From the Archives: Jesuits and the lost art of letter writing


The Jesuits in Britain Archives is full of letters – personal correspondence, circulars, letters to and from Fr Provincial and Fr General, annual letters in Latin, postcards and Christmas cards. There are letters from Guyana, South Africa, Jamaica, India, Maryland, Rome, from all parts of Britain and, it seems, from all corners of the world. Such a volume of correspondence is perhaps unsurprising for letters are the staple component of many archives. However, the extent of the correspondence preserved in the Jesuits in Britain Archives is also indicative of the Society’s governance and organisation.

St Ignatius recognised the importance of letter writing. In the Constitutions of the Society of Jesus, written in 1558, Ignatius was particularly concerned to ensure that those dispersed members of the Society sent to all parts of the world retained a sense of belonging and union. Ignatius issued detailed instructions on the frequency and subject matter of letters to ensure that individual Jesuits remained in contact with their local superiors, that superiors stayed in contact with provincials and, in turn, that provincials stayed in contact with Fr General. As well as prescribing the frequency of letters, Ignatius expected a certain standard of letter writing and he is said to have returned letters which were unfinished, incoherent or simply written in poor Latin.

As the Society expanded rapidly with more members, houses and provinces, so the web of correspondence became ever more complicated. Some of Ignatius’ early instructions, particularly regarding the frequency of letters, had to be adjusted. Despite these changes, the Jesuit predilection for letter writing was firmly established.

The archives contain letters full of positive news and reports of progress and, conversely, letters full of despair recording a litany of failings. There are letters pleading for money or men and letters lamenting the lack of news. There are letters of edification and encouragement, and letters of complaint and hardship. There are humdrum letters describing everyday life and routine as well as letters describing exceptional events. In this blog post we celebrate something of the art of letter writing, an art which is increasingly disappearing from our 21st century lives, by highlighting a small cross-section of letters from the archives.

The first example is a letter from Fr William Cotham SJ in Jamaica, dated 29 July 1832, in which he describes an extraordinary event:

This morning at about 17 minutes to 5 I had a right good shake in my bed from a smartish earthquake. I have not heard that it did any mischief except that it made Fr D[upeyron] run down into the court […] he called me to follow him, but I thought myself as safe where I was. It was a fine, almost cloudless morning: after the shock there were sudden, short gusts of wind succeeded by dead calms […] It made several persons come to Mass that would otherwise have been in bed.

(MSB/36 ff. 26-27)

After describing the moment the earthquake struck and its aftermath, the rest of Cotham’s letter is taken up with far more prosaic matters such as the money due for postage and the shipment of books.

Letters were often written under great strain. Fr John Carroll SJ, for instance, wrote a series of letters from Rome to Fr Thomas Ellerker SJ at Liège on his fears regarding the fate of the Society in the late 18th century. In a letter dated 22 October 1772 Carroll evokes a spirit of subterfuge and intrigue as he described his attempts to keep a low profile:

We are just arrived at Rome: viz the 22[n]d of this month. My intention was to proceed the next day for Naples before any suspicion could be formed of my character here; but certain accidents will detain us here till the 27th – I keep a close incog. during this time, not going to any of our houses. I called privately to see Thorpe & Hothersall; but they were both in [th]e country: so that having had no manner of communication with any J[esui]t, I can send you no news concerning the affairs of [th]e Soc[ie]ty.

As Carroll had feared, the Society of Jesus was suppressed on 21 July 1773. Carroll returned to his native Maryland soon after this and was later to become the Archbishop of Baltimore.

In another example, Fr Charles Croonenberghs SJ of the Zambesi Mission wrote from Gubuluwayo [now Bulawayo, Zimbabwe] regarding the fate of Fr Augustus Law SJ. Law had been travelling to the territory of Umzila (an area now on the Zimbabwe/Mozambique border) to introduce the Jesuit mission there. The last news of Law had been a letter dated 30 June 1880. Croonenberghs, writing nearly 5 months later on 18 November 1880, began his letter:

I am sorry that after such a long silence, my first letter must bring you sad sad news. Things are not right in Umzila’s country (MSB/37/110-111).

Croonenberghs had still not heard from Law and he had received conflicting reports about what may have had happened. The Jesuits of the early Zambesi Mission were not only cut off from each other but also cut off from their superior at Grahamstown and even more cut off from London. The reliance on letters was both a blessing and a curse – many letters discuss the joy of receiving the post followed by the wait for a reply and, as in this case, the problem of unreliable or out-of-date news.  

There are countless examples of Jesuits corresponding with the high-profile figures of the day. Frs Martin D’Arcy, Cyril Martindale and Philip Caraman SJ, to name but a few, corresponded with scholars, authors, politicians, journalists, scientists and thinkers. In this example, the writer T.S. Eliot wrote in his capacity as a partner at Faber & Faber to Fr Leslie Walker SJ, then a lecturer at Campion Hall. Eliot’s letter is a fine example of measured and polite refusal.

Lastly, the archives do, of course, contain some letters which are indecipherable at first glance (and sometimes indecipherable even after much study).

What survives in the Jesuits in Britain Archives is undoubtedly only a fraction of the whole. We are making progress in calendaring our collection of bound volumes of letters and are discovering more and more correspondence through the process of cataloguing. For further information on our holdings, please do contact us

Sally Kent, Assistant Archivist