The religious archives of five Australian congregations have found a new permanent home in Melbourne as part of an initiative to collect and store valuable materials for future generations. Five congregations to date—the Brigidine Sisters, Presentation Sisters of Victoria, Faithful Companions of Jesus, Family Care Sisters and Missionary Sisters of Service (MSS)—together with the University of Divinity, will be part of the new initiative to create an archive centre in Box Hill, in Melbourne’s east. There will be room available for other religious organisations to join and have their archive cared for, too.

The Australian Religious Archive, which will be cared for and managed by the University of Divinity, is designed to hold the story, history and legacy of religious congregations and other religious groups who have made significant contributions to both civic and church life in Australia and beyond. Renovations to the existing Franciscan Friars site on Albion Road, where the University of Divinity is situated, are set to commence in 2023, to create a major facility with a variety of rooms to store and protect archives, along with public spaces for display and research purposes in the future.

Speaking on behalf of the Franciscan Friars of Melbourne, Provincial Phillip Miscamble says the Friars are delighted to welcome the Australian Religious Archive to their St Paschal Estate. ‘It will add a great resource for future academic research, housed within the University of Divinity,’ he says.

Sr Helen Carboon, Congregational Leader of the Presentation Sisters Victoria said the Australian Religious Archive will hold and honour the story, vision and history of groups who have played a foundational role in the establishment and development of health, education and welfare entities in Victoria and beyond. ‘Being held under the administration of the University of Divinity gives the collection status and permanent security,’ she says.

‘We appreciate being part of this creative collaborative venture. It reflects the way congregations like ours have always worked: looking for new possibilities and working with others to achieve what we could not do alone. It is exciting to be part of the beginnings of this new undertaking, which will provide opportunities for further historical study and research into the future.’

The Archive will provide a home for the Presentation Sisters’ history and primary documentation. ‘Precious letters such as those from Fr James Corbett, Parish Priest of East St Kilda, who wrote to the Presentation Sisters in Limerick, Ireland in 1873, “From the ends of the earth I cry to you for help” will be both safely stored and made available for further exploration of our story,’ says Sr Helen.

According to Professor Peter Sherlock, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Divinity, the Australian Religious Archive will be a research centre that preserves and hands on to future generations the many vibrant religious traditions that have contributed to Australian society and culture, highlighting the ongoing need to be attentive to spirituality and theology in this land. The Archive will house not only print and manuscript materials, but also objects such as fabrics, furnishings and ecclesiastical vessels.

For some years, Missionary Sister of Service Bernadette Wallis has been working on the archives of her congregation, which are currently housed in Hobart, Tasmania, where the order was founded. She is excited that the MSS archives will have a permanent home alongside other congregations, in a purpose-built space that can be accessed by those wanting to do theological and historical research, and by those who are interested in the stories of these congregations:

There is a great sense of social responsibility in preserving this history and in sharing this story, particularly for those groups who are coming to their fulfilment.

The national archive is being established in the spirit of Pope Francis’ message to participants of the Charism and Creativity: Catalogues, Management and Innovation regarding the Cultural Heritage of Institutes of Consecrated Life conference held in May 2022. Here Pope Francis shared that the value of archives is their capacity to transmit a religious, spiritual and cultural meaning that acknowledges their relationship with the history, spirituality and traditions of a specific community, including its charism and fulfilment. He noted that:

The need and, at times, the burden of preservation, can become an opportunity to renew, to rethink one’s charism, to recompose it in the current socio-cultural context and to plan it for the future.

In its aim to create a permanent research facility for the archives of religious organisations, with the potential to expand to meet future need, the Australian Religious Archive project opens up exciting possibilities for just such renewal, rethinking and future planning.

The facility is likely to open for operations in late 2023.

For more information about the Australian Religious Archive, contact the University of Divinity.