Archive Update: Jesuits in Britain Archives

Mary Allen, Deputy Archivist

For the past year the Jesuits in Britain Archives team have, for the most part, been working remotely. Most archivists are not used to working from home since processing the collections in our care and making them accessible sit at the core of what we do and requires us to be onsite. However despite the year’s frustrations, many of us will probably be pleasantly surprised at what we have been able to achieve. For us this has been a range of activities that may never have come about without this interruption to normal service.

Many of us will have tasks that we would love to tackle but never find time for in the course of our usual working days. For us this might be checking over volunteer work or creating finding aids. Many of our volunteers and work experience students have contributed to transcribing one of our most treasured holdings: a Jesuit newsletter which began in 1915 called Chaplains’ Weekly. The first 30 or so issues were handwritten, copied, and distributed, but are now terribly faded in parts and, as we possess the only complete run in the Province, we have been transcribing them for preservation and access purposes. Thanks to a recent project to have the newsletters digitised, we were able to check and sign off volunteer transcriptions using the digitised versions from home. Digitisation of other records, such as volumes of bound manuscripts, has meant that we can continue with the often time-consuming task of creating finding aids for them.

Chaplains Weekly

One of the real positives to come out of the first lockdown was the instigation of an oral history project, carried out by two Jesuits in formation who spent part of their lockdown at St Beuno’s Spirituality Centre with four older members of the Society. The resulting conversations ranged over 70 years or more of experiences and were similarly wide ranging in themes. The interviewees talked at length about matters from how their days were ordered when they were novices in the 1950s through to profound transformations in Society and the Church and the global pandemic. Again, staff have been able to spend time transcribing these interviews that we may otherwise not have had. Short excerpts of the interviews, which make up ‘Jesuit Memories’, can be listened to on the Jesuits in Britain SoundCloud.

We have also been exploring ways to make the Archives more accessible. In October 2020 we created a Twitter account (@JesuitArchives) where we share announcements, information about what goes on behind the scenes, and showcase our diverse collections in an informal way with the aim of engaging with a wider audience. Lockdown provided the perfect opportunity to familiarise ourselves with Twitter so that hopefully when we return to the office we will be a well-oiled Twitter machine!

Twitter page

Our most exciting endeavour has been to launch an online exhibition. How Bleedeth Burning Love, a collaboration with Stonyhurst College, showcases relics of the English and Welsh Martyrs of the Reformation and tells the stories of the many men and women whose bravery and resourcefulness helped keep the Catholic faith alive in the 16th and 17th centuries. As this is the first online exhibition we have been involved in it was quite a learning curve, but an incredibly exciting one and we hope it will pave the way for many future online exhibitions.

So while the past year has certainly come with its challenges, it has also come with its opportunities and we have learned that there is an incredible amount of work that we can do even without access to our physical collections – though of course we are looking forward to getting back to them in the hopefully not too distant future!

Jesuits in Britain Archive search room

Archive Update: Birmingham Archdiocesan Archives

Naomi Johnson, Archivist

What an (almost) year this has been. When I closed the doors on the archives last March I, like most people, thought I’d be back in within a relatively short period. I rapidly went through the process of moving all the material I was cataloguing into the strong room, along with two recent deposits that I had yet to process. The database was backed up, all my files put onto an external hard-drive to take home and four boxes of material packed up and ready to remove back to my house, so I could continue to do something productive.

A few weeks of inconvenience was soon to become a much longer period of remote working. As the country settled down into the first lockdown, it became clear that this unprecedented reality had no roadmap, not even a sketchy plan of how to proceed. The Emergency Response Plan for the archives covered flood, fire and even infestation but this was something else. One of the first tasks I set myself to was trying to write pandemic protocols and it was clear that many heritage sites were trying to do the same. In the end, simplicity won out; I could write a technically perfect document, covering every possible situation, but if I wasn’t allowed on site then I was dependant on the Cathedral team to execute the plan and they wouldn’t be interested in a 20 page document. The outcome was simple – the site manager would check the reading room and the strong room once a week at the least and send me a text or email update. If there were points of concern, he would phone me to talk through the best course of action. It seems obvious and simple putting it in writing but with everything else going on, cathedral staff being furloughed, the doors to the site being closed and the priests in residence needing to shield – the archives were at the end of a long list of concerns.

With the safety of the archives secured I turned my attention to other documents and policies which had fallen to the bottom of the to-do list. Without access to the physical collection and with none of the material digitised (except those registers on Findmypast) it was as good as time as any to pause work on the catalogue and work on supporting archives material. I wrote, or rewrote, sixteen documents, from the collections policy for the archives, to reprographic request forms and basic guidelines on how to start and maintain a parish archive. One of the most challenging tasks was producing guidelines on digital archiving for our parishes, so that material wouldn’t be lost before it was deposited at the archives. In order to better produce this guidance, I undertook the online training offered by the Digital Preservation Coalition (; suffice to say, I was a clear novice on the subject before I started and at the end, I realised just how much more there was to understand in order to preserve digital content for the future.

As the summer moved on, I was furloughed for a couple of months – about the same time as I joined the CAS council and took on joint control of the website and social media accounts – so the spare time proved useful.

I came off furlough at the start of August and I took the time to start working through the online catalogue, tidying up search terms and closure periods etc. I also spent a lot of time looking into digital scanners, as the lockdown had made it abundantly clear that having material digitally available for researchers and for archivists alike was no longer simply a wish list item but a genuine need. I have yet to settle on a system, so if anyone has any suggestions, I’d be pleased to hear them.

At the start of September I received the news that site access would be possible again but would be limited to one day a week, as the cathedral tried to safeguard all the staff and members of the public in line with government guidelines. I managed just about seven weeks of being allowed on site, one day a week before we went back into lockdown and then just two more before Christmas and then lockdown 3.

However, in those short periods, I managed to set up a remote interface with the archives computer, giving me access to more material and resources and I was able to clear the backlog of research and family history requests that had come through in the previous months, by spending my day on site imaging documents with my digital camera and then spending my home-working day processing and sending them on and I managed to do the initial top level of cataloguing of a deposit that had come in from one of the Bishops, the item level is waiting for my return to site once more.

So what have I learned? I’ve learned that you can only do as much as you can; if the infrastructure and technology isn’t there, then there is nothing you can do about it. I’ve discovered that if you send an email asking for help, then fellow archivists will always step up to try and help and I have been reminded that despite all the panic and worry that the collection has not had my eye cast over it for most of a year – it is fine and far more resilient to change then we are.

Like everyone, I look forward to being back on site and working as we used to do so, but until then, I will keep doing what I can from where I am and tackle the rest of it when it comes.

Examples of material digitised from requests received during lockdown:

Vita et martyrium RDD Edmundi Arrowsmith [BAA:R941]

Maryvale Land Survey, March 1990 [BAA:B10268a]

Archive Update: Society of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart (MSCs) Irish Province

Alan R Whelan, MSC Archivist

When asked to write an article on work undertaken in the archives during the third lockdown due to the Covid-19 restrictions, the answer that first came to mind was very little.  The archives I am responsible for are inconveniently located during pandemic times in Dublin.  Travel restrictions upon arrival, questions of necessary or unnecessary journeys, self-isolation within a community house ensure a better to stay at home in the UK response during these unprecedented times.  However, much can be done even if one cannot be physically present in the archives.

The congregation closed one of its major houses just before the first lockdown in 2020 and while it was a cause of sadness to many members and lay people, as archivist it also presented an opportunity to celebrate the work of over seventy years as a student and in more recent times as a retreat house.  A booklet with personal testimonies of happy and challenging times with lots of photographs was my main focus.  Pleading begging letters and emails were sent and surprisingly many individuals were happy to put pen to paper, or less time consuming for the archivist who had to type out handwritten accounts, typed reminisces.  Staff in the provincial house, where the archives are housed, generously gave of their time to search for photographs and scan them so I was able to assembly contributions without leaving the comfort of my office here in the UK.  Emboldened by the positive reception of the booklet, an anniversary of another student house was celebrated with a similar booklet, with once again a focus on personal stories and photographs.  For both these projects the archive proved to be a treasure trove of information long since forgotten.  Opening up and advertising what the archives contain was also part of the purpose of the publications, prompting some members to donate relevant photographs and recording memories of a formative time in their lives.

Of limited success was a shout out for confrères to submit their personal experience of lockdowns and its effects on their lives, ministry and communities.  Contributions from hospital chaplains, Zoom retreat givers, teachers and retired priests preserved for the next generation the human story of living through a pandemic. 

I suspect like most archives limited storage space is an ongoing problem.  With a little more time to think about a solution to my storage dilemma I made investigations as to the transfer of some of the material to another house where better and purpose-built storage space will be made available.  Budgets and permissions all negotiated by Zoom, how did we live without it!

Of course, there is a downside to not being physically present in the archive.  I am told boxes of donations await to be sorted, catalogued or recycled.  Requests for information have been deferred and one can only hope that some light dusting is undertaken on an occasional basis.

The learning experience for me to date is that with a little bit of forward planning I can undertake some work while being physically away for the archive.  I am blessed that someone in the provincial house is familiar with the cataloguing system and can forward books, articles and photographs as required.  Thoughts and further investigation now needs to be undertaken as to making some aspects and resources of the archives easily accessible to confrères.  More research and Zoom calls to be made but fortunately in these ‘stay at home’ times from the comfort of my office here in the UK.

Archive Update: Managing the SHCJ European Province Archives during Lockdown

Isabel Keating, SHCJ Archivist

Week Prior to National Lockdown 16th – 20th March 2020

I was informed on 16th March that the Society of the Holy Child Jesus (SHCJ) sisters had decided to close the European Province office and archives located in their house in Oxford, the Cherwell Centre, until the end of April at the earliest. The situation would be reviewed at Easter, in the meantime, staff and the sisters would keep in touch regularly. I had an entire week to plan how I could best utilize this time spent away from the physical archives. I was also able to complete urgent tasks. The caretaker of the convent building kindly agreed to check the archives store for any obvious issues while I was working from home.

The Cherwell Centre, Oxford, home of the SHCJ European Province Archives

Actions Taken

  • Created a list of tasks that could be completed over the coming weeks and gathered both print and online resources for researching the SHCJ. Shared this list with the SHCJ sister who oversees my work and the Province Leader.
  • Reviewed storage areas to ensure that there were no current issues with the building or the collections which might worsen over the period of my absence.
  • Moved object collection from corridor cabinet to archive store where this collection will remain permanently. The immediate reason for the move was to avoid damage if carpets were treated for moths while I was away from the archives. In the long term, the archive store provides a better environment for these objects.
  • Reviewed the status of any ongoing enquiries and arrangements with contractors and suppliers. Emailed archive equipment supplier to request that a recently made order might be delivered on my return to the archives office.
  • Checked that remote access to the server was successfully set up on my laptop and changed my answerphone.
  • Researched and took photographs of archive material for article that was to be put in an April 2020 newsletter.

Working from home during lockdown, 23rd March – 3rd July 2020

Work Practices

  • Maintained a rough ‘work diary’ giving details of what was achieved each week while working from home. This meant I could account for my time and mark my progress with long and short term projects.
  • Kept in close contact with colleagues, contractors and suppliers. This enabled me to update SHCJ sisters, to plan conservation work and to schedule visits from key contractors on my return to the office at the easing of lockdown. 
  • Attempted to answer most enquires within one to two days. I suggested online resources such as the Cornelia Connelly Library and the Villanova Digital Library.
  • Used a flexible approach to the work I had outlined earlier as ‘from home’ tasks. At times I moved on from cataloguing and other continuous tasks to time sensitive work such as producing monthly articles. I also prioritised projects where I was collaborating remotely with others to ensure I contributed in a prompt and meaningful way.
  • Referred back to the plan I had made prior to working from home regularly to ensure I was covering all tasks.

Tasks completed during lockdown

  • Cataloguing – I was able to map out and create entries for the upper levels of the SHCJ European Province archives. I worked on short histories of SHCJ foundations for series level descriptions in the catalogue.
  • Resources – I have created resources for cataloguing and other tasks including a spreadsheet of SHCJ houses and a typed up, edited version of the SHCJ Histories volumes’ timelines. I now have a searchable resource to find dates for SHCJ’s historical events and a better familiarity with SHCJ history.

Outreach – I wrote three articles for the SHCJ European Province newsletter, two improvised from existing digitised material on the network and published sources I had access to. The subjects covered were educating pupils on gardening and agriculture in the European and African Province Holy Child schools (April), the SHCJ sisters’ and pupils’ experiences during WW2 (May for VE day celebrations) and the SHCJ Book of the Order of Studies (June).

Sibyl, José and Mary C., Mayfield School girls gardening with Sr Mary Ignatius, c.1918.
  • Communications – I liaised with the SHCJ sisters and NCS staff to download data from the environmental monitoring system and organised July’s dehumidifier maintenance check without difficulty. Enquirers seemed happy with the assistance I was able to give them and not all of them required direct accessing of the archival collection. Zoom meetings with SHCJ sisters and other colleagues as well as fellow archivists from the Birmingham Diocese worked well and were productive.
  • I had time to engage with collaborative long term projects delayed by the pandemic. This included assisting with preparations for an interprovincial archives workshop moved to 2021. I wrote a resource on defining archives.

Challenges of Home working

  • It was easier than usual to get ‘lost’ in potentially expansive tasks such as carrying out research for articles and reading up on SHCJ houses for the catalogue.
  • There were times when I was unable to answer an enquirer’s question fully or check facts for an article as I had no direct access to the archives.
  • I could not carry out some important preservation related tasks such as sending the humidistat logger to NCS. My SHCJ sister line manager kindly sent the logger. She also assisted me by providing images of a volume of the Book of the Order of Studies.
  • Being on a fixed term contract, I was conscious that the ongoing lockdown slowed completion of direct item based cataloguing and other tasks within the limited time I have.
Title page and annotated passage of ‘the Book of the Order of Studies’, a manual created by the Foundress and her fellow SHCJ teachers to guide teaching in the Society’s schools.

Return to the Archives 6th July 2020

I arranged with the SHCJ sisters at Oxford to return on 6th July 2020 as the situation across the UK began to gradually improve. Procedures were discussed and on my return I was given adequate supplies of hand sanitiser and other PPE. I also had an informal, socially distanced meeting with the Oxford SHCJ sisters in the garden of the building. I enjoyed catching up with them in person; it was a pleasant welcome back.

Actions Taken

  • Confirmed with the sisters the procedures required to maintain safe conditions for myself and others while working. I have PPE available to give to contractors if required. However, all appear to have their own PPE and procedures in place.
  • Checked the archives offices and storage areas for any issues. I found all appeared well.
  • Completed tasks that were overdue because of the extended lockdown conditions such as changing the moth traps and recording moth numbers.
  • Most of the first week was spent planning how the cataloguing and physical arrangement of the archives might progress and making preparations required for conservation work scheduled for textiles in our object collection. It was helpful that some of the arrangements for this were already made.


The first UK lockdown caused an abrupt change in circumstances which forced me to radically alter my work pattern. It raised significant issues as enquiries could not be fully answered and certain tasks became impossible. These problems were overcome by having adequate time – a week preceding the UK government’s full lockdown measures – to plan my tasks and by having support from the SHCJ sisters and contractors with whom I work closely. Colleagues both within the SHCJ and other Catholic archives provided helpful encouragement and advice.

During the UK’s second wave, I continue to have access to the archives store and office where I work alone in a Covid secure manner, entering and using a separate part of the building from the residential side of the convent. I feel lucky that I am able to continue tasks involving physical contact with the collections and to monitor the store in person. Lockdown has had its challenges. Nonetheless, I feel now that the period working from home gave me valuable time to expand my knowledge of the SHCJ and reflect on how its history might best be preserved.

The Catholic Archives Society: Preserving the Nation’s Catholic Heritage

The CAS have been liaising with the Religion and Collections group as we have mutual interests so please give their blog a follow! We were welcomed to post a summary about the CAS on their site which you can view below. They would welcome further blogs on religious material culture if there is anything in your collections you would like to write about #catholicheritage #materialculture #religionandcollections

Religion & Collections

Archives, libraries and heritage collections of the Roman Catholic Church in Britain and Ireland have often been seen as mysterious and inaccessible to the general public. In recent years, the academic focus on British Catholic History through John Bossy, Eamon Duffy and Alexandra Walsham has highlighted the significance of Catholicism to the history of Britain and subsequently shed-light on the understudied nature of Catholic heritage collections.

Since 1979, the Catholic Archives Society has promoted the care of Roman Catholic archives and collections in Britain and Ireland. Established as a voluntary organisation, the Society acts as a forum for all individuals, professional and voluntary, who are custodians of Catholic material. Increasingly, Catholic institutions have been making their archives and libraries accessible for research by establishing reading rooms and forming online catalogues. Some have also created exhibition spaces for Catholic material culture including the Bar Convent (York), Stonyhurst College (Clitheroe), Ushaw Historic…

View original post 182 more words

Archive Update: The Irish Jesuit Archives

The Irish Jesuit Archives was closed for much of 2020 due to the global pandemic, and with Ireland in lockdown since early 2021, there is no sign of reopening anytime soon. So what has this home working archivist been up to?

The positive experience of collaborating with Offaly Archives, in making available a collection of papers via their archival platform, gave impetus to the decision to catalogue the Irish Jesuit Archives online. In 2020, using the open source cataloguing software AtoM, a skeleton for the catalogue consisting of authority records (linking people, places and subjects) was created. Fr Jim Culliton SJ helped with Jesuit research, which has also led to a digital biographical dictionary for Irish Jesuits. 5,000 descriptions (roughly 5% of the archival footprint) are now catalogued online, including:

  • Irish Jesuit Colleges in Europe;
  • Irish Jesuit Missions: Australia (1865-1930), the Isle of Man (1826-37) and Zambia (1946-1969);
  • Irish Jesuit Chaplains in the First World War and Second World War;
  • Coláiste Iognáid, Galway (1859-1958) and
  • Twenty individual Jesuits papers.

Damien Burke

Province Archivist- Irish Jesuit Archives

Letter from Irish Jesuit Michael Morrison to his Provincial John R MacMahon SJ, Dublin, Ireland, describing his work as a chaplain at the liberation of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, 18 April 1945.

Photograph of Fr Tom O’Brien SJ (1932-1992) and the Canisius College football team, Chikuni, Northern Rhodesia, c.[1959].

The Centre for Catholic Studies’ Book Launch Series 2020-21

Starting out with ‘English Convents in Catholic Europe,
c.1600-1800′ Co-hosted by the Durham University Centre for Catholic Studies and Institute of Medieval and Early Modern Studies Wednesday 7 October 2020 5.30-6.45pm BST, by Zoom.

To register for zoom and get full details of the book launch series see the CCS website: