LAST THINGS: Oral histories create legacy for next generations

Photo Caption: Asking senior family members for advice on recorded oral histories “opens up great doors,” says Father Jacob Rose, parochial vicar of parishes in Streator and Seneca.

By: By Jennifer Willems

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following was part of a special section in the Oct. 25, 2015 issue of The Catholic Post called “Last Things: A Catholic perspective on grief, death and new life.”


STREATOR — When it comes to family, some of the greatest treasures are not things passed down from generation to generation, but stories.

Father Jacob Rose, parochial vicar of St. Michael the Archangel Parish here and St. Patrick Parish in Seneca, found that to be true with his diocesan “family” as he took oral histories for five senior priests of the Diocese of Peoria. He would also recommend the process for families as a way of creating meaningful legacies.

At the request of Bishop Daniel R. Jenky, CSC, Father Rose spent time with Msgr. Donnelly J. Fitzpatrick, Father John Dietzen and Msgr. Raymond Boyle — all of whom are now deceased — as well as Msgr. Albert Hallin and Canon J.J. Flattery. He happily agreed to the project, which took place during his summer break from Mount St. Mary Seminary in 2010.

“We didn’t want to limit it too much. With the age of the priests I interviewed they all had similar experiences so I asked what it was like to be a pastor and what the priesthood was like before and after Vatican II,” he told The Catholic Post. He also asked them to share their vocation stories, who influenced their vocation, and what Catholics could do to live “holier and fuller lives.”

Father Rose added that he “selfishly” asked what advice they had for those who were considering or studying to be priests, their outlook for the church, and how the priests of tomorrow could prepare to meet those challenges.

“For families, you might ask about their advice on dating, relationships, growing in the faith and words of wisdom,” he said. “Sometimes asking for advice opens up great doors — this is what I think and this is what I want to pass down.”

From priests and family members alike, those kinds of questions generated more information that he ever expected.

“When my grandfather was alive we were able to piece together words of advice, but over weeks,” Father Rose said. “If someone is given the opportunity to answer questions in one sitting . . . you not only get words of wisdom, but insight and experience.”

There’s a danger in being too broad, however. He suggested making the questions specific enough to serve as a starting point for the conversation: “Tell us your experience in the war” or “How did you meet Grandma?”

While many oral histories are recorded for the purpose of transcribing them and making them available in writing, Father Rose made videos of his interviews with the senior priests. He said that might be a good approach for families, too, since that is a popular way of sharing information and “they’re more apt to watch a video than sit down and read something.”

In making a video, the setting is less important than the story, he emphasized.

“Even to have conversations of walking down memory lane and recording them can be edifying,” Father Rose said. “You’re preserving their memory. . . . There’s a story behind every time.”



Barbara Benner, a member of the Peoria County Genealogical Society for 25 years and a lifelong parishioner at St. Mark in Peoria, offered the following guidelines for oral histories:

— Make an appointment if you plan to meet face to face.
— Have a conversation rather than a formal interview and “let it roll in whatever direction it takes.”
— Meet for no more than 90 minutes. “You don’t want to wear them out. It’s a pleasant experience. You want them to look forward to another contact.”
— Meet in a quiet place that allows both of you to concentrate.
— Start with basic information, such as full names and nicknames and important dates. In any reference to women, try to obtain a maiden name.
— Tell the individual you will share everything with them, including photos.

“They will want a hard copy. Add a thank you note,” Benner said.

In addition to her personal interest in genealogy and oral histories, Benner has taught classes in both subjects through the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Bradley University in Peoria.

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