Contact Us                 Archivaria

Members                  Volunteer

A Spotlight on Religious Archives with Mary Flynn

14 Mar 2024 12:28 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

From municipal and federal government to universities, from religious congregations to community organizations, archivists work in a variety of settings. This year, the ACA blog, In the Field, is setting out to talk to archivists across Canada about the unique joys and challenges of their work environments. We will feature a different type of archives each month, with the objective of showcasing the rich spectrum of archival work.

This month we are featuring religious archives. In today’s post, the In the Field blog chats with Mary Flynn, Congregational Archivist for the Sisters of Charity – Halifax in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Q: Can you briefly tell us about your academic and professional path? What brought you to the field of archival studies and practice?

Mary: I grew up in a small historic village in New Jersey, just outside of Philadelphia. I’m the descendant of Irish, Swedish, and English settlers to New Jersey and New York. From an early age, I’ve always been drawn to women’s histories and stories, and I count myself lucky that I’ve so far spent my career working with and for women.  

I completed my undergraduate studies at Moravian University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where I majored in French. I worked at the circulation desk of the university library for several years and loved it, so I decided to pursue a career as a librarian. I applied and was accepted to McGill University’s MLIS program. In my senior year of college, I had a practicum at the Moravian Church Archives, and I found the work so fascinating that on my first day of school at McGill, I switched from the library science stream to archival studies. Though it wasn’t my intention when I first moved to Quebec for graduate school, I ended up immigrating and staying in Canada. 

Since that first practicum experience at the Moravian Church Archives 19 years ago, I’ve spent most of my career in religious archives. I started in my role as the Congregational Archivist for the Sisters of Charity – Halifax in January, 2014. The Sisters of Charity – Halifax is a community of Catholic women religious, commonly referred to as “Sisters.” Our administrative offices are in Halifax, Nova Scotia, but there are Sisters of Charity across Canada, the east coast of the United States, Peru, and Belize. In 2024, we are celebrating 175 years since the first Sisters of Charity of New York arrived in Halifax, which planted the seed for the present day Sisters of Charity – Halifax.

Mary Flynn, Congregational Archivist, in the archives reading room, March 8, 2024.

Q: What does an average day look like in religious archives?

Mary: There is no average day! I’m a solo archivist so I handle everything that comes my way. Lately the bulk of my time has been dedicated to a few ongoing special projects, including our 175th Anniversary celebrations and writing a regular column in our newsletter, Charity Alive. I also answer research requests, primarily from our Congregational Leadership Team, Sisters, and staff, but also from outside researchers. The external requests are generally of a genealogical nature or are from former students looking for their old teachers. 

Before our 175th Anniversary projects started last year, I was focusing on processing our backlog, especially our collection of photographs with no identification. Our audiovisual collection has been the most used record group in the archives over the past few years.

Q: What is your favourite thing about working in religious archives? What are some of the challenges that are unique to religious archives?

Mary: Even after a decade in my position, I still find the work rewarding and engaging. The congregation is very invested in their history and value the archives. The Sisters’ Motherhouse in Halifax burned down in 1951, completely destroying their archives, and it took decades to rebuild what they could of their records. If I had more free time, I’d research how this event has shaped the record keeping practices and relationship to history and collective memory in the congregation.

Because of the Motherhouse fire, our archives isn’t as large as it should be, but our holdings include records from Canada, the United States, Peru, the Dominican Republic, and Bermuda. The main ministries that the Sisters were engaged in were teaching, health care, and social services, but starting in the 1960s, the Sisters had more opportunities to expand their work into different fields. I’ve expanded my knowledge of Canada and the United States, social justice causes, and residential schools and truth and reconciliation through my work.

We face the same challenges as many archives. Our Archives and Heritage Department has dwindled to one full time staff member (myself), and one part time Sister volunteer. The Congregation peaked in the 1960s with over 1600 Sisters. Now there are 180 left, with an average age of 83 years old. There’s no longer a focus on attracting new members but rather on creating plans to “come to completion” in the next 25 years. I feel the pressure to capture the stories of the elderly Sisters and their ministries before it’s too late. 

On a personal level, the deaths of the Sisters can be very difficult to deal with. The Congregation has decreased by half since I started in my position. Over the past decade, I’ve formed many personal and work relationships with the Sisters and it can be emotional to deal with losses while still having to be professional and process their personal papers. The grief has been profound at times but it brings me comfort to know that their lives are documented in our archives.

The Sisters of Charity – Halifax Congregational Archives and Heritage Department, 2017. Standing (left to right): Mary Flynn, Congregational Archivist and Sister Mary Palardy, Heritage Coordinator (RIP)Seated (left to right): Sister Christine MacDonald, Archives Volunteer and Sister Joan DeGrace, Archives Volunteer (RIP).

Q: What do you wish the public understood better about religious archives? What do you wish other archivists understood about religious archives? 

Mary: I wish everyone understood better that religious archives are a rich source of history, and contain records not just about the denomination or faith community that they serve. We have records about the 1917 flu epidemic, Acadians in Nova Scotia, rural hospitals in Alberta, safe housing for women survivors of human trafficking in Boston and New York City, and projects to provide clean water to communities in Peru and El Salvador, to name a few things. Having said that, religious archives do not have the same mandate as a public institution. Our archives exists to serve the congregation and can accommodate research requests from the public as I have time. 

Religious archives are not in the spotlight as often as university, government, or municipal archives, so I appreciate the opportunity to share my work in an In The Field blog post.

Q: Can you tell us about a project you’ve been working on lately? 

For the past year, I’ve been heavily involved in the congregation’s 175th Anniversary projects. Every week for 175 weeks, we highlight a photograph from the archives on our Facebook page. A committee has created a list of 175 Sisters and ministries to highlight and I’ve been researching, fact checking, and providing photographs for the profiles:

It’s been a wonderful opportunity to celebrate not only the influential Sisters that led the congregation and its high profile ministries such as the Halifax Infirmary or Mount Saint Vincent University, but also the “unsung heroes”—the housekeepers, seamstresses, cooks, and cleaners that kept the congregation running behind the scenes.

Contact Us

Suite 1912-130 Albert Street  

Ottawa, Ontario K1P 5G4

Tel:  613-383-2009


The ACA office is located on the unceded, unsurrendered Territory of the Anishinaabe Algonquin Nation whose presence here reaches back to time immemorial.

Privacy & Confidentiality  -  Code of Ethics & Professional Conduct

Copyright © 2022 - The Association of Canadian Archivists

Powered by Wild Apricot Membership Software