By Kelly Geraldine Malone in Winnipeg
Raymond Frogner says that when he found images of residential school students in the archives of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate in Rome, he knew he was looking at something important.
“It had a very historic, very deep feeling,” the chief archivist of the Winnipeg Center for Truth and Reconciliation said in a recent interview with The Canadian Press.
Few archivists are able to explore the religious order’s private archives in the Italian city, Frogner said. But he spent five days early last month combing through the archives of the Oblate General House, where photos, personal files and manuscripts document the group’s actions around the world since its founding in 1816.
This legacy includes a significant presence in Canada.
The Oblates operated 48 residential schools, including the Marieval Indian Residential School in Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan and the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia, where the discovery of unmarked graves last year sparked calls for justice and transparency.
Frogner dug into the archives of the former residence of an Italian nobleman. He works in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary and a large fresco nearby depicts Jesus and the founder of the Oblates, Eugene de Mazenod.
But his interest was piqued by what was inside a set of metal drawers.
“The big find for me was in the photographs.”
There were 20 photo drawers and three of them contained pictures of the order’s missions in Canada. Many depicted children in boarding schools in the early 20th century.
Frogner said he suspected there were as many as 1,000 photos that could be important to understanding what happened in Canada.
“Not to my surprise, the archivist of the archives there had no idea how important what they were holding,” he said.
The next step is to work quickly to digitize the photos, the National Center for Truth and Reconciliation and the Oblates said in a recent joint statement. The images must then be transferred to the center in Manitoba.
“The records we have assessed will help compile a more accurate timeline of Oblate members in residential schools across Canada,” said Stephanie Scott, executive director of the center, in a statement.
Frogner said the hope is to work with communities to identify the students in the photos.
“For us, as we go through the records and try to uncover the fate of children who have been lost, these are photographs that could point to certain times where those children were,” he said.
Frogner brought with him a list of priests known to have committed crimes against children.
He went through personnel files on the actions and locations of the priests. While none of those files contained information about the crimes, Frogner said they showed priests moving around frequently, having difficulty working with children, or advising a priest to get married and leave the church. order.
“(The information) was very vaguely worded..”
Frogner said he didn’t have enough time to fully analyze those recordings. Once the images are digitized, he hopes to examine the personnel documents in more detail.
The college’s long-standing practice is to keep personnel records sealed for 50 years after a member’s death. The order said it was taking steps to speed up file access.
The order’s files currently in Canada likely contain more complete information, Frogner added.
The Oblates have already provided the national center with more than 40,000 files and 10,000 others have been digitized.
The Royal BC Museum received approximately 250 boxes of material, a third of which relate to residential schools, from the Oblates as of 2019.
There are also agreements between the Oblates and other archives to transfer relevant documents.
Frogner said he knew his recent findings were of particular significance as Pope Francis visited Canada last week to apologize for the role played by members of the Roman Catholic Church in residential schools. .
Throughout the papal visit, indigenous leaders demanded the release of all documents related to the institutions.
The Oblates have already apologized for their involvement in residential schools and the wrongs they inflicted on Indigenous peoples. Reverend Ken Thorson of Ottawa-based OMI Lacombe Canada said in a press release that transparency is essential to truth and reconciliation efforts.
“While this year of partnership has been constructive, I know that these steps are only the beginning of an ongoing journey towards truth, justice, healing and reconciliation.”
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on August 1, 2022.