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  • Writer's pictureMary Allen

Cary-Elwes' photograph collection

Updated: Feb 21, 2023

Sepia photo showing a white man with beard in dark suit sitting on ground with almost fully naked children all around him some sat next to either side and some stood behind him in rows. All in front of a thatched hut.
Fr Cary-Elwes and group of native children

“My first impression of Fr Cary-Elwes was a vivid one”, wrote a friend of his, “but, oddly enough as it now seems to me, it was one of disappointment. He came into the room where I was sitting, and I looked up, expecting to see a figure of rugged and compelling charm (I had heard much of his wonderful missionary work and journeying), a sort of modern version of St Francis Xavier ... I saw a little white-faced man, with unbrushed , untidy clothes and rumpled up-ended hair.” (Our Dead 1939-1945, p404)

When Cuthbert Cary-Elwes SJ (1867-1945) went to Downside at the age of twelve, he had already made up his mind to follow his uncle, the pioneer missionary of the Zambezi, Fr Augustus Law SJ (1833-1880), to the foreign missions. He had realised his calling to the Society of Jesus at just nine years old.

Driven by his desire to preach to those who knew nothing of Jesus Christ and where there was a real chance of martyrdom, he begged to be sent to China, India, Africa, or wherever else the General, Fr Martin, saw fit. In 1904, after a year of parish work at Wimbledon, he was sent to British Guyana where he trained an all male-voice choir, among other achievements. From the capital, Georgetown, he went on to Morawhanna on the River Bartica close to the Venezuelan border, where he was stationed from August 1907 to November 1909. With three out-stations attached to the mission, he was constantly on the move, visiting old centres and trying to establish new ones among people who had rarely seen a priest. On 19 November 1909 Cary-Elwes was moved from Morawhanna to open up new missions for the Indians of the interior. For thirteen years he journeyed, baptised and did heavy manual work in the building of mission houses and churches. His mission field extended from the River Ireng among the Patamonia Indians to the River Rupununi among the Wapishanas, a distance of 280 miles, which he nearly always traversed on foot. He became affectionately known by the people as ‘Little Padre’.

Cary-Elwes took about 160 photographs during his time in South America, largely of local scenes and people, which he meticullously labelled. Three of these photographs are displayed here.

Between 1934 when he moved to the Jesuit residence at Mount Street, London, and his death in 1945, he worked on his unpublished autobiography, Amazon Valley (ref. SJ/1/1/2), in which his drawings and photographs were intended to be displayed.


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