Often people ask me what I do while working in the Archives. Even when I tell them that I transcribe documents, they are unsure what that means. Since I think my work is significant, I will tell the story of one of the documents I transcribed a week ago.
Having rarely thought about ballpoint pens, I was curious at first and then delighted when I was reading and transcribing (typing from a cursive copy) a letter in a sister’s personal papers in which the writer was a sister from Belgium. The sister writer is Sister Ceclia from Belgium. She writes that she felt really fortunate to be one of only a few in her monastery to receive a ballpoint pen from among the many items in a parcel that arrived from Saint Benedict’s Monastery.
This sister lived and wrote in 1948 and was one of several writers in her monastery in Belgium. Her monastery is rather famous for being the home of Dom Columba Marmion, who lived, prayed, worked, and died there. Her monastery was known as Maredsous and was part of the Abbeys of Saints John and Scholastica. French was a common language, but S. Cecilia spoke and wrote in English.
Cecilia was doing business with our Sister Josiah Kiess, who corresponded with many monasteries across the world. She may have been working in the card shop at that time. Not only did sisters save their correspondence, but they also considered it important historically. In this instance, the letter was written in cursive and in ink, although many of the letters I transcribe are written in pencil.
In this particular letter, the paper was a type of tissue, much like that used for airmail letters at that time, and S. Cecilia was trying out her new ballpoint pen. She had heard they would be very economical, but she called them “dirty.” She complained that her ballpoint left ink spots on the paper and made her hands very dirty.
The funny (or maybe ironic) thing for me was the fact that the letter I had in my hand was a small 5 x 7 size, approximately, and being of a tissue-like quality, I had to try to decipher in and around the many ink spots, the very dark inky words, besides the fact that she had written on both sides of the paper! Thankfully ballpoint pens have improved since 1948!
I have transcribed many documents during my time in the Saint Benedict’s Monastery Archives, and it is what keeps me connected to and enjoying my storytelling penchant. Besides that, I was compelled to find out when the ballpoint pen was invented. I went to Google, of course and was very surprised with what I discovered.
Besides transcribing documents, I also transcribe oral histories of sisters. These also are valuable documents and are one of the many legacies that Saint Benedict’s Monastery will leave.
Mary Jane Berger, OSB