The story of the Diaries

Fr. Ivan Page has been the Archivist of the Society since 1996. In 2002, with the help of Fr. François Richard, Superior General, Ivan launched the project of copying certain documents of the Society for the purpose of conserving them and placing them at the disposal of P. Lamey (1920-1993researchers, especially historians of Africa. This concerns above all our diaries. The minutes of the General Council’s meetings have also been digitised and will one day serve a history of the Society. However, our diaries, these logbooks of our missions, were written in the field, in countries where our confreres were the first witnesses recording in writing the life, culture and peoples they met. One of Ivan’s predecessors was Fr. René-Xavier Lamey, the Archivist from 1968-1991, (deceased at Rome, 26th November 1993, Cf. Petit Écho 1994/5 p. 251). We have discovered an article written in 1987 by Fr Lamey on the story of the diaries. Ivan Page then concludes with an update on the present state of the project.

In the time of Cardinal Lavigerie
(Written by René-Xavier Lamey) - There is no point in emphasising what every confrere knows about the intentions of our Founder in this matter. He wrote and often emphasised the importance of the diaries, on the obligation of writing them, on the way to keep them, (descriptions, religious and secular history, geography, scientific observations, anecdotes, picturesque details, etc.), on the regularity of sending them to the Mother House, (Instructions, 1950 edition, pp. 75-77, 88, 113-120, 124-125).

Juan José Oses copies and files photo albums of our MAfr history on computer and CDs.

All mission posts, either in Africa or in the home country kept their diary and passed on its contents to the Mother House. This was true during the whole of Lavigerie’s time and with a bit less fidelity during Livinhac’s time, (1892-1922). The most interesting parts of these diaries were published in the Chronique Trimestrielle de la Société des Missionnaires d’Afrique (Pères Blancs), then increasingly summarised in Rapports Annuels, due to the growing number of posts.

Some posts kept two diaries: the original that stayed in the post and its copy, substantially similar to the first that was sent to the Mother House according to the instructions of our Founder and his successors. In theory, this diary was sent to the Mother House every quarter.
The aim of these diaries was so that the Superiors in charge would know what was happing in the various posts; they would know more about the various problems arising so that their directives would conform as closely as possible to the needs of these posts and be realistic, (Instructions, ed. 1950, pp. 171-172).

Another aim was to make known to the whole Society what was happening and how it was being done in the various posts. It was a link between confreres. Finally, the broader aim was to help those in charge of White Father publications addressed to the public in the home countries to compose relevant material in favour of the works of the Propagation of the Faith, the Holy Childhood, and the Antislavery Campaign, etc. In addition, our Founder still found that the diaries alone were not enough. Furthermore, he wanted missionaries themselves to write these articles loaded with historical, interesting, ‘apostolic’ or ‘tragic’, and even ‘comic’ details, (Instructions, ed. 1950, pp. 114-118).


After Cardinal Lavigerie (till 1936)
After the death of our Founder, there was a slight relaxation in fidelity to sending the diaries to the Mother House. In 1928-29, Rev. Fr. Voillard following a visit to Africa and echoing the 1926 Chapter pointed out his and the Chapter’s concern to see that the diaries in some posts were tucked away in a recess and forgotten by everyone. He was equally concerned for valuable works (anthropological, linguistic, etc.,) that when left lying around, faded or disintegrated or were eaten by termites, of use to no one. Additionally, he requested in his letter of 27/10/1929 (A.G.M.Afr. 132 147), that these documents, from all points of view of high value, be sent to the Mother House. In order to encourage their dispatch, he wrote in a nota bene that these documents would be copied at the Mother House and returned to their posts. For construction work, he added in the nota bene that it would be enough to send an exact copy of the original.

The reason for this relaxation in fidelity to sending the diaries to the Mother House lay essentially in their increasingly limited publication. To offset this difficulty, Bishop Livinhac already on 19/11/1906, informed the members of the Society that the 1906 Chapter had decided that from then on instead of Chroniques there would be two different collections. One would be Rapports annuels, and the other Chroniques, which would thus provide more space for diaries and anthropological and historical articles. From 1906, however, the abundance of subjects did not allow for a newsletter intended for the friends and benefactors of the White Fathers, White Father African Missions, founded by Archbishop Lavigerie in 1871. This newsletter was partly translated and adapted to non-French Provinces.

The number of mission posts multiplied increasingly rapidly – there were already over a hundred in 1906 – and very soon the editorial staff became aware that it was no longer possible to publish all the diaries even using huge scissors and mercilessly summarising. The last edition of Chroniques appeared in June 1909.

The 1912 Chapter requested the setting up of another, and so the Petit Echo was born on the 8/12/1912. However, the publication of the diaries had practically ceased. All that was left was in decline, a few scraps in Rapport Annuels, up to 1936.

1936 to 1987
For all that, the diaries were not suppressed, but writing them after 1936 was generally neglected or done haphazardly. Their dispatch to the Mother House was often delayed and sometimes omitted in spite of reminders by Major Superiors. Thanks to Bishop Durrieu, many diaries were saved, but the collection is still far from complete.

On the 28/12/1961 Fr. Volker took charge with an additional line of reasoning: much strife and many difficulties were gradually troubling different regions of Africa. From this came the risk of destruction or loss of various documents, diaries and other writings of value. He did not promise to return any of these documents and according to me, rightly so, as these diaries in particular were asked of Missionaries as White Fathers and not as diocesan priests.

Indeed, there is no question that these diaries were stipulated from White Fathers as White Fathers and not as parish priests or curates of parishes or sub-parishes. The aim of these diaries had been clearly indicated by our Founder, enough said. Moreover, it should not be forgotten that in virtue of the jus commissionis, – and I have a confirmatory if needed – not only those diaries imposed by our Founder, but even the reports of the bishops (ordinary and confidential reports, especially financial), were required to be copied and obligatorily sent to the Generalate, which would send on a copy to Propaganda.

After the suppression of the jus commissionis and the establishing of the hierarchy, things were different. In theory every bishop could request his parish priests to keep dairies for the diocese. Did they request it? Apart from some rare exceptions, I doubt it. No matter. I believe that after the establishing of the hierarchy, the situation was not the same and we could consider diaries that were then kept, as the property of the dioceses. (Note that this is my opinion and in no way involves the powers that be in the Society.)

Besides, many years before the setting up of the hierarchy, the aim fixed by our Founder for writing diaries no longer had its raison d’être, in part. Thanks to the many visits of the General and his Assistants, they knew the situation in each diocese very well and in addition, these diaries were no longer published in the missionary newsletters or elsewhere.

The focus of interest of the diaries had also changed. There was no longer anything said of habits and customs or the local or general history, etc. Instead, the emphasis was laid on what was of direct interest to the parish, as Bishop Furstenberg wrote, (Circulaires n. 2 and 8, 1985), ‘What should be recorded in the Diary? Anything of importance in the life of the mission or of the missionaries; important events at the mission, in the District, in the Country; important visitors; difficulties, problems, successes encountered at the mission or in the out-stations, etc.’ He adds an interesting piece of advice (or an order?), ‘If it should have happened that for some time nothing was recorded in your diary, make at least a résumé of events during that period. This résumé should be worked out in a common meeting of the staff.

After entering this résumé in the Diary start again to keep a regular diary.’ He concludes by saying, ‘If a diary is completely filled up, please send it to the Bishop’s office for safekeeping. After some time, you will receive a photocopy of your diary.’ There are here some interesting features and it is clear: diaries belong to the diocese. I must add, to be complete and pay a debt of gratitude to Bishop Furstenberg that he is the only bishop to have sent a photocopy of all the diocesan diaries to the Archives, right up to 1982!

What of the future? (Question asked in 1987)
The mission posts that were faithful in sending their diary to the Generalate have had or may have, according to the means available at the Archives, a certified copy. The others, who in spite of all the recommendations did not send in anything, are now often without diaries, because they have been lost or are so damaged they are no longer readable. This is the case of Kati (Mali), taken in charge by the White Fathers in 1897. To my knowledge, they no longer have a diary; it was never sent to the Mother House. The same goes for Gouecke (Guinea), founded in 1914, to take examples only from West Africa. Things were very much better in Equatorial Africa, except for Tanzania.

When they tried to recover these diaries, they delayed too long and from now on they are State property! Fortunately, some years ago, Brother Klehr, a specialist in the subject, was able to microfilm them all for our Archives. What is more, the original diaries of Tanzania, according to Vansina and Roberts, eminent anthropologists and historians, who had the opportunity to consult them, said they were condemned to a more or less brief lifespan.

From time to time, I still receive diaries more or less old; with the means presently available in our Archives, I have them typed up. Here, I would like to thank those confreres from the home countries and Africa who have been willing to spend a few weeks typing these diaries during a stay in Rome. Often the state of the diaries in age and deterioration in which they were submitted to the Archives sadly does not allow them to be photocopied.

To be complete, I would like to take this opportunity to point out that we have one of the best historical and missiological photo-libraries, in so far as territories in which White Fathers worked are concerned. These old photos, (and others that we would gladly still receive, as they are just lying around in many mission posts) provide excellent illustrations for the diaries.

This is not only my opinion, but also that of a connoisseur, Carney E.S. Gavin, Ph.D., Director of the Harvard Museum and that of Elisabeth Carelle, Chief Photographer at this same museum, who were both amazed by what I could show them, in spite of a still very poor filing system.

To conclude, finally, I will not insist on the importance of the diaries (especially the oldest ones) and the Archives in general. On the one hand, a simple glance at the present and growing boom in the science of archives will be sufficient. On the other, the reflections I made ten years ago remain as valid as ever. Servata tradere viva. (Petit Echo, 1977/1, pp. 32-33).

René-Xavier Lamey
Archivist of the Society (article written in 1987)

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‘Diary of the Missionaries to Nyanza - Foundation of the Station of St Mary of Rubaga - June 1879. Tuesday 17 : Today, all those who have any kind of cloth are very well-dressed ...’ With these words, in French, the diary of the confreres who had just arrived in Rubaga (Kampala), Uganda begins.

The Story of our Diaries - Continued

(Written by Ivan Page) - From my time of starting in the Archives in 1996, I recognised the importance of the diaries and was preoccupied by the problem of conservation. If in general, the manuscripts were in good enough condition, they were unique; what would happen in case of fire? Thanks to the willingness of some confreres, the Archives have been endowed with typewritten copies of a part of the diaries: copies were bound into 593 volumes. Unfortunately, at the start of the typing undertaking, only the ‘interesting’ parts of each diary were transcribed. The notion of what is interesting is subject to various interpretations; this was recognised and subsequently each diary was copied in full.

Typing was discontinued when Fr. Rudi Godin returned to Canada in 1999. About that time, I received a circular from Brother Ferdinand Poswick, OSB, founder of Informatique & Bible (the Computer Bible) at the Abbey of Maredsous, Belgium. The letter drew the attention of archivists of Religious Congregations to a service of digitising and microfilming archives. I made enquiries; I then spoke to the General Council about it; Father General asked me to contact some other Congregations who had already engaged this service. All were agreed that the finished product was of the best quality, although the cost was high.

The Council recognised the importance of the project and initially authorised a pilot study, whose cost would be deducted from the first invoice, if we pursued the project. The outcome of this study was presented to the Council in June 2001

The following year, the project was approved, the contract signed and the work begun. It should conclude in 2007. Besides the diaries, the team processes the minutes of the General Councils’ meetings, the reports of the General Chapters and two series of publications: ‘Chronique Trimestrielle’ and ‘Rapports Annuels.’The copious correspondence of Cardinal Lavigerie, and that of the Vicars Apostolic and the Regionals on the one hand, and that of the Mother House on the other, could be the subject of a new contract in the future.

As to method, Brother Poswick and Ms. Yolande Juste, a computer consultant, come to Rome several times a year for about two weeks of intensive work here. They set up a studio, install the digital apparatus on the worktop and photograph each document page by page. The images pass directly into the computer.

The final product will be presented under two forms: rolls of microfilm with a guaranteed lifespan and a database with the required software for accessing it. Probably at least part of the database will be made available to researchers on the Society’s Internet site.

Read before the explanations

Three databases have been posted online on the site:


"Here is a photo taken from Journal 3 of the diary of Mpala (Congo) 1900-1935.

In April 2006, Informatique & Bible transferred responsibility for current contracts to Mnémotique, a new Society, also with its headquarters at the Abbey of Maredsous. Brother Poswick and Ms. Juste will complete ongoing contracts before resuming their focus on the Computer Bible.

Ivan Page
Archivist of the Society
(14 December 2006)

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Ségou Diary, 1899
Simon Alfred Diban Ki Zerbo
enters history

Joseph Ki Zerbo (1922-2006), a renowned Burkina Faso historian and politician died on the 4th December 2006,

He is the son of Diban Ki Zerbo (ca. 1875-1980) who had an extraordinary life than can be authenticated by the original documents in our Archives. Having freed himself from those who had enslaved him, Simon Alfred Diban Ki Zerbo (‘Dji Bana’ in the Diary) found refuge among the first missionaries of the French Sudan. Baptised and married in the region of Ségou, he was part of the first White Father mission sent in 1903 to ‘Mossi country’ in today’s Burkina.


In addition to magisterial books on African history, some of which were published by UNESCO, his son, Professor Ki Zerbo, devoted a work to him published by Cerf in 1983. It is a fascinating story, as the Old Man relates his life with wit and humour. The Diary of Ségou is quoted in it. In 1975, His Holiness Pope Paul VI made a significant gesture. The photo opposite is the proof. Old Ki Zerbo, retired in his village of Toma was invited by his son Joseph to join the ‘Volta pilgrimage.’ In a group led by our confrere Cardinal Paul Zoungrana (1917-2000), Simon Alfred Diban came to pray ‘at the tomb of his patron saint.’ The Pope, informed of the arrival of this illustrious pilgrim expressed the wish to meet with the ‘Founder of a Church’. Paul VI had a talent for spontaneous symbolic gestures. On this occasion, he offered his pontifical throne to the tired old pilgrim. Diban Ki Zerbo, cornerstone of the Church in Burkina, was overjoyed after the audience. He said, ‘If there were balafon, I would do a dance!’ The ‘young Samo’ of 1899 was all set to dance in 1975. He was already over a hundred! (Cf. Petit Écho, 1975/8, p. 442-448)

Simon Alfred Diban Ki Zerbo on the pontifical throne of Paul VI. Far left, his son, Professor Joseph Ki Zerbo. Right, Mr Moïse, his attendant, Archbishop Bernadin Gantin of Benin, future Cardinal, then Secretary of Propaganda Fide, and Cardinal Zoungrana, MAfr, Ouagadougou.

He passed away in 1980, listening to a radio broadcast of the Mass celebrated by John Paul II, then visiting Ouagadougou. The ‘First Christian of Upper Volta’, the diocesan process for his beatification was completed in 2000.