The following letter was published in Le Devoir on Saturday. Coordinated by the Institute d’Histoire de l’Amérique Française, and signed by nearly 700 historians (698 at last count), the letter responds to the dismissal of the team caring for the Sulpician’s historic collections. It is addressed to Quebec’s Minister of Culture and Communication, Nathalie Roy. The Sulpician archives holds about 1 km of records related to the religious organization’s work in and around Montreal, dating as far back as the 1650s. If you would like to add your name to the letter, you can sign it on our francophone partner site: Histoire Engagée.
As you know, in the August 19th edition of Le Devoir, Jean-François Nadeau announced that the Society of the Priests of Saint Sulpice in Montreal had dismissed their staff responsible for the preservation and development of the society’s collections, library and archives.
We are disappointed and concerned by this deplorable news. Moreover, we wonder how the Sulpicians plan to preserve, and make accessible, their archives and collections without qualified personnel to care for them? What do the Sulpicians and their managers intend to do with them? Faced with these worrisome questions, the community of historians, archivists, museum and literary professionals have come together to collectively signify the value of this institution and its collections.
This Society’s approach to their collections, and these sudden layoffs, signify the end of the projects of the Univers culturel de Saint-Sulpice, a corporation founded in 2006 to “make known and appreciate the role of the Priests of Saint Sulpice, both within the seigniories of the Island of Montreal, Lac-des-Deux-Montagnes and Saint Sulpice, and in the religious, political, economic, social and cultural history of the country from the founding of Montreal (1642) to the present.”
These words from the organization’s website resonate bitterly today.
The archives kept by the Sulpicians cover five centuries of history. As the former seigneurs of Montreal, from as early as 1657, the Society played an active role in French colonization. In addition to owning land on the island of Montreal, and conceding it to others, they also drew up the first plan of the city.
Through their parish responsibilities and the training of priests, they actively contributed to the educational and cultural development of Montreal and the province as a whole, while supporting allied religious communities involved in providing health and social services to the colony. Additionally, the Society ran several Catholic missions over the centuries. In this capacity, they surveyed lands that became known as New France and wrote dictionaries in several Indigenous languages. These records have been carefully preserved since their creation in this archive and serve as a gateway for understanding Indigenous history in eastern Canada. The history of the Sulpicians bears witness to a contribution to Quebec society that goes far beyond the spiritual realm.
The importance of the Sulpician collection explains the large number of researchers who have used, and continue to use, these important resources. For researchers, but especially for the broader public, how could we allow “a kilometre of textual documents, 75,000 iconographic items, more than 8,000 geographical maps and technical specifications, as well as sound and film recordings” to be put at risk?
For many of the people who have added their name to this letter, these collections have both quantitative and qualitative importance for their research and our collective understanding of the past. This is why we have been so quick, after learning about this announcement, in sending you this letter. For all the signatories of this letter, there is no doubt that the collections and archives of the Society of the Priests of St. Sulpice are of national importance for Quebec.
In addition to its material and documentary heritage, since 1985, the Society’s built heritage (The Old Seminary of Saint-Sulpice and the heritage site of the Old Seminary of Saint-Sulpice) has been designated historically significant by the province. According to the Répertoire du patrimoine culturel du Québec, these properties “are of interest because of their historical value based on their age” and “the role played by the priests of Saint-Sulpice in Montreal society.”
This heritage, whether built, collected or archived, has a rare value not only as physical and documentary objects, but also, and especially, in terms of our cultural and civic memory. The Sulpician’s are the trustees of a collection that bears witness to the permanence of our history and the relevance of our common past.
Although unprecedented in scope, the current situation is neither new nor unique. In 2005, the Institut d’histoire de l’Amérique française expressed its concerns during the Commission de la culture’s general consultations about Quebec’s religious heritage. Given the speed at which Quebec’s religious communities were closing, we argued then for a national plan to safe guard their historic collections. Across the province, religious archives, like that held by the Sulpicians, have heritage value. To protect them we must create governance and funding structures that ensure their long term conservation and development. This will require a process that includes all stakeholders, but especially the Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec, our provincial library and archives.
Given the concrete risks that the Sulpician collection might be dispersed, or even destroyed, we ask you, as the Minister responsible for Quebec’s culture and heritage, to proceed quickly with putting in place the necessary measures to protect these collections, assigning them the appropriate heritage designation to ensure their historical integrity. Antique books and works of art should also be included as part of this process. It is important to be diligent in this work, ensuring the preservation of this collection. Its value to our collective heritage is inestimable.
Brigitte Caulier is a professor of history at Université Laval and President of the IHAF; Karine Hébert is a professor of history at the Université du Québec à Rimouski and Vice-President of the IHAF; Martin Pâquet is a history professor at Université Laval and Past-President of the IHAF; Sophie Imbeault is a historian and editor whose work focused on the mid-eighteenth century and the British conquest of Canada. Signatories to the letter can be viewed at HistoireEngagée.
The editors at ActiveHistory.ca have added images to this letter to help readers outside of Quebec better understand the history of these collections.