Jesuit archives 'very precious' to Canada

  • October 19, 2009
{mosimage}Three linear kilometres of books, documents and artifacts await scholars in the new home of the Canadian Jesuit archives in Montreal.

With material dating back from five centuries, the recently opened joint archive of Canada’s two Jesuit provinces, English and French, includes more than 300 items from New France in the 1600s, 18,000 books, 1,500 rare books and the memoirs and official records of generations of Jesuits who have been more than priests. Doctors, scientists, theologians, academics, social workers, community leaders and activists have been Canadian Jesuits over the centuries.

“It’s a religious community archive that’s very precious to Canada,” said chief archivist Celine Widmer. “Because they influenced society not only religiously but on all sides — politically, socially. These archives are extremely rich.”

When, under pressure from French and Spanish aristocracy, Pope Clement XIV suppressed the Jesuits in 1773, Canada’s Jesuits entrusted their documents to another religious community. Many documents were lost, which accounts for the relatively small number of 17th-century documents. But the remaining documents from 1611 through the first part of the 18th century are extremely important, said Widmer.

No less important is the record of Jesuit expansion from the order’s return to Canada in 1842 on, she said.

The new archive merges the formerly separate deposits of documents and books in Toronto and St. Jerome, Que. About three quarters of the material belongs to the older and historically larger Quebec province of the Jesuits. The English and French provinces will continue to own their own documents within the merged archive.

After the Quebec archive was closed for two years preparing for the move to Montreal, there’s a lot of pent-up demand for access to Canada’s Jesuit history, not just from academics but from genealogists, students and teachers. Widmer receives dozens of e-mails each week requesting specific documents or access to the archive.

Getting the word out to universities and the scholarly community is a high priority for Widmer.

“In the summer the scholars will come (from across Canada),” she said. “The consultation room is inviting. It’s really a nice environment.”

Facing Jarry Park the new archive is not far from McGill University and the Université du Quebec. The archives’ new web site is at

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