‘Very deep’: Hundreds of photos of residential schools discovered in Rome archives

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 seeing something important.

“It had a very historical feeling, very deep,” the chief archivist of the Winnipeg-based Center for Truth and Reconciliation said in a recent interview with The Canadian Press.

Few archivists can explore the religious order’s private records in the Italian city, Frogner said. But he spent five days early last month going through the archives of the Oblate General House, where photos, personal files and manuscripts describe the group’s actions around the world since its founding in 1816.

That 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 prompted calls for fairness and transparency.

Frogner pored over the archives of the former residence of an Italian nobleman. He worked in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary and a large fresco nearby depicted Jesus and the Oblates’ founder, Eugène 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 drawers of photos, three of which contained images from the order’s missions in Canada. Many represented children in residential schools in the early 20th century.

Frogner said he suspects there are as many as 1,000 photos that could be important to understanding what happened in Canada.

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“To my surprise, the archives’ archivist had no idea how important what they had,” 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 will then be transferred to the center in Manitoba.

“The records we evaluated will help compile a more accurate timeline of Oblate membership in residential schools across Canada,” Stephanie Scott, executive director of the center, said 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 discover the fate of children who have been lost, these are photographs that could indicate at certain times where these children were,” he said.

Frogner brought with him a list of priests known to have committed crimes against children.

He reviewed the personal files on the actions and locations of the priests. While none of those files contained information about crimes, Frogner said they showed priests frequently moving places, having difficulty working with children or advising a priest to marry and leave the order.

“(The information) was largely expressed in vague terms…”

Frogner said he didn’t have enough time to fully analyze those records. After the images are digitized, he hopes to examine the staff documents further.

The long-standing practice of the order is to keep personnel records sealed for 50 years after a member’s death. The order has said it is taking steps to speed up access to files.

The order files currently in Canada are likely to contain more complete information, Frogner added.

The Oblates have already provided the national center with more than 40,000 records and 10,000 more have been digitized.

The Royal British Columbia Museum received about 250 boxes of materials, 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 records.

Frogner said he knows his recent findings are of particular importance since Pope Francis visited Canada last week to apologize for the role members of the Roman Catholic Church played in residential schools.

Throughout the papal visit, indigenous leaders urged the publication of all documents related to the institutions.

The Oblates have previously apologized for their involvement in residential schools and the harm they inflicted on Indigenous Peoples. The Rev. Ken Thorson of Ottawa-based OMI Lacombe Canada said in a press release that transparency is critical to truth and reconciliation efforts.

“While it has been a constructive year of partnership, I know that these steps are just the beginning of an ongoing journey toward truth, justice, healing and reconciliation.”

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on August 1, 2022.

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