On May 9th 1915 Fr William Feran composed the first edition of The Chaplains’ Weekly; a newsletter whose purpose he explained in the foreword was to maintain communication with British Jesuit Chaplains serving in WWI. He wrote:
As Fr. Provincial finds it impossible to send lengthy letters to the individual chaplains, he has asked me to chromograph, week by week, items of news that may interest them and send a copy to each. This I propose doing each Sunday. The communication will not be, in any sense, official; and its length will depend on the amount of matter available. Parlour politics, as well as Racing and Betting news, will be excluded.
The aesthetic beauty of Fr Feran’s fountain pen script is, however, gradually fading as the blue pigment of the ink degenerates on the page. Steps are being taken in the Province Archives, however, to ensure that the diverse and fascinating content of Fr Feran’s letters, are being preserved. As the original letters were tightly bound into a single volume, the option of scanning or photographing them without causing further damage is problematic. The careful transcription of the letters which is currently being undertaken by a volunteer working alongside the resident archivists is not only preserving this unique archive material but also producing a new and digital resource for students of research.
Studying the graphology of Fr Feran’s handwriting reveals a style which is seldom seen in today’s world of electronic mail; but stylistic patterns and details of ligature, become more familiar with the practice of re-reading the letters. An accurate transcription of the ecclesiastical terminology, traditionally Latin or Greek in origin, and frequently abbreviated, will maintain a clear and precise record of Fr Feran’s particular expression and tone.
Distributed via the services of the G.P.O to Chaplains in Field Ambulance Stations, Infantry Bases, and the General Headquarters of the Navy and Military, The Chaplains’ Weekly evidences the range of information which Fr Feran was able to share amongst the Chaplains serving in the British Expeditionary Forces. The names of the Chaplains and ‘Old Boys’ of Stonyhurst, Beaumont and Wimbledon College, whose dedication, selflessness and tragic deaths are recorded in letters No.1 to No.5, makes reading and transcribing The Chaplains’ Weekly both a moving and deeply significant task.
Fr Feran’s descriptions of life on the home front; of Sodalists’ retreats, noviceships, ordinations and the anointing of Bishops, stands in contrast to the anecdotal stories of how Chaplains carried out their duties in the field of war. One such story describes how a young soldier’s desire for the sacrament of Baptism before he went to fight at the front, was taken care of by Fr Michael King; on May 23rd 1915 in letter No. 3 Fr Feran wrote:
A soldier saluted Fr. M. King in the station at you know where, and remarked “Not baptized, Sir”. This was soon rectified. “Ritual hid her face”, as was once remarked of a certain conditional baptism; a comrade’s water bottle was borrowed, & there and then, with the soldiers anxious to give any assistance they could, the neophyte of 19 was baptized.
The coded language “you know where” denotes the censorship of Fr Feran’s communications, and the “certain conditional baptism” is a direct reference to the baptism of Cardinal Newman, at Littlemore.
The Province Archive aims to share more of the places, names and faces of the Chaplains, ‘Old Boys’, and friends as they emerge from the transcribed pages of Fr Feran’s letters, in future blogposts.
Written by Sheila, Archive Volunteer
You might be interested in listening to Fr William Fitzmaurice SJ's experience of witnessing an execution whilst a chaplain during the First World War.