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Strong Irish presence at Jesuit studies symposium

Four hundred-year-old letters of St Ignatius found inside columns of an altar to Our Lady in 2016 was just one of the fascinating revelations shared in Boston College’s Institute for Advanced Jesuit Studies which held its fifth International Symposium on Friday 11-13 June 2019. The conference title ‘Engaging Sources: the tradition and future of collecting history in the Society of Jesus’ had attracted over 70 participants including a large number of archivists and historians who presented papers, and three of them were from Ireland: Brian Mac Cuarta, Director of Archivium Romanum Societatis Iesu (ARSI), Damien Burke, Assistant Archivist, Irish Jesuit Archives, and Vera Moynes, archivist and editor of the pre-suppression correspondence of the Irish Jesuits.  Brian Mac Cuarta alerted listeners to the many new sources available at ARSI, Damien Burke gave examples of his photograph collections, and Vera wanted to bring the two new Irish publications on Irish Jesuit sources before those most likely to use them, namely the calendar of documents (IHSI 2017), and the forthcoming volume of Irish annual letters (2019), spanning the years 1566-1752, both of which she edited.  Read below Vera’s personal account of the whole experience.

    Unearthing treasures

The Institute provided accommodation and most meals for participants, and the courtesy and hospitality of its Directors Fr Casey C Beaumier SJ and Seth Meehan were second to none: on the first morning when we woke up to a dark and thundery downpour they shared a notice from the Director of Emergency Management to warn us of rain with embedded thunderstorms and ‘ponding on roadways’, but rather than leaving it at that they provided rain ponchos and staff to guide us to our venue. Gasson Hall, a mighty fortress of a building in the English collegiate style which earned the nickname Gasson’s Folly at the time of its completion in 1913, was the main conference venue: meals and plenary sessions took place in its large and imposing Irish Room sporting a highly stylised Irish motto on the east end – ‘An Irish hall in Boston given by the Irish and their neighbours’, over a portrait of John McElroy SJ (1782-1977), founder of Boston College high school, the current college’s precursor.

People were friendly, and it was easy picking up conversations while queuing for coffee or searching for rooms. The welcome from William P Leahy, University President, spoke to most people’s thoughts when he said that studying history helps with seeing our own issues and problems a little more clearly – he didn’t make any grander and unhelpful claims for history being able to solve them. 57 papers were arranged in a way that at times we had to choose between three panels, and the choice was not easy. While the papers I attended – 31 is all that was possible– honed in on particular eras, historical persons, and in particular, Jesuit record-keeping, they all spoke of the heterogeneity of Jesuit experiences and influences. To give you a flavour I singled out the three items on the programme which gave me the most pleasure.

On the first morning, Margarida Miranda (Universidade de Coimbra) and António Trigueiros SJ (editor of Brotéria Journal) gave a joint talk about an astounding discovery made at Coimbra Cathedral (the former College of Jesus) during maintenance and cleaning work in 2016. Inside the carved-wood Baroque columns of an altar to Our Lady, a collection of over 1,000 pages of documents were found, bundled up in burlap bags and other textiles, mostly comprising manuscripts – even including letters from St Ignatius himself! They date from between 1542 and 1759, the year of the expulsion of the Jesuits from Coimbra. On the next day at coffee I spoke to Dr Miranda about her role in unfolding and classifying this ‘hoard’, and with visible emotion she told me of the ‘religious moments’ she experienced while unpicking the stitches and slowly making sense of the person who likely bundled everything up on the eve of his own exile: he was likely a certain António de Vasconcelos, a priest but still a scholastic at the time of the expulsion. He seems to have entered the Cathedral although surrounded by troops, in order to hide his own archives along with those of older Jesuits in the column just before his exile to the Papal States, never to return. The discovery was news to me, but then I have not followed Jesuit affairs closely in the last few years, and so far, the findings have only been published in Portuguese.

On Wednesday, Christian Dupont (Burns Librarian) invited us to see a selection of around 20 printed books, other prints and manuscripts in the Burns Library, in essence the Special Collections wing of Boston College’s Bapst Library. Honing in on the 11,000 titles contained in their Jesuitica collection, he had included the first edition of Pedro Ribadeneira’s Vita Ignatii Loiolae (Naples, 1572), the Scotsman John Hay’s De Rebus Japonicis (Antwerp, 1605), and a recently acquired, diminutive manuscript book from between 1565 and 1580 into which unknown writers had compiled excerpts from Jesuit exercises, rules, and other texts, obviously for the purpose of carrying them around while travelling. Christian Dupont made a point of chatting to most people present and when I asked him about this little book, he told me that some of the 30-plus texts in it had not been identified yet, and that it was purchased in 2017 from a private collector in the US whose father had in turn bought it through the agency of a Spanish bookseller from an English collector: there is much left to discover regarding this manuscript and long last it is accessible to students and scholars rather than locked into somebody’s cupboard of treasures. The Burns Library’s collection strategy is to concentrate on foundational texts, education, biographies, and anti-Jesuit literatures rather than topics like missions, science, or drama which, so Dupont, are done rather well by other institutions.

On Thursday morning, then, I decided to stay away from Old Society topics and attended talks on 20th-c. Jesuits. The panel entitled ‘Jesuit sources in 20th-century public debates: race, science, and nationalism’ -chaired by Ireland’s own Oliver P Rafferty SJ – included talks on two one may say diametrically opposed Jesuits, namely Constantino Bayle SJ (1882-1953) and John LaFarge SJ (1880-1963). The speakers were Rady Roldán-Figueroa (Boston University) and Amy Philipps (Woodstock Theological Library). Bayle was a Spanish nationalist historian who also published widely in Razon y Fé, a Catholic journal still in existence; he supported the contemporary missionary movement and advanced the theory that the apostolic ‘crusade’ originated in Spain: missionaries, in his view were members of the ‘conquering race’ and through their work they elevated the race of their converts or disciples. LaFarge, on the other hand, was the founder of the Catholic Interracial Council of New York (1934) which later merged with other such councils to become the National Catholic Conference on Interracial Justice. LaFarge was outspoken about the three main problems as he saw them of the ‘local Negroes’ in St Mary’s county, Maryland where he was active, including the deplorable lack of schooling. Philipps concentrated on the Conference’s principal publication, the Interracial Review (1932-1971), which LaFarge contributed to, and which has not been given the scholarly attention it deserves.

Boston College plans to publish papers from the Symposium in open source, for those interested to follow up these and other talks given there.

Papers are of course not all there is to conferences – I enjoyed the opportunity to speak to a bunch of interesting people, and on topics not at all confined to Jesuit historiography. My own personal highlight was meeting Claude Pavur SJ, editor at Jesuit Sources and a congenial and lovely collaborator while I edited the annual letters (a few of which he translated). One day I stood by while he, Maureen Fitzsimmons (University of California), and Cinthia Gannett (Fairfield University) were waxing eloquent about Jesuit rhetorics – I had missed a panel dedicated to that subject but this informal chat partly made up for it. One morning over breakfast, the topic was ice-hockey – Boston had just been beaten by St Louis and Christian Dupont was explaining why this would cast a shadow over many a Bostonian’s day – as well as explaining how the enthusiasm dated to the many centuries before global warning when local ponds froze over in the winter and gave a chance to play a sport for free that now is just affordable to the more affluent. Another day over dinner I was listening to Cristóbal Madero SJ, a young Chilean priest and professor of education from Santiago (Universidad Alberto Hurtado) who had us spellbound describing how a small plane he took to Punta Arenas, Patagonia, had to steer sideways against very strong winds before landing safely: he had been invited to give a retreat at a time when other priests were busy with their own parishes.

The organisation of a conference is time-consuming and many-faceted, and in addition, Seth Meehan also invited speakers to share their papers or presentations before the event, so as to enable attendees to have points ready for question-and-answer-sessions. Speakers were for the most part very good at time-keeping, thanks to many gentle warnings issued to us in the run-up to the conference. All these things, together with the hospitality and good collegiate atmosphere made for a highly successful and enjoyable event, and I am grateful to the Institute, and to the Irish Province, for sponsoring my attendance there.

Vera Moynes.