From the Archives: 155 years of Letters and Notices

POST BY MAllen

Alfred Weld SJ, founder and first editor of Letters and Notices

One of the Jesuits in Britain Archives’ most frequently consulted sources is a publication called Letters and Notices. It is an internal publication, intended for members of the Society, and is currently produced twice a year. This year is the 155th anniversary of the publication of its first volume in 1863.

The first volume opens with a circular from the anonymous editor at Manresa House, Roehampton, dated ‘The Feast of the Annunciation of BVM 1862’:

It has been proposed to make an effort to give the Fathers and Brothers of the Society in various parts of the Province a better acquaintance with the events of general interest and edification which occur amongst us. Circumstances have hindered the circulation of the annual letters according to the form designed by the Society; and it has been felt with great regret, that very much that is edifying, and many circumstances which would tend to encourage us in the service of God and in the love of our common Mother, are hidden from the Brethren of that same Society in whose bosom they had their origin.

To meet this evil, a facility is offered in the printing press now at work in the Novitiate … It is proposed to print from time to time at the house of Probation, a sheet containing such particulars furnished from different houses, as are likely to be of religious interest to the members of the Society.

The ‘particulars’ set out in that first volume are: the establishment of houses, success of missions, progress of colleges, admission of members, “notices of the edifying departure of our deceased Brethren” and so on.

The frequency of the issues and the amount of matter in each, as well as the entire success of the undertaking, must depend wholly on the cooperation which is met with from those of our Fathers and Brothers who have it in their power to contribute matters of interest.

There can be no doubt of success of Letters and Notices. Through their pages, the Archives hold a unique resource: almost 160 years of history as told through the members of the British Province. I wonder if that anonymous editor, in 1863, could ever have imagined that the publication would still be in production well into the next millennium.

The editor then was Fr Alfred Weld SJ (1823-1890), who was at that time Rector and Novice Master at the novitiate, Manresa House, in Roehampton. Prior to that, he had been Professor of Science at Stonyhurst, Director of the Observatory, and from 1857 Superior of St Mary’s Hall. In 1860 he was taken away from the study and teaching of mathematics and science, and moved to the novitiate. There, not only did he begin Letters and Notices, to which he continued to contribute, he also built the chapel at Manresa and planned two new wings facing the park. After four years in the office, he was made Provincial of the English Province (as it was then) at the age of 41, an unprecedentedly young age. During his provincialate, he oversaw the taking over of The Month by the Society and the establishment of the Messenger of the Sacred Heart. It was also his desire to found a house or community of writers, which was fulfilled by the first Editor of The Month. “It is no exaggeration then” wrote the author of his obituary, in Letters and Notices, of course, “to say that the literary work of the Province, so promising, so prolific, and so fruitful of good which has marked the last thirty years, is in great measure due to the initiatif and large-minded encouragement of Father Weld.”

These days, the publication is probably most recognised for its “notices of the edifying departure of our deceased Brethren” as the original circular put it. In the foreword to the Spring 2008 issue, Fr Anthony Nye wrote

Reading an issue of Letters and Notices can help us take our bearings. This is especially true of the Obituaries. Most Jesuits probably start with them. Many confreres write in about the life and work of each of the brethren departed at different stages of their lives in the Society, valuing them as characters with an affectionate honesty yet with genuine respect, giving us a rounded picture of very individual Jesuit identities, not just what they did but who they were…

The obituaries are one of the most used sources in the archives today: they are an invaluable source of information and context for an archivist cataloguing the personal papers of a particular individual, and are frequently requested by researchers interested an individual Jesuit or their family history.

They are also a fantastic resource through which to track the histories of various missions, communities, and to examine the general goings on in the Province for a particular period. The earlier volumes contain perhaps more letters than they do nowadays, possibly a reflection of the digital age of communication we find ourselves in, with English Jesuits writing with news from far-flung places such as Syria, China, India, North, South and Central America. Those working abroad were keen for news at home, while those at home wanted to know what was going on elsewhere, hence a plea in the second volume for contributions from both. Letters that do not survive in the archives can be found published in the pages of Letters and Notices, such as those sent by Fr Joseph Woollett SJ (1818-1898), chaplain in the Crimea, and by others serving as chaplains in the First and Second World Wars. Therefore they serve to fill crucial gaps in British Jesuit history. Studies of important Jesuit figures, essays on British Jesuit history, philosophical theses, and excerpts from historic texts such as John Gerard’s narrative were all printed, though, as per the address in volume 2, the inclusion of theological theses remained controversial.

Today, the range of topics covered in Letters and Notices has expanded to reflect the evolving nature of the Society, and include features on topics such as poetry and film, whilst continuing with the traditional pieces on Province news and historical studies of individuals and missions.

Without Letters and Notices, there would be huge gaps in our knowledge of the history of the Jesuits in Britain. It allows us to get an insight into the thoughts and feelings of the Province of the past, for which there is no other comparable source.

If you are interested in the history of the Jesuits in Britain or any of the resources held by the Jesuits in Britain Archives, please contact us.