By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published August 4, 2011
This article was corrected for spelling errors on November 22, 2011.
In the late 1700s, Father James Archer inked his thoughts on thin paper about faith during a time when Catholics in England were persecuted—or worse, killed.
Now, more than 200 years later, people can transcribe the aged pages bound together with a thread to reveal the thoughts of this priest who encouraged the faithful during a time of turmoil.
“It’s really a good time capsule,” said Robert Presutti, the curator of archives and manuscripts at the Emory University’s Pitts Theology Library. They offer a “more intimate glimpse than official records” with Father Archer’s thoughts on parenting, clothing, along with church feasts and holiday.
Paul DeGeorge is one of the 20 or so volunteers who work with the records.
The themes of the writings are “incredibly current,” said DeGeorge in an email.
He said the sermon on parenting could be given now. “The second duty of parents towards their children is instruction and good education. They ought to instruct them, that is, teach them as soon as they have attained the use of reason, the first principles of religion and the duties of their state. They ought to send them to catechism; they ought to, according to their ability, procure them an education comfortable to their disposition and talents, ” he transcribed from the documents.
DeGeorge, who is 65 and retired from the marketing industry, spends three days a week at the library on the campus.
“Incredibly, 95 percent of the writing is clear with the ink still dark and the parchment in good condition (our modern paper and ink cannot compare in quality). It’s the other 5 percent that is most challenging, and yes, then I use a magnifying glass,” said DeGeorge, who attends All Saints Church, Dunwoody.
The collection is part of the library’s holdings of three Victorian-era English Catholic leaders: Blessed John Henry Newman, Cardinal Edward H. Manning and Father Archer.
The transcription project started in 2010 before Pope Benedict XVI beatified Newman. The Pitts Theology Library holds six of his letters and wanted to share them with researchers and the community when the interest in Newman was high. Volunteers transcribed the handwritten letters, making the words available to the wider world. The content of the letters is posted online at the Pitts Library website.
It was such a success that the library repeated the task with the papers of Cardinal Manning. Now, volunteers are focused on Father Archer’s documents.
The priest worked in the mid-1700s at a London pub called The Ship Tavern, which still exists. Catholics feared to worship in public at the time. Priests celebrated Mass from behind the bar, and when king’s official came into view, the priests could escape through secret passages, according to the tavern’s website. Catholics would hoist tankards of ale and blend into the crowd.
Archer became one of the most popular priests of his time, according to research by the Emory library. His writings covered religious persecution and spirituality to a “discourse on satisfaction.” Several editions of his sermons were published between 1788 and 1832. His efforts earned him a doctor of divinity degree from the pope. He died at the age of 82 just as an age of tolerance began in Britain.
“It comforts me a great deal to document these great men who overcame such powerful adversity such as the British Crown and Parliament, in order to preach the Catholic gospel, creeds and faith,” said DeGeorge.
Father Archer’s 83 sermons are held in a climate-controlled room at the library. While legible, the ink requires readers to carefully study every word. The only dated sermon is from 1788. The documents were written as speeches, not for publication. They run about 12 pages long. The documents show how Father Archer’s ideas developed as he crossed out words and replaced them.
“The more he wrote, the more he thought,” Presutti said.
To read Father James Archer’s sermons online, go to www.pitts.emory.edu/Archives/text/mss006.html. To participate in the transcription project, contact Robert Persuitti at Rpresut@emory.edu.