An Enduring Legacy: Acquiring the Sisters of Social Service Archives

This past spring the Bishop Farrell Library & Archives (BFLA) was blessed to have been part of a historic moment.  In March 2019, we received a large acquisition documenting the charism and functioning of the Canadian Sisters of Social Service (SSS).  The contract was finalized and the move of 160 linear meters of archival documents occurred over two days, March 27th and 28th.  This donation came after a lengthy period of prayer, discernment, and logistical planning.

The Diocese of Hamilton was first approached by SSS General Director Sister Jeanine Scarfone in 2016, to consider taking over the stewardship of the SSS archives.  It was clear to all involved that the legacy of the Sisters of Social Service was of significant value to Canadian culture.  There was also a strong connection to the Diocese of Hamilton – and we had the support of our Bishop, His Excellency Bishop Crosby and our Chancellor, Msgr. Kroetsch, who both recognized the importance of preserving this history for future generations.  However, despite the will to bring the collection to the Diocese of Hamilton, there was just not enough storage space on hand to properly house the documents.  Unfortunately, we were not able to provide the necessary care.  Two years passed and the Diocese of Hamilton was contacted again to see if any changes had occurred that would provide room for the SSS collection.  With only five members of the Canadian Sisters of Social Service remaining, Sister Jeanine was driven by duty, love for her community, and determination to see to the safeguarding of the SSS history.


L to R:  Sister Gabriella Petoniak, SSS Archivist; Sister Jeanine Scarfone, SSS General Director; and Dominy Williams, Diocese of Hamilton Archivist.

With this mission at hand, BFLA staff set about on a search for a suitable location for the SSS archives.  It was clear that we would need to think outside of the box – and offsite as there was still not enough room at our facility for the addition of such a large donation.  But it was also of utmost importance that the space be secure, safe for the collection, and accessible to BFLA staff.  The solution now seems providential.  The Diocese of Hamilton’s Pro-Cathedral, St. Mary Church in Hamilton, was under renovation and had a large room available over the Chapel.

St. Mary, Hamilton

St. Mary, Hamilton.  The Diocese of Hamilton’s Pro-Cathedral provided a storage solution for the Sisters of Social Service.

St. Mary was the first Cathedral for the Diocese of Hamilton.  Founded in 1834 as a parish, the church was designated the Cathedral in 1856 by Bishop John Farrell at the establishment of the Diocese of Hamilton.  Bishop Farrell is the namesake for our library & archives due to his commitment to Catholic education.  In 1858, only two years following the establishment of the Diocese, Bishop Farrell opened the first Catholic library in the City of Hamilton.  The library housed 265 books and was open to individuals in the surrounding area.  It was also located in the Chapel at St. Mary Cathedral.  While we were aware of this bit of history, it came as a surprise to us following the transfer of the SSS archives to find out that our new storage space was in fact in the same room as that first Catholic library!  With the donation of the SSS archives, the room above the Chapel at St. Mary has come full circle and is again a place for storing and accessing knowledge!

Once we had found the right space to house the SSS archives, we were able to guarantee Sister Jeanine and the SSS archivist Sister Gabriella Petoniak, a new home for their records.  Minor renovations were needed to the new storage space.  Following this, we then worked together to develop a deed of gift and plan the logistics of the move.  We relied on the assistance of Canada Moving, who have provided professional and secure moving of archival records for the BFLA on several occasions, including our move into our current facility in 2013.  They ensured that the documents were safely packaged, moved with care, and set up in our new location.


Sister Jeanine Scarfone signing the Deed of Gift transferring care and ownership to the Diocese of Hamilton

The deed of gift officially transferring care and ownership of the SSS archives to the Diocese of Hamilton was signed on March 27, 2019.  However, there is still work to do as we finalize the organization of the new space, migrate descriptive records from the SSS database system into our database, and better familiarize ourselves with the SSS collection.  But the heavy lifting is done!  Sister Jeanine was determined to ensure that the history of the SSS will endure.  She was serious about finding the right home for their records – and rightfully so!

The Sisters of Social Service were founded in 1908 in Hungary as a response to the needs of those who were socially, economically and politically powerless.  Grounded in Benedictine spirituality, they are professionally trained to serve in the fields of social work, evangelization, women’s movements, and social justice.  They first came to Canada in 1923 to minister to a Hungarian community in Stockholm, Saskatchewan.  They extended into Ontario at the invitation of Bishop Joseph Ryan, sixth Bishop of the Diocese of Hamilton, who in 1943 asked the SSS to take a census of the Hungarians in the City of Hamilton.  This was the beginning of St. Stephen of Hungary Parish in Hamilton.  Bishop Ryan then asked the Sisters of Social Service to stay in Hamilton and run a retreat centre at Auchmar House, which they renamed; first as Mount Cenacle and then later as the Holy Spirit Centre.  This was opened on August 25th, 1946. The SSS continued to run retreats out of the Holy Spirit Centre until 1999 when the property was sold to the City of Hamilton.  Several parish communities in the Diocese of Hamilton originated from the Holy Spirit Centre during this time.  The Sisters of Social Service were a major force in the development of the Diocese of Hamilton.  I am looking forward to learning more about their charism and the contributions made to all of the communities in which they served.

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On March 27th, I was thrilled to see Sister Jeanine’s happy dance as the moving truck pulled away from the SSS location with documents ready to travel to their new home at the Diocese of Hamilton.  It was heartwarming to see her joy and know that this came from her confidence in our ability to care for the history of the Sisters of Social Service.  I am extremely grateful that we will be the stewards of the Sisters’ legacy of ministry in Canada.