From the Archives: Jesuit Oral History Project

POST BY MAllen

The project took place at St Beuno's Jesuit Spirituality Centre, North Wales

The outbreak of Coronavirus saw Jesuit novices Dunstan Rodrigues and Sam Dixon abruptly leaving their experiment in Dublin – a six-week experience of ministry – and heading for St Beuno’s Jesuit Spirituality Centre in north Wales. Four vulnerable Jesuits were spending time there in quarantine, and it seemed the perfect opportunity for the two new Jesuits to conduct recorded interviews with them for the Jesuits in Britain Archives.

While the production of oral histories has always been high on the list of activities that the Archives would like to carry out, other tasks such as cataloguing, supervising researchers, and responding to enquiries means that there has been little time for staff to organise such a project until now. Sam and Dunstan were sent a list of suggested questions to act as prompts but a natural discussion was encouraged with space for the interviewers to ask their own questions and pick up on topics that particularly interested them. The resulting conversations ranged over 70 years or more of experiences and were similarly wide ranging in themes. The interviewees talked at length about matters from how their days were ordered when they were novices in the 1950s through to profound transformations in Society and the Church and the global pandemic.

An introduction to oral histories

Cataloguing Archivist Alex van Goethem provides us with a brief overview of the oral history tradition and the importance of collecting these narratives:

“With the rise of literacy our reliance on oral evidence, arguably the oldest form of history, decreased, and with it our understanding of the value of oral testimonies. Today, oral history usually constitutes digital audio recordings of planned interviews, with narrators who have sat down to discuss specific topics, for the purpose of preserving and making them available for future research. This modern interpretation can be traced back to the work of Allan Nevins at the University of Columbia, who began to systematically record the memories of ‘persons significant in American life’ in 1948. By contrast, the pioneer of oral history in the UK, George Ewart Evans, collected memories of ordinary life and work in Suffolk villages in the mid-20th century. The social history movement in the late 1960s and ‘70s further advanced the idea that oral history could be used to record the experiences of ordinary individuals and minorities, and with it a growing acceptance among archivists to preserve and utilise them. By recording such a wide variety of perspectives, oral history has helped democratise the historical record, and given a voice to individuals and groups who are sometimes marginalised in the conventional histories.

“Oral histories are important to our understanding of the past due to their ability to record a broad range of personal experiences and perspectives on a spectrum of topics. They help fill in the gaps that other sources do not address and we can gain information not only from the answers of the interviewee, but also from the questions posed by the interviewer, as these questions derive from a particular frame of reference of historical interest, revealing also what the interviewer values as historical.”

Transcription of oral histories

Once the interviews had been conducted and transferred to the Archives, it was the task of the Archives team to transcribe them. Many of the interviews are in multiple parts, ranging from 14 minutes to an hour and 18 minutes. Assistant Archivist Lucy Vinten Mattich writes about her experience of the transcription process:

“Transcribing these long discussions was an intense process. With headphones on, listening and re-listening to each phrase of the recording, and transcribing exactly as spoken, I became immersed in the world of the conversation, inhabiting both the moment of the conversation, with additional sounds of creaky chairs, rustling paper, even birdsong, and the much longer ago time that the interviewee was speaking about. I felt that I was getting to know the speakers well. We all have verbal ticks, crutch words that we use in speech, such as 'well', 'like', 'you know' or just a trailing 'and...', and since each of these needed to be written down, along with everything else, I had to really listen out for them. After I had listened for a while to an interview and got to recognise personal speech patterns, I found I started to be able to predict these repeated words before they were said.

“When I had made a first draft of the transcript and read it through, I was struck how very unlike written speech it was. The discussion touched on some profound ideas, yet the actual way that the conversation went meant that the ideas were built up in layers, with phrases and thoughts repeated and refined. It was not linear but circumlocutive and iterative. Whenever we write, we order our thoughts, we edit (sometimes many times) to end up with something that lays our ideas out in a way we think coherent. In speech we refine as we proceed, we can't erase what we have already said, so say again one more time but a little closer to what we feel we actually want to express. This means there is room for far more nuance in a conversation than in a written document. If the subjects of these interviews had been asked to write about their youth in the Society they would never have written down these words in this order, but would have made a coherent, finished document with their ideas presented as a final form. By transcribing the whole conversation exactly as said we are capturing the ephemeral nature of speech in writing, and at the same time discovering the habits of mind of the interviewee.”

The project was beneficial to all parties involved. Dunstan wrote of the experience, “Sam and I really enjoyed interviewing the four Jesuits. It was fascinating, moving, inspiring, interesting and funny at times to hear about their lives and listen to their reflections.” Two of the Jesuits interviewed have also reflected on the experience:

Fr Tony Nye: “Being interviewed about one's life ensures spontaneity and informality, once any nervousness has been cleared away: it is the spoken word rather than the carefully constructed written word. This sense of freedom is increased if the interviewer is well known to one and knows one pretty well. My interviewer, Dunstan, was in this category as one of the Jesuit novices with whom I live in retirement as what they call the Elder Statesman in the Novitiate house. Dunstan was a good and sparing questioner. Once he struck a vein of memory he would leave me to burble on with reminiscences. After all, he is used to doing that, as all the novices are, during many a meal at Manresa house. That is my job!”

Fr Michael Smith: “I was very interested when I was asked if I would be interviewed to provide some material for the Jesuit province archives.  Looking back over my life – I joined the Jesuits nearly sixty years ago – I realised that I had been around for some of the most exciting times in the Catholic church in recent centuries, though I had never really thought about this before.  When I joined the Jesuits the Second Vatican Council was in progress, and that slowly made huge differences in the way our Jesuit life is organised and the work we do.  At the time, it all seemed quite routine, but looking back, the changes were profound.  We changed from being a rather old-fashioned and inward-looking order to one that is quite dynamic and certainly much more interesting and exciting.  And then came another far-reaching change, which seemed at the time more controversial: in 1974 we held a General Congregation, which changed the way we choose the works we do to bring in a mission to bring justice and help to those in need.  Arising from that new commitment, among many other new developments, the Jesuits started the Jesuit Refugee Service, and many years later I started working with them. Reflecting on all this for the interview with the archivists, I realised that I have been part of some very interesting times, and I was grateful for the chance to look back and enjoy them all again in retrospect.”

The Jesuits in Britain Archives are immensely grateful to Sam and Dunstan and their interviewees for giving up their time to carry out this project, which has provided us with the invaluably rich perspectives of individuals on Jesuit life from the 1950s to the present day.

And finally, the public can benefit from the project, too. Emma Holland, Producer of Pray As You Go, has taken a selection of excerpts from the interviews to create ‘Jesuit Memories’ and says, “We are using them to share the rich stories of the Jesuits in Britain; to give people a taste of their experiences and to be inspired by their lives and faith.”

If you are interested in the project or the work of the Jesuits in Britain Archives in general, please contact us: archives@jesuit.org.uk.

Mary Allen, Deputy Archivist

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