A tribute to the Augustinians’ legacy of caring for a unique documentary heritage
For more than 375 years, the Augustinians were the creators and guardians of unsuspected treasures. Thanks to a rich heritage preserved over the centuries, the Monastère des Augustines is now a unique place of history as well as an exceptional research location to discover the history of the Augustinians and that of Québec society.
A recognition of great importance
On September 30, 2020, the Canadian Commission for UNESCO made public the inclusion of Québec’s 12 Augustinian monastery-hospitals archives in the Canada Memory of the World Register. This recognition of great importance salutes the inestimable value of these documents that retrace the tireless commitment of this community of caregivers who arrived in the country in 1639. An extract from the Commission’s media release for this announcement illustrates this importance:
UNESCO’s Memory of the World program presents the most significant documents of human heritage and history. Inclusion in the Memory of the World Register underscores the importance of preserving documentary heritage while emphasizing its continued relevance and encouraging it to citizens, students, researchers and the public.
Archives that can be traced back to 1639
On August 1, 1639, three young Augustinians reached the shores of Québec City. They had departed from their monastery in Dieppe, France on May 4, and disembarked carrying their letters of obligation, constitutive documents and letters patent signed by Louis XIII authorizing the foundation of the first hospital in North America, Hôtel-Dieu de Québec. During the voyage, these important papers were kept in a chest, with three animal-skin covered locks, to protect them from the onslaught of the sea, which also served as an altar for the celebration of Mass during the crossing. The contents of this chest are now kept at Le Monastère des Augustines Archives Centre in Québec City.
The enterprise of the three founders was guided by the Constitutions of their Order. The revised 1666 edition specifies the arrangements to be made for the conservation of the archives:
In each House, there will be a vaulted cabinet with an iron door, to which the Superior and Custodian will have a key; where the Archives will be kept and locked by three keys, where Monastery’s important papers will be kept.
These records bear witness to the world’s first female missionaries’ adventures and dedication, the first ones to cross the ocean to share their faith in God’s love by caring for the sick. This mission would continue over more than three centuries with the foundation of 12 hospitals in territories that had hardly been explored at the time.
The function of archivist within the community
Each monastery has always entrusted a Sister in the function of archivist. The registers, letters, deeds and plans have been skilfully and respectably kept in remarkable condition. The devotion and duty enshrined in the Constitutions undoubtedly ensure the authenticity of the document collection found today at Le Monastère des Augustines Archives Centre. The importance that the Augustinians accorded to archives from the very beginning allows us, today, to possess of an invaluable treasure, one of the largest private collections in Canada.
A duty of remembrance for the benefit of future generations
In the eyes of the Augustinians, all these documents represent the privileged witnesses of their work. Their preservation is a duty of remembrance of their predecessors for the benefit of future generations. The Sisters have always paid great attention to the preservation of documents. During tragic events, such as the fire at the Hôtel-Dieu de Québec in 1755 or the bombardment of the Conquest in 1759, they were able to preserve the most important documents. Archival documents, whether they are textual documents like correspondence or old registers, photographs, sound and visual archives, plans or maps, tell a total story that touches upon all aspects of the Sisters’ history, but also that of society in areas such as care, finances, food, spirituality, entertainment, etc. There is something for everyone!
In addition to keeping their documents, the Augustinians took up the pen to record their history. The first Annals of the Hôtel-Dieu de Québec, which recounted the events that took place between 1636 and 1716, began a tradition that would never be interrupted in the history of all the Augustinian monasteries-hospitals: the daily recording of their history. Even today, an annalist is appointed from among the Sisters to continue this tradition.
The Archives Centre today
The 12 monasteries’ archives are currently being merged together in a centre equipped with suitable equipment for their conservation. A team of professional archivists, entirely dedicated to these collections, works there. The archives are made accessible on site and many of the most significant documents have been scanned and stored, and are available through a web portal. This promises lasting preservation and pays tribute to the care taken by the Sisters since 1639
The Augustinian Archives’ inclusion in the Canada Memory of the World Register is part of this recognition of the exemplary work of the sisters, who understood their documents’ importance for posterity. Thanks to the Augustinians, a large part of the history of Québec and Canada is now documented and accessible.
Have you ever entered the history of the Augustinians? We invite you to visit in person or visit our web portal. You will see that this unique and integral history is your history too.
Sara Bélanger, Historian-Archivist responsible for the Archives Centre
Denis Robitaille, Application Manager for the Fiducie du patrimoine culturel des Augustines