Christy Lobo is the archivist at the Archives of the Jesuit Madurai Province in Shembaganur, Tamil Nadu. Technically skilled with an M.Sc. in Computer Science and a passion for the history of Jesuits in India, Mr. Lobo is keen on using the latest technologies in maintaining the Shembaganur archives and enhancing its online presence. In this brief interview, Jesuit studies scholar and Toynbee Prize Foundation Editor-at-Large Joseph Satish V talks to Christy Lobo about his work as an archivist and his enthusiasm for all things Jesuit.
JOSEPH SATISH: What led you to join the Shembaganur Archives despite your IT background?
CHRISTY LOBO: I initially worked for a large firm in Madurai but returned to my hometown Kodaikanal as a freelancer. In 2015, I learned that Rev. Fr. Arulanandam (then the Director of the Jesuit Archives at Shembaganur) was looking for an IT person to help digitize some of the Archives’ collections. I was interviewed for the post and recruited.
JS: What was your first assignment when you joined the Archives?
CL: In October 2015, Fr Arulanandam organized a seminar on Church history and archives. I was a resource person and spoke about digitizing archives and using related software. Further, the existing staff were digitizing the past issues of Caritas, the private newsletter of the Madurai Jesuits. I was recruited primarily to streamline this digitization process. Rather than scanning and storing Caritas as images (which was then the procedure), I used OCR technology for scanning to provide content searchable by text. This quickened the digitization process and also made Caritas easily accessible for the Jesuit Curia. OCR technologies are now available even in our smartphones but back in 2015 we only had a flatbed scanner and so it was quite challenging. Once we learned how to do it, I was later asked to digitize other resources such as the Province Catalogues.
JS: When did you begin to become interested in Jesuit history?
CL: Until 2017, I was involved in digitization work and in setting up the website of the Shembaganur archives (https://archivesj.in/). In 2018, Rev. Fr. Aruldoss , the Director of the Archives was to attend a meeting of Jesuit archive directors in Rome. While assisting him in preparing his presentation we discussed a lot about our archives, the history of the Madurai Province and the Jesuits in general. Eventually, I became excited and began to delve deeper into our holdings and Jesuit history. Seeing my interest, subsequent directors encouraged me to know more about our holdings and gave me newer assignments.
JS: What kinds of visitors come to the Archives?
CL: Often, the visitors are Jesuits researching the history of the Jesuit missions to Goa, Malabar and Madurai. We also receive requests for information (which we process with due permission from the Director) from Jesuits abroad. Besides the Jesuits, international scholars also visit us, mostly from Europe. Recently, scholars from Germany, Austria, Sweden and China have visited us.
JS: What kinds of resources do these researchers look for?
CL: Most researchers come exploring the history of the Church in south India. Scholars also research the anthropology of the tribal peoples of the hills, details of which have been recorded extensively by early Jesuit missionaries. Reesarchers also explore the medieval history of present-day Tamil Nadu, details of which have documented by 17th century Jesuit missionaries in letters to their superiors. Some historians have suggested that the history of medieval Tamil Nadu cannot be studied without referring to these Jesuit letters. Then, we have Tamil scholars who study the works of Jesuits like Henrique Henriques, Joseph Beschi, Robert de Nobili and the lesser known de Rossi popularly known as “Chinna Saveriar”, since we possess their palm leaf manuscripts.
JS: What kinds of unique materials does the Shembaganur Archives hold?
CL: We possess Jesuit records from the early 17th century in the form of palm leaf manuscripts, and rare copies of Latin books which we preserve till now. We also have photostats of the annual letters written by the Jesuit missionaries (the originals are in Rome). Then there are archival materials from the New Madura Mission (after 1838) in the form of personal diaries, parish diaries, etc. We have blueprints of Jesuit houses, plans for approval, etc. including those of the Sacred Heart College at Shembaganur. Besides this, we have thousands of photos of Jesuit missionaries and their mission works.
JS: Besides its historical holdings, what does the Shembaganur Archives offer for lay visitors?
CL: We also receive several lay visitors. In 2018, a college student originally from the Kamudhi parish (Ramanathapuram District) visited us. This parish houses the cemetery of a little known Jesuit, Fr. Sartorio, who died due to cholera in the 1850s but continues to be revered by pilgrims today. This student visited us to get further details about Fr. Sartorio and the parish. Another visitor came from Mettupatti parish, one of the oldest Jesuit parishes near Dindigul, to know about the history of the “Pasca” or Passion play being enacted in his parish for several centuries now. Yet another person came from overseas, knowing that her great grandfather was once a Jesuit candidate at Shembaganur. Based on the approximate dates and other details she provided, I was able to locate a picture of the person for which she was very grateful. Personally, I also feel that lay people working in Jesuit institutions will be able to better appreciate their work if they understood the historical context of the kinds of institutions they are working for. Some of my own colleagues at Shembaganur have been able to feel a closer connection to their work when they hear me tell them about how the Sacred Heart College came into existence more than a century ago.
JS: How did you get so personally involved into the Jesuit ethos?
CL: I gradually became very interested in Jesuit history due to encouragement by the various directors I worked with. They gave me the freedom to explore my interests and also obliged my suggestions for professionalizing the archives. For example, our current director Rev. Fr. Anto helped us to procure an overhead scanner and EOS camera to digitize the brittle blueprints, maps and photographs, which need to be handled carefully. I also believe that archivists need to be passionate about the resources we curate which is why I spend time reading the resources that scholars request permission for – I even try to read the French/Latin materials using translation software. This engagement helps me know more about Jesuit history and also provide additional resources for the scholars. I also cherish the generosity of Jesuit historians like Fr. Rinald D’Souza (GOA) who helped me learn about archiving and cataloguing photographs. Finally, I have grown quite attached to the Jesuits after having read about them so much – I begin my work daily at the resting place of the pioneering Jesuits in Shembaganur to request their blessings.
JS: Can you tell us something about the ongoing projects at the Archives?
CL: We have thousands of rare photos, beginning from the 1890s. We are yet to catalogue most of them and so we have initiated some steps to archive these photos. While digitizing them is relatively easy, cataloguing each photo with the right information and archiving them is challenging but could help document the rich visual history of the Madura Mission. I feel this is important because we have only one or two photos of some pioneers like Fr. Trincal and Fr. St. Cyr. So far, we have categorized all the photos by theme and period. We are in the process of contacting elderly Jesuits and referring missionary records to catalogue these photos appropriately.
Further, we are in the process of building an extensive network of archivists and professionals so that we can coordinate with other archives around the world. For instance, we engage with curators and archivists in places like the Saraswati Mahal Library in Thanjavur to learn how to preserve the palm leaf manuscripts and other precious resources.
Joseph Satish V acknowledges the support of a grant awarded via the International Research Network for Science and Belief in Society (INSBS), through which he carried out this interview as part of his research project titled 'Missionary science and social justice in postcolonial India: The evolution of Jesuit science in the Madurai Province, 1952-2019'.