Adventures in archival hunting

by Team members

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It is 9 a.m. and my contact person is guarding the door. We did not see anyone when we came in and we want to make sure that nobody knows I have been in here. I take my pictures in a hurry. Both of us nearly get a heart attack when someone enters only a minute after my contact has put the documents back in place. This is not the description of a top-secret mission of a spy during the Cold War, it is the current reality of our archival work.

Not everyone is keen on sharing material about ‘their’ stigmatics. Getting access to personal archives often involves long negotiations, persistency and a lot of luck. We could of course settle for official archives only. The diocesan and state archives do indeed provide very interesting sources and we have been very lucky in getting access to these. For diocesan or Church archives, getting access sometimes means having a meeting with the priest-in-charge, who will probably ask about your religious orientation. If a ‘sectarian cult’ concerning ‘their’ stigmatic has survived, he will make sure that you are not there to fuel the enthusiasm of ‘the sect’. Then again, when he is the postulator or has a role in the canonization cause he does not like ‘intrusions’ of third persons studying his ‘own’ stigmatic. Even if you have stated that your research is historical, he may still want to know your opinion about the stigmatized mystic (i.e. fraud or not?), whose papers you are about to dig in. At best such papers may be inventoried; but usually you will get a set of roughly classified boxes (unless they are dispersed, transferred somewhere else, or locked away in the secret files of the canonization process). It will be up to the archivist to let you explore the whole thing on your own, or to follow the long, everlasting ‘pilgrimage’ of the one-by-one document, as offered by the archivist. However interesting, diocesan and state archives may only give us the ‘official’, often ‘sanitized’ version of the story, and we are interested in other voices as well, usually kept inside personal archives. That means: finding and contacting the right people through long phone calls, frequent emailing (on the verge of stalking), and running into a lot of dead ends.

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Searching for the unofficial documents or personal archives of stigmatics means hoping that the key to the room where the archives are stored will turn and click, proving you to be worthy of seeing the material (unlike the others who have tried to gain access before you, but in whose case the door did not bulge). It also means taking plastic gloves with you, as the faithful collected all types of relics and it is not unusual to come across pictures or pieces of cloth with blood stains on them, locks of hair and the occasional finger. Finding the dress of ‘your’ stigmatic gives you a sense of immediacy, whilst an ampule with her blood (especially if you do not immediately realize what it is) horrifies you a little. There is no good way to describe the feeling you get when you first see a picture of a stigmatic you have only read about, or when you find her manuscript diary and letters. Along the way, you will probably meet passionate and devoted people, who have been collecting material of a certain stigmatic for years, hoping to open a cause of beatification and get others to see the ‘living saint’ he or she once was. They may put too much hope in your research, without realizing that you are there to fulfil another type of mission. They may invite you to a commemoration feast in honour of the stigmatic, they may even ask you to join them in their upcoming pilgrimage to the stigmatic’s grave, or to the hill where he or she ‘saw’ the Virgin for the first time. Though it may come strange at first, their faith should not be underestimated, because it also represents the past popular enthusiasm that we are so interested in researching in our project.

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It is 1 p.m. and the bell of the Vatican archives is ringing. Your time is up for today, right when you are reading a chronicle about the visible signs of the Passion or while you are opening a strange envelope, which probably contains relics of your stigmatic (exposing you to some pathogenic bacteria that has survived for several decades). But you do not feel angry about the rigid Vatican bureaucracy, you are already thinking about the next ‘non-official’ or private archive that you will visit in the afternoon. You gather your things and rush out.

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