What Do You Mean Being a Historian Means Everything is Documents And You Don’t Meet People! Let Me Get Out My Tape Recorder!
by Robert E. Carbonneau, C.P., Ph.D.
A recent request came to me by phone. Relatives of distinguished Passionist missionary to China, Linus Lombard desired to have copies of taped interviews conducted in the mid 1970s. So, I went to a traveling case that I have kept with me over the years and sought them out. What I found was four cassette tapes. Two were conversations with Fr. Lombard conducted in 1974 by then Passionist novice Brendan Flynn. The other two were conversations which I conducted with Fr. Lombard in 1975. All deal with the life of the Passionists in western Hunan from the early 1930s till the missionaries were expelled in the mid-1950s.
But the traveling case revealed more than the interviews conducted with Linus Lombard. Listed below is a catalogue of interviews which I have conducted with or about Passionists over the last twenty years. They are worthy of note, because many of those interviewed are now deceased.
At the same time these taped interviews are not transcribed. It is a task that must be done. These important oral histories require more attention. Perhaps someone might know a benefactor or an organization which might provide monies to complete these transcriptions so that they may be of assistance to researchers. The diverse number of those interviewed does indicate the wide directions of the Passionist story.
Oral histories serve a particular reminder. They assure us that it is absolutely incorrect to think that Passionist history is solely about buildings or anniversaries. What makes the established ways of understanding history come alive is that history is lived by people like you and I. All who are Passionists. All who know the Passionists
How did I get started in this process of interviewing people? Simply put, as I went through theological studies on my route to final vows and ordination in 1978, I was appalled by the fact that so little attention was paid to the history of Passionist identity as it had been shaped and come to life in the United States. Yes, it was of value to learn about St. Paul of the Cross who founded the Passionists. But he lived and died in the late eighteenth century. In my mind what was so valuable was a human knowledge of how Passionist religious life and ministry had developed from the strict regimen before Vatican II to the new freedoms after Vatican II. It also quickly became obvious to me that the China missionaries, in fact almost all missionaries who had worked overseas during the twentieth century, had been given no systematic means to reflect on their experience. You can see that many of the interviews done in 1988 and 1989 were in conjunction with my doctoral dissertation at Georgetown. While the immediate subject is the response of the one interviewed to the 1929 deaths of Walter Coveyou, Clement Seybold, and Godfrey Holbein in China, there is more information on the tapes about Passionist student life in the 1920s and the changing identity of priesthood and the Passionists in the twentieth century.
As we celebrate the anniversaries of retreat houses, parishes, ordination classes, vowed classmates, or various apostolates we must take the time to understand Passionist transitions. With all the attention to gerontology, historical inquiry may be a valuable leaven to ease the process of aging and teach at the same time.
I have found that conducting these interviews has been one of the most humanizing and humbling factors in my life. Yes, the documents must also be known, because people may consciously or unconsciously lie. But the opportunity to listen and learn has been invaluable. Simply put, people make history. Here is a partial list to date of taped interviews.