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A Spotlight on Religious Archives with François Dansereau

19 Mar 2024 12:33 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

From municipal and federal government to universities, from religious congregations to community organizations, archivists work in a variety of settings. This year, the ACA blog, In the Field, is setting out to talk to archivists across Canada about the unique joys and challenges of their work environments. We will feature a different type of archives each month, with the objective of showcasing the rich spectrum of archival work.

This month we are featuring religious archives. In today’s post, the In the Field blog chats with François Dansereau, Director at The Archive of the Jesuits in Canada in Montreal, QC. 

Q: Can you briefly tell us about your academic and professional path?

François: I completed a Master’s degree in U.S. History at Université de Montréal. My initial research topic was exploring the concept of Manifest Destiny and settler-colonial philosophical conceptions. I realized that it required too much examination of religious scriptures, and I finally wrote a thesis on gender representations, especially masculinity, around the time of the U.S. Civil War. I knew I was not going to do a PhD, so I ended up inquiring about library school, without really knowing what it was. But I knew someone who had finished the program and she encouraged me to pursue it. 

I completed a MLIS degree at McGill University and started to work at the McGill University Archives. I then did other contracts and worked a few years at the Archives of the McGill University Health Centre. I’ve now been at The Archive of the Jesuits in Canada (AJC), in Montreal, since 2020. I’m also a Course Lecturer at the McGill University School of Information Studies, teaching the Preservation Management course. And this Winter, I am teaching an online seminar at Université Laval called “Les enjeux éthiques, juridiques et politiques en archivistique.” 

Q: What brought you to the field of archival studies and practice?

François: After my MA in History, I sought to use the skills and competencies I acquired to work in heritage/history/cultural institutions. Library school seemed to make that connection, at least theoretically. My first real glimpse into archival work was when I was doing research for my MA degree, and encountered a database called Documenting the South. This was 2005-2006 so the database was pretty impressive at the time. I was fascinated and intrigued by the potential associated with the digitization of archival records, and with online access to unique resources. 

Q: What does an average day look like in religious archives?

François: An average day in religious archives is quite similar to any other archival organization. We receive requests from researchers, we process archival fonds and collections, we digitize materials, etc. Since I was named the director of The AJC, in the Fall of 2022, my responsibilities are more associated with project management, grant writing, supporting my colleagues in their activities, having meetings with supervisors and collaborators, etc. We are a small team, but we are trying to develop all the different aspects of collections management.

Q: What is your favourite thing about working in religious archives? What are some of the challenges that are unique to religious archives?

François: I am fortunate to work in an organization with a rich—and complex—history, spanning across four centuries. We hold some records from the 17th and 18th centuries, which is not that common in Canada. The Jesuit community was—and is—an organization very much active in society in general. The result is a very diverse history, which transpires in the content emerging from the archival collection. 

Besides the obvious challenge of resources, understanding Catholic terminology and attempting to connect the meanings of certain religious contexts in archival description can sometimes be challenging. 

In addition, offering a comprehensive account of settler colonialism and colonial archives, and reflecting about the way we contextualize these through archival interventions, is not easy. For instance, developing anti-colonial archival practices in a context of very concrete encounters between missionaries and Indigenous peoples, across centuries, is not straightforward and requires a lot of profound thinking to develop meaningful actions. There are the connections that we can forge and maintain through archival contact and collaboration with Indigenous groups—which we wish to develop further—, but there are also encounters that of course go beyond the archival questions, and involve active relationships between a religious organization and Indigenous nations. This is pretty challenging, on many levels, but in terms of our archival power and limits, we need more academic research on these issues, more extensive and dynamic interrogations of archival practices, and more collaboration with Indigenous communities that are concerned by and represented in the records. 

Q: What do you wish the public understood better about religious archives? What do you wish other archivists understood about religious archives?

François: Religious archives contain a vast array of subjects. In our case, several Jesuits hold PhDs in a diversity of disciplines, from History to Chemistry to Ecology, and, not surprisingly, Theology. The religious component emerges in the fonds and collections, but it is so much richer than that. We are putting that forward in an exhibit we created about Jesuit scientific observatories. Especially in Quebec, until the Quiet Revolution, the Catholic Church was present in all facets of society, including health sciences, education, the arts, and beyond. Religious organizations’ impact on the development of Quebec and Canadian society is broad. The archival records testify to the social, cultural, economic, and political changes of Quebec and Canadian societies.

Image 1: Aquarelle du Collège Sainte-Marie / Watercolor of Collège Sainte-Marie. Félix Martin, s.j. [185-?]. GLC BO-47.3.5. Archives des jésuites au Canada / The Archive of the Jesuits in Canada.

Q: Can you tell us about a project you’ve been working on lately?

François: We are working on a collaborative project with Université du Québec à Montréal (UQÀM) and Collège Jean-de-Brébeuf on Jesuit rhetoric. We are creating an exhibit that sheds light on the pedagogical dimensions and the importance of rhetoric in Jesuit classical colleges’ curricula, and its reach into Montreal society, particularly through theatre. The exhibit will take place at The AJC headquarters, located at the main administration office of the Jesuits of Canada in Montreal. There will also be an online component to the exhibit. Besides our own project, there will be a symposium, a play, and other activities at UQÀM and Collège Jean-de-Brébeuf on that same theme.

Image 2: Classe de rhétorique, Collège Sainte-Marie / Rhetoric class, Collège Sainte-Marie. [1888 or 1889]. GLC C-1.S6.SS3.D8.13. Archives des jésuites au Canada / The Archive of the Jesuits in Canada.

From a collections management perspective, we are pursuing collaboration with Indigenous research groups, and we continue to develop reparative description initiatives. That means processing and re-processing particular fonds and collections and digitizing pertinent records. This represents the main priority at The AJC. On that note, specifically about these issues, we are waiting for a few responses on grant proposals that we wrote alongside academic researchers, and other museums, libraries, and archival organizations. 

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