Home / Treasures from the Archives, part two

Treasures from the Archives, part two

In my last post, I described the actual work of digitizing Sophie’s letters that I did while I was in Rome last summer. It was a great experience and, for me, there was a very rewarding by-product of that work. When I wrote of Sophie’s maddening habit of writing in the margins of her letters, I mentioned last month that I often had to refer to the volumes of transcriptions that exist because it was difficult to determine the sequence of her “postscripts.” She wrote wherever there was space on the paper.

During her years as superior general (1970-1982), Concepción Camacho asked Claire Dykmans, a Belgian RSCJ, to transcribe Sophie’s letters, exactly as they were, without correcting spelling, punctuation or grammar. She agreed to do it only if she could be assured of a pool of typists to help her. It was a huge undertaking! It took her four years and three months! In Rome, there are drawers of index cards containing the notes that Claire took while she read and transcribed the letters. She followed certain themes in the letters and so the cards are arranged in categories. Some of the categories are: various biblical references used by Sophie, e.g., quotations from the Canticle of Canticles or St. Paul; references to the Holy Spirit; references to formation, to foundations, to the finances of the congregation; relationships with family, etc. On each card, Claire wrote the date and place of the letter, to whom it was written and the sentence in which the reference was used. She also listed the names of people and events mentioned in the letter. When the project was completed, the transcribed letters were privately published. There are sixty-six volumes in the set and each contains Sophie’s letters to a particular individual.

When I had to refer to the transcription of the letters to Eugénie de Gramont, I soon discovered that there were inaccuracies. The original letter I was holding in my hand and the transcribed letter did not match. Words, sentences, and sometimes whole paragraphs were missing from the transcription. Claire was very exact in her work so I am guessing that the typists were responsible for the errors and omissions.In the early 1990’s, an RSCJ in Spain asked if she could computerize Sophie’s letters in her free time. For over twenty years she entered the letters, working from photocopies of the Dykmans’ transcriptions. Her work is now finished. What she and Margaret Phelan are now undertaking (and what I helped with last summer) is the scanning of the original letters so that the transcriptions can be compared to the originals to achieve a final, corrected copy of the 14,000 letters. As I mentioned last month, Margaret estimates that it may take five years.

When Claire returned to Belgium, she began to put together booklets of quotations on some of the themes in the letters. There are sixteen booklets in all. Some titles are: L’action de l’Esprit-Saint dans les lettres de Madeleine Sophie Barat; Commentaires spirituels de la sainte Mère Barat à travers sacorrespondance and L’amitié vécu par une sainte. I only discovered these while in Rome and was delighted to find on my return that we have the ones on Philippine, Préparation d’une pionnière and Jusqu’au bout du monde. I understand that one or more of the booklets have been translated into English and Spanish, but our archives has only the original French.

The booklets also contain drawings, charts and fascinating statistics. For example, Claire chose letters written to nine individuals (Duchesne, Giraud, Garabis, Galitzine, Dusaussoy, d’Avenas, Audé, de Riencourt, Bouterlin) and recorded the number of times Sophie used ten different names for Jesus, such as “le Seigneur” (356 times) and “le Maître” (268 times). She noted that between 1843 and 1865, Sophie wrote 329 letters to her nephew, Stanislas Dusaussoy. If you have read Phil Kilroy’s biography, you know that, regarding her contact with her family, “it was with Stanislas most of all that Sophie continued correspondence until the end of her life, realizing that he most of all needed her support.”

These booklets are treasures!

~Mary Lou Gavan, RSCJ