From the Archives: Early history of JRS in Britain

POST BY RSomerset

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Archives, JRS
A blue sheet of paper with black typewriter print
JRS 1994 leaflet

November marks 40 years since Pedro Arrupe SJ, the then Superior General of the Jesuits, set up the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) in response to the plight of Vietnamese refugees fleeing their war-ravaged homeland. JRS is an international Catholic organisation aiming to accompany, serve and advocate for the rights of refugees and other forcibly displaced persons. There are now programmes in over 50 countries.

With the anniversary approaching, JRS UK contacted the Jesuits in Britain Archives to find out if we hold any records relating to the origins of the work, and so began my research into the history of JRS in this Province. At first it seemed we had very little as the index card, the principal finding aid for most of the collections, only listed three items with fairly recent dates. I had to approach this task a little more creatively.

Coloured photograph of a man's headKnowing who some of the key individuals were who were associated with the work meant that their index cards and in some cases their obituaries could be checked. Br Bernard Ellitott SJ (1929-2012) was an early advocate for refugees and had been working with them since autumn 1979. He was appointed as the Province’s JRS coordinator of refugee affairs in 1987. At the same time, British Jesuits Bill Yeoman (1925-1989) and Michael Campbell-Johnston had worked in the international JRS office in Rome in its early foundation years and others ministered to refugees abroad.

It has been tricky to pinpoint the exact date of the foundation of JRS UK, but looking through the newsletter, Chaplains’ Weekly, a few references point towards a 1993/1994 start. In January 1993 it is reported that grant funding has been approved “to help convert a coach house in south London, providing facilities for refugees” (CW2101, p2). Then in June 1993 among the list of appointments Bernard is listed as arriving at Stamford Hill and his work is given as ‘refugee project’. In that same section the following is noted: “Among those likely to join the relocated Cavendish Square community is Stephen Power, who is expected back from the Sudan later this month. He will continue to work with refugees, but in a home-based project, probably with Bernard Elliot” (CW 2109, p2). Finally, in January 1994 there is the following statement:

JESUIT REFUGEE SERVICE - UK Bernard Elliot and Stephen Power have now established an office for refugee work in the UK. They have rooms in the CAFOD office in Stockwell... They have now been joined by Chris Boles, just returned from eighteen months with JRS in the Philippines. (CW 2118, p6)

In September 1994, Chaplains’ Weekly reports that the first edition of JRS-UK’s newsletter is now available and attached (sadly not to the Archives copy that has been digitised).

In terms of documentation, among the earliest found is a letter by Bernard to the Provincial written in March 1987 requesting financial contribution towards a holiday for Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees. There is also an undated proposal by Bernard entitled ‘The Oasis Project: initial proposal for developing JRS in London’ which was “to begin in the summer of 1993” and a letter written 1 October 1993 by Bernard to the Provincial regarding the priorities he sees for JRS with visiting those in prison and detention as the first. Finally, there is a general introductory JRS leaflet dated 1994.

All these findings point to 1994 as being the official start of JRS UK with the first formal office set up at that point, though work related to JRS was happening before then.

I have yet to find any official documentation stating the precise start of JRS UK and research is ongoing to establish this, but perhaps I have been able to demonstrate that with some creative thinking it is possible to find information even when the first look indicates that there might not be much. Persistence, patience, creative thinking and detective work are all tools an Archivist sometimes needs in answering an enquiry.

If you would like to know more about our collections, or if you have anything to add to the above please contact us: archives@jesuit.org.uk

Rebecca Somerset, Archivist