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Journeying through Martyrs' Shrine past

  • May 19, 2009
{mosimage}During the past 15 years that he spent searching through boxes and files in a basement room at Martyrs’ Shrine in Midland, Ont., volunteer archivist Steve Catlin has come across many surprises.

One day he found a box marked “director’s box.” Inside, among what seemed to just be odds and ends, he found two pieces of burnt wood. Research revealed that these were remains of two posts excavated from St. Ignace II, the place where Jean de Brébeuf and Gabriel Lalemant were martyred.

“I felt like the ‘raider of the lost archives,’ ” joked the religion teacher at St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Oakville, Ont.

Martyrs’ Shrine is just minutes away from Sainte-Marie among the Hurons, the historic site of the 17th-century French Jesuit mission to the Huron nation.

But the shrine’s, and Catlin’s, latest excitement is a little haven for researchers, history buffs or those wanting to know more about the martyrs or the shrine’s history. Since last year, Catlin has been moving boxes and boxes of archives from their previous home — a small basement storage room — into a new, climate-controlled, research library adjacent to the museum/education centre.

The library contains many archives and other artifacts dating back to the 17th century, some of which Catlin and the current Jesuits put behind glass in the new display area of the education centre opened last summer to provide a visual teaching aid for students in the Jesuits’ “Walk Where they Walked” program.

Having travelled to the Vatican archives, the Jesuit archives in Rome and Paris and archives at the Lourdes Shrine, Catlin has helped Martyrs’ Shrine acquire other documents to help complete the historical picture. He developed an interest in the shrine at an early age, as his family started taking him there when he was only three years old. Researching the shrine and the Jesuits’ history was merely a hobby for him until the 1990s when the director at the time, Fr. James Farrell, asked him to help sort through all the material.

“It’s like a ministry to the church,” Catlin said. “The shrine is not just a place of faith but a place of honouring salvation history.”

Catlin said the new research library, where he continues to catalogue information and preserve older documents, provides a comfortable space for on-site research complete with desks to spread out information or set up a laptop.

“I think the archives research centre is convenient,” he said. “People can learn about the history, handle artifacts, learn about the saints in a very tangible way, and I will be on hand if they want to see the treasures that aren’t on display.”

Interested people will be able to book some time in the research library as early as July this year, but the display area/education centre is open to all those who book a tour at the shrine from its season’s opening May 16 through to the fall. Catlin emphasizes that not all documents and holdings can be examined by visitors, and some will be made available only to “legitimate researchers” such as those researching for Masters or PhD thesis papers or studying the Jesuit missions in Canada.

“The archives are where the sacred meets the secular,” Catlin said, explaining that the shrine contains not only the history of the church but also unique items such as a papal bull declaring Ste. Marie as a site of pilgrimage, liturgical vestments and furnishings from the late 19th-mid-20th centuries, missionary chalices and ciboria from the Northern Ontario missions in the 19th century, testimonies, photographs and x-rays relating to cures and favours obtained at the shrine and much more.

“Here is where the faith was taking root,” he said. “A religious place like the shrine connects us to the greater Christian story. ”

The shrine archives also play an interesting role in tracking immigration, he added.

“When we look at the ethnic pilgrimages to the shrine we can map out the chronology of Catholic immigration to Canada,” he said. “First it was the Irish in Toronto, then Eastern Bloc Europeans after the war and now from the Middle East, Chaldeans from Iraq.”

He said many communities see the shrine as their “spiritual home away from home” and have prayed for those being martyred in their respective countries and for their liberation.

Jesuit Father Alex Kirsten, the director of the shrine, said the archives are important for many reasons, but for him, the highlight of the archives is the large collection of Jesuit accounts which provide an otherwise unheard perspective.

“The Relations are the first written accounts of life in New France, the only written accounts of that time,” he said. “We have gathered information about who they were as persons and you get at times an intimate look of who (the martyrs) were.”

The Jesuit Relations comprise about 72 volumes of Jesuit writing and can be found in many university libraries. However the archives also contain Early Jesuit Missions to Canada, a 30-volume set of letters and diaries in both the original French and translated into English. This set is unique to the archives at Martyrs' Shrine.

Hundreds of letters, newspaper articles, slides, videos, maps, etc., have continued filling the Jesuits’ collection throughout the centuries, making the archives a panorama of information not as readily available as the Relations.

The education and research facility was built with grants from the Ontario government’s Trillium fund, but now the centre will rely on donations for the upkeep of documents, many of which still need to be preserved, and for new acquisitions.

For information, see www.martyrs-shrine.com .

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