Friday, January 31, 2014

Learning about a Family

In October 2004 a dealer from Burlington, Vermont, placed a vintage photograph album for auction on Ebay with this description of the collection:

100 photographs in black and white showing a priest from his boyhood, through seminary and on to the work of the Catholic Church. The people are not identified, nor are the places. But there are two clues as to where this priest was from and where he may have served. On one page are two photo postcards (the only ones in the album). One is the interior of a church with this written at the bottom “Int de L’Eglise Napierville” and the other “Le Richelieu River” — both of these locales are in Quebec, Canada. The other is an envelope with pictures of the priest that is labeled “Lyndonville.” So it could be that this priest may have lived and/or served in both Quebec and Vermont. Perhaps someone remembers him?

Before I bid on the photo album, I tried to discover something about the seller. I wanted to know that she was reputable and that the album for sale was legitimately for sale. The description on Ebay made it seem an incredible find – something that no one would have parted with lightly or easily. I was reassured to find online a heartfelt tribute to the integrity of the seller; her name was on the business card attached to the wrapping in which she secured the album before sliding it into a mailing container to me.

Affecting my interactions with the album after the purchase was the commitment I had to removing none of the photographs from it. I had learned that there are sellers who remove individual photographs from a vintage album and offer them piece-meal for auction. On the other hand, there are sellers – and collectors – who insist on maintaining the integrity of the found object; the perspective here is that the photographs have a pleasure and a meaning when they are inspected individually and a still further message when they are seen in the context of the original collection.

As far as I could tell, the album that I had purchased was the creation of the original collector – either the priest himself or, I presumed, some member of his family. To scan certain photos without removing them from the album or damaging the pages to which they were attached, I untied the binding at one point (a kind of binding that was created to allow the addition or removal of album pages) and handled some of the first pages separately. I took care to return the pages in the order in which they had first appeared – not a strictly chronological one anywhere in the album, by the way.

In my time as the caretaker of the album, I followed clues in the names attached to certain items in the album. I began to entertain some possibilities about the identity and history of the priest at the center of this collection of pictures. For example, the village name of “Swanton” written in the margin of one picture of a religious procession exiting a church led me to an online picture of the same church on the website of the Catholic parish in Swanton, Vermont. On the margin of another photo someone had written “Romeo,” and the website of the Swanton Historical Society mentioned a Father Romeo Trahan as a speaker at an upcoming function. Typed on an envelope containing four or five small photos of a priest was the name “Père Trahan.” I was getting close, I thought.

I tried to figure out the best way to contact someone who might know the people in this album. Unfortunately, those ways always seemed a little too time-consuming to warrant interrupting the flow of work or the projects of a busy home life.

Meanwhile, the photos of the album began to have on me the same effect as the other vintage photos of nuns and priests and seminarians that I had been collecting at the time. My first goal with these old photographs had not been to sleuth around until I could identify the people and verify the circumstances of the event or the visit recorded in the picture. I kept being intrigued by these individuals who had lived in two worlds – the world of their birth family with all those powerful relationships of parents and siblings and cousins and the very distinctive world of their religious commitment. As a former student for the priesthood, I remember the opposing pull of those two worlds. I came in time to recognize in the pull of these photographs an invitation for me to explore and to respond to my own history and the history of my church.

Acting as the caretaker of the album with its photographs of this priest’s family was a role that I was ready to give up in 2006 when someone left this comment on Flickr next to one of the photographs I had posted there:

These photos are of my family members!! I recognize my grandfather, his father, and several aunts and uncles. How may I purchase these?

In a very short time this commenter convinced me that there was a real invitation for him and his family to renew their care of this album. Our exchange of emails gave me a reassuring sense of this man in his early forties:

My children and I are learning more about our family. Since both my parents are dead, I have spent many hours building the family history for my children. My father, Philip, has two brothers still living so I would very much like to show them these pictures too and ask them to help me identify further the people I do not recognize at first glance.

Within a few weeks I was placing the album in his hands. I wished him joy and pleasure in the care of these pictures of his family.

Four years later, I discovered this week, he himself would be dead of leukemia. I like to think the album is still there for his two daughters to grow in their sense of family.

When I was preparing the vintage album in 2006 to return it to the Trahan family, one photo had fallen out. Unattached to any of the pages of the album, it seemed a farewell gift from the priest, his sister and their father, who are pictured in the old photo. I have kept this photo for myself and have reproduced it at the head of this posting.


Anonymous said...

Quelle belle histoire !!
Vous avez joué au détective . Bravo pour ces recherches qui ont fait des heureux puisque vous avez retrouvé la famille . Et merci.."internet" n'est-ce pas ?

Jo d'Avignon .

To live that day said...

In a very beautiful old song from a very far culture, the last verse said "If you are gone, leave a fragrance in this universe".