the archives, and since then I have been volunteering for one day a week. For the first 10 days I catalogued the papers of Fr Francis Devas, who was a Jesuit who lived from 1877-1951, which involved describing the documents, organising them intellectually, and repacking them. What struck me most about this task was how the items he left behind gave a rounded impression of the man. He left many sermons, and his prowess at preaching was remarked on in many letters about him after his death. On their own, neither the letters nor the sermons would give the full impression that both together create. There were also other documents which provided a view of the rest of his life, including Christmas cards sent from his parents to each other, letters from his brothers, and letters to and from his role models. There was his life as a military chaplain, included in his recollections of Gallipoli, and as a pastoral priest, evidenced by the letters asking for his help, or thanking him for it, which he received up until he died. On the surface, these papers may not seem particularly striking, but they are small elements which make up the picture of the man, and some of the items are particularly important, especially his account of Gallipoli.

MSB.33 Guiana Mission Letters 1857-1878

My next task was to briefly summarise the letters from Guyana from the nineteenth century Jesuits stationed there. These read like a soap opera, with different authors commenting on each other, or all reacting to the same pieces of news (a new provincial, a theft from the Church, the financial issues) in slightly different ways. One of them was characterised for a few years as a troublemaker, only for another Jesuit to beg the British Provincial to allow him to stay because he was the only one trusted by the Portuguese. The personal elements which come out in the letters give a better sense of life in Guyana and the facts about how many priests there were, and how long they stayed which shows how important it is that they are preserved. This project also involved reading their handwriting, not particularly easy when they had to produce their letters very quickly before the mail left, giving them only a few hours to reply. Interestingly, the letters not in English tended to be written better, perhaps because they required more thought and time.

Clockwise from top left: Fr James Christie with dog; Fr William Fitzmaurice opening a beehive; Fr George Challoner fishing; Fr Robert de Trafford washing his dog, Trixie

Currently I am creating a catalogue of individual Jesuit photographs, which again often shows surprising variety in Jesuit life. Many of the photos are standard portraits, but some of them show rather different pursuits, including bee-keeping, fishing, playing with dogs, experimenting with photography effects, and in fancy dress. Cataloguing them is relatively straightforward where they are labelled correctly, but occasionally there are difficulties where two Jesuits have the same name or almost the same name (such as Frederick Richard Clarke and Richard Clarke) and they have been mislabelled, involving some detective work. I have also found that giving rough estimates of dates is difficult.

Volunteering at the archives is extremely satisfying and varied in its own right, as well as being an excellent way to find out about how an archive works.

If you are interested in any of the items mentioned in this post or in volunteering with us, please contact us:

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