Kadoc archive visit, 2 September 2010

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2010: KADOC Archive visit, 2 September 2010

by Rebecca Volk, Archival Assistant, Daughters of Wisdom GBI Provincial Archives

On 2nd September 2010 the History of Women Religious in Britain and Ireland conference delegates attended an informative introductory talk in which Kristien Suenens acquainted us with KADOC and the DiBIKAV project.  This was followed by a visit to KADOC II, the repository, where Godfried Kwanten gave us a tour after which we were given the opportunity to view some captivating archival material from the archives of the religious institutions held there.  KADOC is a successful example of centralisation of archives and provides a fascinating if unique case study for other countries, which are faced with similar challenges regarding how best to ensure preservation of the religious heritage.  A summary of KADOC and its work is given below.

KADOC (http://kadoc.kuleuven.be/eng/)


KADOC –a documentation and research centre for Religion, Culture and Society is an interfaculty centre belonging to the Humanities and Social Science Group of the KU Leuven (the Catholic University Leuven).  KADOC came about in 1976 due to a concern that the archives were at risk due given the diminishing number of religious vocations and an aging population in religious orders.  The foundation of KADOC was supported by the Flemish government, Flemish Catholic hierarchy and by Catholic groups in Flanders.  Official recognition as a cultural heritage centre was granted in 1985, which ensured ongoing financial support -KADOC is funded c. 80% by the Flemish government.  It has a budget of €2-3 million and employs over 50 people.

The centre is situated in a former Franciscan monastery in the centre of Leuven.  It has a reading room, exhibition space and library of wide ranging publications.  It holds the Catholic records of Flanders: the collection includes the archives of religious orders, Christian groups and organisations.  The centre stores the publications and audio visual material in its onsite repository, which has 15 linear km of storage space.  These records are stored in archival enclosures (boxes and folders) on rolling shelving.  The audiovisual materials are stored in a separate room.

The reading room is situated in the former monastery’s dining room.  There are c. 72,000 visitors to the KADOC each year.  Records have to be booked in advance so that they can be retrieved and transferred from KADOC II (an offsite storage facility, see below) for consultation. Access is made in compliance with international standards and best practise.  KADOC is increasingly making access available electronically.

Ownership of the archives remains with the religious institute and KADOC conforms to international access restrictions.  However, a basic condition of transferral to KADOC is that at some point the collection needs to be open for research.  There is a good relation between KADOC and institutions, which is visible in the fact that a second repository was necessary and in the extensive library collection as the institutions have donated their convent library once they no longer require these.

Part of the success of KADOC can be accredited to the Catholic University background as this helped to establish confidence in the centre.  The centre has gained a good reputation and built up trust and credibility in its service.  Centralisation of Catholic institutional archives has preserved these records for the future and provided a cheaper solution.  Centralisation also supports the archives by allowing for specialisation and collaboration.  The fact that the private and public sector are working together is typical of Belgium.  This makes it a unique system worthy of study in considering a centralised archive for Catholic records elsewhere even if it cannot be reproduced.


KADOC is focused specifically on the interchange between religion, culture and society as it evolved from the second half of the 18thcentury.  The three central missions are:

  1. Conservation of heritage

They actively collect, preserve, maintain and make available diverse material in a variety of formats.  This is done in a professional way with future generations in mind and conforming to archival standards and record keeping rules and regulations.  KADOC provides guidance and practical conservation assistance in situ to those orders who still wish to maintain their own archive, in preparation for a future transfer of the collection to KADOC.

  1. Research

Scholarly and scientific examination of the heritage it explores is encouraged.  They not only stimulate external research, but carry out their own research.  Most of the research projects have been ordered by the institutions, whilst some are academically requested.  Their research policy is to:

  1. Set up multidisciplinary research groups

  2. Support and prepare publications and exhibitions on specific topics

  3. Organise scholarly colloquia, seminars, workshops and symposia

  4. Issue scholarly publications-including KADOC Studies and KADOC Artes

  5. Participate in international research groups, projects and meetings

  6. Produce their findings in various publications

  7. Provide assistance to researchers and expert assistance to other institutions.

  1. Public service

KADOC aims to increase greater public awareness and appreciation of heritage concerns by:

  1. Responding to requests from institutions and individuals

  2. Supporting and publishing popular publications

  3. Putting on exhibitions and other events aimed at general public

  4. Offering training, advice and support

  5. Creating and supporting networks related to heritage conservation and research

  6. Participating in bi-monthly network meetings with state archives and others to discuss issues in the archiving world.


Due to closures of convents there was a growth in records being transferred to KADOC and therefore a second depot was needed.  In 2005 KADOC II was opened in Heverlee, a short drive from KADOC.  KADOC II provides off site storage for 30 linear km, of which currently 2/3 has already been filled. The documents are stored in archival boxes on rolling shelving.  The temperature and relative humidity are monitored.  The building is anti-theft and fire proof.

When documents are delivered they are stored in a delivery room, which is a large warehouse type room with boxes stacked up high on palates on shelves.  There are several offices in which the documents can be appraised and catalogued before being repackaged into the correct archival boxes.  These boxes are then moved on a palate using fork lifts to the correct upper storey store room and put on the shelf.  The repositories have a wide enough central corridor to allow two fork lifts to pass each other.

At present the archives of 42 different female institutions are stored, which equals c. 400 linear meters of storage.

Future/digital approach

LIAS-Leuven Integral Archive System (KADOC III) was created with the assistance of KU Leuven’s ITC department for the management of digital records.  KADOC III is a digital repository which has been constructed with the assistance of the Leuven’s University ITC department to provide secure storage of modern digital media and electronic records.  Those wishing to transfer their digital records to this repository have to pay to do so to meet the cost. 

DiBIKAV (http://www.crkc.be/site/055.html)

DiBIAV is a digital inventory of religious archives in Flanders, a project that was started in 2004/5.  The project is supported by the Flemish government, dioceses, convents and KADOC.  Its concern was that religious archives represent an unknown field and with the threat represented by the current situations in convents.  It therefore aims to provide information for future preservation.

The goals can be summarised as registration in the digital database and providing a systematic search for archives of private churches and religious institutes.  The priority is with in situ archives, which are mostly congregational archives rather than individual.  The search provides basic data about i) the content of the archives and the consultation procedure and ii) the congregation and its history.

In 2005 a survey of c. 320 autonomous in situ religious institute archives was carried out with follow ups in 2006, 2007 and 2010.  Some archives were also visited to establish contact.  An immediate transferral is not required.  With permission (c. 1/2 agreed) systematic registration was made available in 2 databases, which is freely accessible in Dutch.  KADOC are currently working on an English version.  Temporary result of the projects is that c. 250 archives were registered in 2005-10, which equals 70%.  Contact has been established and advice given.  The analysis of first results and future perspectives and recommendations for both convents and government was published inAd fontes by K Suenens in 2008.  This publication is available only in Dutch. 

CRKC (http://www.crkc.be/)      

For the preservation of Catholic cultural heritage material such as embroidery a sister institution- the Centrum voor Religieuze Kunst en Cultuur vzw (CRKC)-was set up in Heverlee in 1997.  It was founded by five dioceses of Flanders in conjunction with KU Leuven.   The objective is to safe the cultural and artistic religious heritage.   It is hoped to open a museum as part of the re-organisation project of van Park Abbey, a building dating to the 12th century and in which CRKC is situated.

2010: ‘Female Religious on the British Isles: Interactions with the Continent'

by Liesbeth Corens, University of Leuven, Belgium

The 2010 History of Women Religious of Britain and Ireland conference was the eighth of its sort, and the first to be held across the Channel. Yet the location had some affinity with the British Isles, as the conference took place in the Irish Institute in Louvain, situated in the former Irish College. The organisation was conducted by KADOC, the Documentation and Research Centre of Religion, Culture and Society of the Catholic University of Louvain. Not inappropriately, given this collaboration, the main topic of the conference concerned interactions with the continent. 


During the first panel, the presence of British female religious on the continent was discussed. All three papers in this session dealt with the early modern period. Patricia Harris presented the cross-continental interactions of Mary Ward’s institute during the seventeenth century. How these communities of English religious women were perceived by English Protestant travellers was discussed by Liesbeth Corens. She argued that the encounters between the compatriots of opposite confessions illustrated a positive sense of Englishness transcending the well-known negative national identity formation. Closing this set of papers, Pascal Majérus offered an insight on the use of languages in the Early Modern English convents. Ideally, the nuns aimed at preserving their English identity, and considered the exclusive use of their native language a crucial aspect therein. The reality of daily life, however, forced them to use the language of their host society which is reflected in surviving texts.


The second section focused on the institutional side of continental initiatives launched on the British Isles in the nineteenth and twentieth century. The session was opened by Olivier Rota who discussed the French order of Our Lady of Sion. During the nineteenth century, these women religious opened four houses in England, working towards the conversion of the Jews. In a very practical way, however, they met the need for Catholic educational institutions after the re-establishment of the Catholic hierarchy, fostering the idea of the ‘conversion of England’. A second French congregation, the Filles de la Sagesse, was examined by Rebecca Volk, analyzing both successful and failed foundations.  Carmen Mangion delivered a paper in which she incorporated the concept of cultural imperialism into the scholarship on religious communities; she scrutinized the history of the Dutch Sisters  of  Charity  of  Our  Lady Mother  of  Mercy on the British Isles, disclosing how their insistence on maintaining an outspoken Dutch identity seriously impeded great successes.  Deirdre Raftery presented hers and Catherine Kilbride’s ongoing research on the Infant Jesus Sisters in Ireland. They illustrated a remarkably successful cross-pollination of ideas, initiated in 1908 as the Frenchman Père Charles Nain hoping to gain new members in Ireland to send to the Far East.Antoine Jacobs presented the fortunes of the Dutch Carmelite Nunnery in Blackburn, discussing their failure to integrate however hard they tried to adapt. Despite their efforts to learn English, they were incessantly referred to as ‘the Dutch sisters’, and closed down in 1996 after a mere 40 years of existence.  


The third and last set of papers were all concerned with the theorizing the very notion of female communities provoked, particularly on their example of female independence and activity in the world. The first paper was presented by Margaret Ó Hógartaigh, who is working on a revisionist biography of Nano Nagle. By introducing the idea of ‘agency’, she presented Nagle as a more determined and international woman than this far presumed.  Raphaël Ingelbien analyzed Lady Morgan’s representation  of  women  religious  in The  Princess; or the Béguine  (1835), demonstrating a continuous interaction between feminism, liberalism and nationalism. For Morgan, the beguines served as a model of female independence. Moreover, she explicitly linked Belgian Catholicism and the liberal struggles in the newly independent kingdom. Thereby she aimed at encouraging Ireland in its striving for autonomy, since the island’s identity was closely interrelated with the Catholic Church, and could therefore gain strength from the Catholic Belgian example. Moira Egan also explored the intersections of gender, religion and national identity. She scrutinized how nineteenth-century feminist writers, colliding with the nationalistic anti-Catholic fears, made reference to continental women’s congregations to argue for female autonomy. Dirk Van Overmeire presented the exchange of ideas on missiological research culture in an English and Belgian publishing series. The connecting thread here was Sister Margaret Thornton (1898-1977), member of the English religious of the Society of the Sacred Heart, whose work as a female mission geographer was greatly inspired by the Belgian scholar Pierre Charles SJ (1883-1954).


In the final discussion, some themes running through most of the papers were suggested. There was, first of all, a recurring preoccupation with identity, both the maintaining and the modification thereof. Some, like the early modern English convents and the Sisters of Charity, purposefully stuck to their original identity. Others on the other hand, aimed at close integration, and attempted to adapt to local culture, as illustrated in the policies of the Dutch Carmelites. Central in this identity issue was the use of language, a second theme frequently dwelled upon. English early modern convents, for instance, hailed English as their preferred language, which was a key aspect of the deliberated maintenance of their English identity. Likewise, the Sisters of Charity only spoke Dutch, while fostering close contacts with the Dutch mother house. These aspects of identity and language might have been pivotal in a third recurring theme, namely that of success or failure. The Sisters of Charity’s cultural imperialism limited the growth of the congregation, as this policy deterred local vocations. The early modern English convents also maintained their native identity, yet aimed at a different population for whom English education was the nuns’ main asset. Some other explanations have been hinted at, such as the difference between contemplative versus active orders, or the town-based as opposed to countryside foundations. Likewise, the needs of the host society had some influence. Our Lady of Sion instant success, for instance, can partly be attributed with the needs of the newly re-established Catholic hierarchy. A last thread running through many of the papers was how the religious women acted in male networks. The nineteenth-century feminist writers discussed by Moira Egan and Raphaël Ingelbien had been fully aware of this, as were early modern men and women. English travellers visited their societal peers, and the Mary Ward sisters’ active involvement in the male world turned out a great source of both success and disgruntlement.


The participants greatly enjoyed a series of local visits organized by members of KADOC and the extended visit to Bruges on the final day. The morning was spent at the English Convent under the direction of Sister Mary Aline who brought to life many of the ideas under discussion at the conference and the afternoon in the city, where the presence of the English community was skillfully interpreted by Lori van Overbeke: her book on the subject is shortly going to press.


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