History of the Archive of the Jesuits in Canada


The origins of the Archive of the Jesuits in Canada go back almost 400 years to the diaries, maps, records and papers kept in the old Collège des Jésuites founded in Quebec City in 1635. Shortly before his death in March 1800, Fr. Jean-Joseph Casot, the last Jesuit of the old Society in Canada, entrusted a good part of these documents to the Hospital Sisters of the Hôtel-Dieu. Thus were saved such treasures as Isaac Jogues’ Novum Belgium, written in 1643, being the oldest extant description of the city of New-York; Paul Ragueneau’s compelling memoir of 1652 on the Jesuit and Wendat martyrs of Wendake; and Jacques Marquette’s maps of the Mississippi. Four decades later, in 1844, the sisters gave the Collège documents back to Fr. Félix Martin, the Superior of the first band of Jesuits who had returned to Canada in May 1842.

Thus we consider Félix Martin to be the founder of the present Archives. To the nuns’ gifts, which he housed at Saint Mary’s College in Montreal, he added hundreds of other documents and books which he collected or received as donations, especially precious being the manuscripts of many of the Jesuit Relations. In 1858 he was able to publish the first complete collection of the original French Relations.

Fr. Arthur Jones, outstanding preacher, rigorous historian, trail-blazing archaeologist, was undoubtedly the leading Canadian Jesuit scholar of the 19th century. He took over the Archives at Saint Mary’s in 1882. He watched over them, annotated, catalogued, and organised them, and won for them new and secure quarters. He became the close friend and principal advisor to the famous Reuben Gold Thwaites, who, between 1896 and 1901, translated and published the seventy-three volumes of the Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents.

When the Jesuit Province of Canada was divided in 1924, the archive at St. Mary’s College remained intact. A minimum of records related to current activity was transferred to the new Upper Canada Province office in Toronto.

During the 1930s a group of Jesuit scholastics at the new Jesuit Seminary in Toronto began a library and archive for what they called a “Mission Academy”. Among other items, they collected dictionaries, Bibles, prayers and liturgical books in Ojïbwa, also copies of sermons and correspondence of the missionaries. By the late 1950s the Academy Library could boast a very respectable collection.

In 1941, Fr. Francis Nelligan, professor of philosophy and Church history at the Jesuit Seminary, began collecting material about the history of the Jesuits in Anglophone Canada. Before his death in 1960 he had arranged his large collection and persuaded his superiors to designate an area appropriate for an Archive in the new Regis College that was being built in the Toronto suburb of Willowdale. Before he died, he entrusted his boxes to a scholastic who promised to see to their proper preservation in the new building. In 1961, when the designated rooms were ready, the two collections (the Mission Academy’s and the “Nelligan Boxes”) came together in the Province’s first official Archive.

In 1941 at St. Mary’s College in Montreal, Fr. Paul Desjardins had been appointed Provincial Archivist for the Francophone Province. During the next twenty-six years he continued, improved, and strengthened Fr. Jones’ work. He was meticulous not only in collecting the papers of each deceased Jesuit, but also in keeping records of events and happenings in the growing number of the Province’s institutions and ministries. He also developed a rich collection of art and artefacts sent home by the French-Canadian Jesuits working in China and Ethiopia. When the Jesuits left Collège Ste-Marie in the late 1960s, the Archives moved to spacious accommodation at the new Novitiate Building in Saint-Jérôme. Successive archivists expanded Fr. Desjardins’ documentary acquisitions and added a reserve of paintings and sculptures created or acquired by Jesuits over the years.

In 1975, Fr. Edward Dowling, who had served for over twenty-five years in the administration of the English-speaking Province, began a sixteen-year term in the Archives, which had moved to Regis College’s new location at the University of Toronto. He brought with him the “Provincial’s Office Collection” and saw to its integration into the other two collections, a task completed by his successor, Fr. Patrick Boyle. Pat Boyle, a historian, enrolled in a programme on the management of historical documents and devised an original classification system for the holdings; he also developed a processing system and a finding aid.

At the beginning of the new millennium, however, simultaneous but unrelated decisions taken in Montreal and Toronto, forced both the English and French Archives to move. The Jesuits of English Canada accepted an invitation from the Francophone Provincial Superior, Fr. Daniel LeBlond, to join the French Canadian archives in a new repository to be built in Maison Bellarmin in Montreal. The new centre opened in September 2009.