Archival Labyrinths. Assumptionnist and White Fathers Archives in Rome

    by Eméline Rotolo
National Archives of France

The archives of religious congregations: an archival hydra

The archives of Catholic orders and congregations are hierarchically organized and this may translate into fragmentation in the conservation of holdings. First, the general archives contain the holdings of the general administration of the archives produced by the General Council and the General Father or Mother: correspondence, reports, publications. It also includes the archives and publications of the founder, as well as the following General Fathers or Mothers, characterized by extensive correspondence and often highly specialized work in different fields of research such as archaeology, linguistics, ethnology, etc. The Mother House ensures the conservation of these holdings with the support of one or more members of the congregations and orders, sometimes aided by trained lay people. Then come the holdings of the provinces, roughly equivalent to a country, and influenced by the provincial administration and life. After which remain the current archives of each community: for minor congregations sometimes they remain stored on site.

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Three important institutions, since their establishment in Jerusalem linked with religious and diplomatic symbols they condense from the last quarter of the nineteenth century, namely St Anne’s Church and seminary, Notre-Dame de France hotel and the church of St. Peter in Gallicantu, guided the first investigations by Vincent Lemire in September 2015 in the archives of the Mother Houses of the White Fathers and the Assumptionists in Rome. This second mission (February 1-5 2016) brought additional knowledge on Roman archival collections held by these two congregations of French foundation, installed in the late nineteenth century in Jerusalem. To provide a comprehensive mapping of the archives produced by the White Fathers and the Assumptionists in Jerusalem, further work should be considered in the provincial archives stored on site, in St Anne for the White Fathers and St Peter in Gallicantu for the Assumptionists.

    An archive history: why?

In the second half of the twentieth century, religious orders and congregations devoted relevant efforts to conservation, classification and creation of finding aids for their archives, providing better access to researchers. The up to now available information about the White Fathers and the Assumptionists reveal different approaches and research tools.
However, even if a standardization effort was made in the drafting of finding aids, a first common observation is deplorable: the lack or even the absence of any contextual description. Actually, a brief description of the archive completed with producer’s identification elements would allow to define the content of documents and the choices of classifications taken according to the principle of “respect des fonds”. These types of essential information permit also to document the history of the conservation taking into account transfers, natural disasters or the loss of archives due to eliminations, all events that influence the fonds.

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These elements, considering the territory and the period (Jerusalem, 1840-1940), present a relevant interest: the major European religious institutions in Jerusalem have been requisitioned, occupied and sometimes raged during the First World War (1914-1917). Details are provided by some archives, as in the correspondence of Fr Van der Vliet, White Father of Dutch nationality remained in St Anne during the hostilities. In a French transcription of the diary he kept during those times, he tells (December 4, 1914) the episode of the transfer of archives hastily hidden in a damp place, under an arch, behind a lapsed wall, in the St Anne seminar to a safer place. Again, in a letter of Fr Leopold Dressaire addressed to Fr Athanase Vanhove, both of them Assumptionists, he reports the state of Notre-Dame de France at his arrival (December 11, 1917) after the capture of Jerusalem: “Your papers, personal belongings, objects and papers of Fr. Germer, religious objects remained (most of these files was mixed with the books and the community and clothes and they could only be recognized by interested parties, another part disappeared). Everything that was at your use (lingerie, books, notes, correspondence, benefactors addresses, etc.) is preserved”.
This description shows the archives in desolating conditions and therefore requesting a reclassification work. Information that would be useful to gather in order to document the history of each holding and make intelligible the process that led to the final classification status is therefore missing.

    The White Fathers: fonds classified and analysed according to the organization of the institution

Despite a certain timidity to put their archives into the historical perspective of their institutions, the implementation of useful research tools has to be acknowledged to both these congregations.
First of all, the White Fathers, thanks to their valuable online inventory, partly answer to the previous remarks with a brief presentation of their holdings in the introduction. They announce the main documentary typologies held in Rome: correspondence, reports, documents, publications from their founder, Card. Lavigerie, the General Government of the Company, its provinces and its members. This general state of the holdings in the form of a detailed digital inventory provides an overview of all the Roman records dealing with Jerusalem institutions, from their founding until very recent times. The last depositions, like for the MEL file 297: Jerusalem. Correspondence, with the annotation “These files were received from Jerusalem in June 1991,” as well as the most recent entries marked “2015 adding”, show the activity of the archive service.
This detailed digital inventory is based on a classification system respecting the logic of production and structure of fonds. It thus offers a structured analysis at different levels of description from general to particular, like for archives of the General Fathers, GEN series, classified and numbered – alphanumeric call numbers – in chronological order of succession of their role. Other relevant series include typologies such as personal folders (D.PERS), original diaries (D.OR) or copied (D.Cop), registers (REG.), photolibrary (PHOT.), maps, atlas, statistics (CART.); with some limitations, however, for the VARIA series or MEL. It is also noteworthy that three databases complete this detailed digital inventory for chronicles and annual reports, general councils and the conclusions of general chapters.

From the Assumptionist card index to the archives of the Jerusalem community: a not classified fonds or the result of a lack of internal organization?

The Assumptionists, meanwhile, have one more archaic but equally valuable research tool: a card index with thematic entries by “people”, “themes” and especially “places” covering up until the late 1970s. Vincent Lemire had fully photographed 158 index card for “Jerusalem” whose distribution is as follows: 99 index card titled “Jerusalem – ND de France”, 26 “Jerusalem – St Peter in Gallicantu” and 19 “Jerusalem – pilgrimage of”.

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This card index provides an analysis of the documents considered most important at the time of the redaction of this research instrument. Essentially it is not an inventory and it contrast the general vision of the holdings. Unlike the digital detailed inventory of the White Fathers, it does not reveal a hierarchical classification from the upper level (the Generalship) to the lower (the provinces).
For researches on Jerusalem, all the related index cards must therefore be consulted. The accuracy of “ND de France”, “St Pierre en Gallicante” and “pilgrimage” can eventually restrict the consultation. If the major tasks of the community (education, pilgrimages) reflected, it is hard to recognize the responsibilities of key actors normally responsible to classify documents.

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When the first index cards are examined analysis are only about an individual archive item or a small number of documents in favour of typologies than actions. Thus the letters of the General Father Vincent de Paul Bailly are scattered in seven articles when it should have been easy to classify them in a series of Generalship archives, a sub-series for those of Father Vincent de Paul Bailly and articles by chronological sections to classify the correspondence due to its function.
This fragmentation reveals, on the one hand, the gaps in the classification of holdings that should have followed the logic of archive producers and, on the second hand, the obsolete nature of this research instrument that doesn’t respect the archival logic of information’s non redundancy.
Other limits are noteworthy, as the presence of an alphabetical call number of the boxes, imitating a classification scheme, which is an irrelevant marker. Initially it might suggest a classification of all correspondence from Jerusalem in sections NS to NW, 1883-1956, but the correspondence of 1918 was forgotten while classifying.
Initially, we thought that all the correspondence from Jerusalem had been classified in sections NS to NW, 1883-1956, but the 1918 correspondence had been forgotten. It was immediately classified in the following box NX with, among others, a record on the construction of Notre-Dame de France, some records related to the First World War and accounting documents.
It’s the same for the ephemeris representing a distinctive typology deserving to be listed in series. Yet the records are divided in different box numbers: UT 2 for May 1891 – December 1892 entitled “ND de France chronicles” and mentioning “Following A 114-117” which seems to correspond rather to the registers 114-116 E (August 1891 – September 1898) but the ephemeris from May 1908 to December 1914 uses another letter B 187.
The choice of a card index, although coherent with those times, allows to hide these limits and the lack of a rigorous classification of the archives concerning Jerusalem. From the points raised so far, it is unlikely that a classification following the activities of the Province of Jerusalem has been accomplished. The current state reflects the deposits, with this system of non meaningful box numbers, where the fonds are fragmented and sometimes internally inconsistent (hence the choice of a card index).
Finally, we must emphasize that attached files have been extracted from the correspondence. Therefore it’s impossible to find the right documents they were attached to, although the presence of the card index. This action makes sense for certain types of items in order to constitute some series, like quarterly balances. However, other attachments require the support of the correspondence to be intelligible and yet find themselves separated from the letter; even worse, several sheets were divided through different articles.

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This sheet containing four pages concerning surveys of archaeological objects, annexed to a letter of 31 July 1914, as the record indicates with red ink at the top, is now listed PJ 202. However, during our investigation, we accidentally discovered a second sheet number 5 in the box number PK. These examples therefore makes very difficult a comprehensive study of the entire collection from the card index, whose ratio behind the classification is also questionable. Numbered pieces rarely represent coherent records.
This final report of a disorder of Roman Assumptionist archives concerning Jerusalem may be due to a gap of classification of the fonds – as mentioned before –, to affect the current classification following the history of the fond or simply reflect the disorganization of the community and of the establishment they comes from. In this case, it is likely that the fonds has had to suffer from these three evils.

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We still lack of answers about the history of the fond, including the conditions of the transfer of fonds from Jerusalem to Rome but also the possibility of a reclassification (some records present old call numbers). Lack of organization by the community of Notre-Dame France, seems to appear through the correspondence especially after the First World War: at that time, the community has to deal with financial difficulties and it demands to Rome a bursar to assist the Superior.

    “Cleaning” the Assumptionist card index: a delivery attempt to conduct exhaustive flat?

Despite all these issues, the card index remains essential since it is the only key to enter the fond. Moreover, it has several advantages: a conversion of this card index to an excel sheet, highlighting, when possible, the origin of the document or record, would probably improve the vision of Assumptionist archives concerning Jerusalem.
We propose to transcribe the card index using the best descriptive standards because, following the existing analysis, many fields may remain empty.
This conversion could bring out the grouping that had to be made during the classification. To proceed, a standardization of terms must be conducted. From these groups, a summary could be recreated in xml format for online consultation of a structured inventory. This proposal would also avoid to lose information about agents, authors and producers of the documents.
The card index “people” presents some gaps: Fr Moitraux, author of a war diary, has no record, although he appears in the index card “place” as author of the mentioned document.
The purpose would be to create a methodical finding aid containing all the additional Assomptionist fonds collected in Rome, Paris and Jerusalem. Surveys are to be carried out in Paris, while the Assumptionist Fathers of Jerusalem requested Open Jerusalem contribution and collaboration.

Postscript

Despite all these archival considerations, our mission mainly focused on the theme of the First World War in both the two archives and discover fragments useful in the perspective of a global history of Jerusalem at that time. However, other tracks emerged in order to retrace the daily life in Jerusalem. The Augustinian Fathers of the Assumption, the main organizers of Catholic pilgrimages to Jerusalem, imposed their building in the landscape of the city. Religious and administrative records – including the archives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs held in Nantes – and recently unveiled photographic fonds may raise interesting issues on ND de France, especially in the history of constructions. Beyond this, the establishment at Notre Dame de France a museum and a library with a seminary could be linked with education activities conducted in other seminars, such as St. Anne, by various orders or congregations located in Jerusalem. And finally, given the irony of French diplomatic support to congregations that had been expelled from the national territory, could we not consider the study across multiple inventories – typology pleasing to the archivist – historically redundant for these institutions?


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