Recording the Missionary Experience

In 1945, four Canadian Jesuits arrived in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Emperor Haile Selassie, familiar with the Jesuits’ reputation as excellent educators, had invited Canadian Jesuits to help rebuild Ethiopia’s educational system, left behind after war and occupation. The first Canadian Jesuits took up teaching and administration positions at Tafari Makonnen School, where they reorganized the primary curriculum and established a secondary curriculum. Over the course of the twentieth century, the Canadian Jesuits in Ethiopia also founded University College Addis Ababa (Ethiopia’s first university), created adult education programs, and carried out academic research in fields such as philosophy and seismology; some also branched out from educational work to invest themselves in a broader range of apostolic works, including famine relief, refugee work, and pastoral care. The last Canadian Jesuit remained until 2017, and Ethiopia is now part of an independent Eastern African Province of the Society of Jesus.

The Archive of the Jesuits in Canada (AJC) preserves the history of Jesuits’ presence and work on Canadian soil since 1611. This mandate also extends to the history of foreign missions and projects involving the Jesuits of Canada in countries such as India, Haiti, China, and Ethiopia. The AJC currently holds an archival fonds from the Jesuit educational project and mission work in Ethiopia, containing printed and manuscript sources, photographs, as well as audio-visual material. The cassettes, reel-to-reel audio tapes, and discs contained in this fonds hold recordings of texts in Amharic (among other languages indigenous to Ethiopia), Ethiopian and East African music, as well as memories and anecdotes recorded by Jesuit priests and brothers about their time in Ethiopia.

Although they only tell one side of a story with complex religious, political, and cultural dynamics, these audio sources reflect the Jesuit experience in Ethiopia.

The first-hand accounts found in the fonds informed the curation of a small exhibit about the Ethiopia mission, displayed in the AJC reading room since February 2020. These audio sources are a valuable complement to the textual sources held in the Ethiopia fonds, and they present incredible potential to promote further audience engagement with the fonds, through the creation of more elaborate exhibits and educational materials. They also present unique challenges to the AJC, from processing and description to conservation and digitization.

From an archival standpoint, some of the audio sources are fairly straightforward to identify and contextualize. On one disc, for example, “a few musical highlights” of life in Ethiopia are introduced by a French Canadian staff at Tafari Makonnen School: the musical pieces were specifically recorded for Canadian friends and relatives back home. The Amharic language recordings are consistent with the educational and missionary context: Canadian Jesuits arriving in Ethiopia had no previous knowledge of Amharic or other languages indigenous to Ethiopia and were instructed to adapt to life in Addis Ababa by learning the local language.

On the other hand, the oral history sources in which Jesuits recorded the daily occurrences of their lives in Ethiopia are harder to contextualize. One Jesuit brother, Marcel Charpentier, left 30 cassettes in the Ethiopia mission fonds. Their content ranges from personal memories, biographical information and a detailed chronology of the time he spent in Ethiopia, to general information about Tafari Makonnen School, and Ethiopian history and geography. Stationed in Addis Ababa from 1946 to 1975, Brother Charpentier also recorded this chronology in his journals, a series of small three-ring binders filled with typed pages and a variety of photographs, prints, and textile objects. He most likely began to record his cassettes either late in his missionary life or upon his return home.

What was Brother Charpentier’s purpose in recording his own oral history account, especially since he was also keeping written records of his time in Ethiopia? Did he record his memories with an audience in mind—his family and friends perhaps? Historians and artists alike have explored the significance of the tape recorder in a domestic setting and its impact on memory-making, but how common was it for missionaries to record their experiences using audio? Brother Charpentier’s cassettes certainly coincide with the evolution of oral history practices that occurred in the second half of the twentieth century, and the advent of technologies that allowed non-professional consumers—individuals and families—to record their memories on reel-to-reel tapes and cassettes.

Historians and artists alike have explored the significance of the tape recorder in a domestic setting and its impact on memory-making, but how common was it for missionaries to record their experiences using audio?

The audio that Brother Charpentier left in the fonds also exists within the context of the religious congregation to which he belonged—the Society of Jesus—as well as the context of religious missions abroad. From its inception in the 16th century, the Society of Jesus has maintained rigorous communication and record-keeping practices. Frequent letters facilitated the governance of an organization spread across various countries and continents. When missionaries stationed abroad wrote letters home containing interesting passages about faraway places and people, these were shared and circulated not only between Jesuits, but among broader circles as well. In the case of the French Jesuit mission to Canada in the 17th century, for example, edited compilations of mission letters were published in Paris as annual volumes of the Jesuit Relations. According to Allan Greer (2000), these volumes soon became popular among pious supporters of Christian missions, “potential donors, and simply curious readers.” By using a cassette recorder to document daily events among the Jesuit community in Addis Ababa, Brother Charpentier was bringing the tradition of the lettres édifiantes and the Jesuit Relations into the twentieth century, and into a new format. 

In addition to the challenges of identifying, describing, and categorizing the audio content found in the Ethiopia fonds, the conservation of the objects themselves—cassettes, reel-to-reel tapes and discs—brings another set of challenges for the AJC, a small institution with a focus on textual records. Some vinyl discs from the Ethiopia fonds have been digitized and stored internally as WAV files, and the cassettes can be read on-site with a cassette playback machine. However, the larger reel-to-reel tapes have not been digitized, and without the appropriate playback equipment for this format, the content remains inaccessible. A continued digitization schedule could ensure that all these analog formats are uniformly preserved and made accessible to researchers without risking the integrity of the records. Since the AJC does not have audio digitization equipment on-site, reliance on specialist conservators and technicians would be essential to allow historians and researchers to have easier and safer access to the content recorded on the reel-to-reel tapes, cassettes and discs. As these sources become more accessible to historians and researchers who are familiar with Ethiopian languages and history, their interpretations of these materials will help improve the description and categorization of objects in the archive.

The cassettes, reel-to-reel tapes and discs contained in the Ethiopia mission fonds constitute a significant amount of material in the history of the French Canadian province of the Society of Jesus, and in the history of missionary activity in Ethiopia in the second half of the twentieth century. Continued conservation and digitization of these objects where necessary may facilitate increased access to these sources by historians and researchers. Expanding upon the work that has been done to assemble a display case in the AJC reading room, an exhibit incorporating these audio recordings could bring further visibility to these source materials. Oral history and music have the potential to engage wider audiences by creating a soundscape of a particular time and place. The unique oral history recordings contained in the Ethiopia mission fonds, like Brother Marcel Charpentier’s cassettes, have proved a personal, human introduction to the missionary experience, within the broader, more complex history of Canadian Jesuit presence in Ethiopia.


Catherine Barnwell
Project Archivist, The Archive of the Jesuits in Canada